It's raining bureaucrats over at the National Gallery East Building. There are also bird-headed women, a bronze coffin sitting up in bed and a lot of other things that plainly are what they ain't, or vice-versa.
What it is is a little gem of an exhibition of five surrealist masters, with works ranging from fool-the-eye to mess-up-the-mind. Anyone who can get through it without giggling probably is dead, because while seeking the secrets of the unconscious mind, the surrealists also find the funnybone.
Which is not to say they're just making jokes here; this wit lasts because it has solid, sometimes ominous, underpinnings. One could never tire of Ren,e Magritte's "Golconde" (1953), in which something like 172 bowler-hatted fellows with attach,e cases are descending, stiffly and with dignity, into a cityscape. Or maybe they're rising, or simply clogging the air in a steady state. It's not a wisecrack but a thoughtful statement; each of the foreground figures is a portrait of an individual human being wearing a uniform; and so must the rest of them be, each with a home and a family, perhaps a dog; each with hopes, plans, desires, schemes, fears.
The anchor of the exhibition is Magritte's "Madame R,ecamier," completed in 1967, the year of his death. The massive bronze sculpture of a coffin reclining on a chaise longue is his final comment on academic art, and it is unanswerable. If Magritte and Jacques-Louis David, whose 1800 portrait by the same title is the butt of the piece, both went to heaven, you can bet David is hiding from the tidy but tough Belgian.
One must assume that Max Ernst's mother bit him, or something: His bird- headed women are droll at first glance, but upon reflection become such stuff as bad dreams are made on. Ernst is the heavy of surrealism, a pioneer who worked on into his 80s and experimented endlessly. Everything else changes, but his perspective is uniformly disturbing.
The selection is from the collection of Mrs. John de Menil and family, for which a museum is being built in Houston. The choices at the National Gallery include Giorgio de Chirico, born in 1888, who more or less invented and then dropped the style; Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), who started painting after he saw a pair of Chirico canvases in Paris; and Romanian Victor Brauner, whom Tanguy infected in his turn. Brauner, hiding out in a Swiss village during World War II, invented his wax-engraving technique because he could not get art supplies. A happy deprivation indeed.
It's a lot of scope for a few score works, and gallery-goers are bound to come out smiling. FIVE SURREALISTS FROM THE MENIL COLLECTIONS -- Through September 28 in the East Building, National Gallery of Art.