At one point in the Hirshhorn’s new exhibition “Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture From Paris to New York,” the wall text shifts into the feminine third person, displacing the standard, masculine pronoun. “A viewer peering into the box will see her own reflection,” a curator writes of a particularly delicious miniature world by Joseph Cornell. It’s a welcome break with the usual grammatical protocol, and especially apt given the fraught role women play in the history of this vibrant movement, which emerged shortly after World War I.
This well-plotted and fascinating exhibition is particularly focused on the feminine, and the use and abuse of the feminine in the work of artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp. Surrealist artists hoped to draw upon and release automatic thoughts and unconscious feelings, connecting themselves and their audience to stirrings of the mind that aren’t yet rational. But as it tracks the liberation of new energies in surrealist art, “Marvelous Objects” builds to a powerful and disturbing work by Giacometti, “Woman With Her Throat Cut” (1932), a spiderlike form with a clearly articulated rib cage, a neck pushed back at a dangerous angle, a mouth that seems to cry out in agony, and a splay of legs and arms. The statue sits on the floor, embodying the artist’s dream about rape and murder. Not far away are works by Hans Bellmer, who photographed the limbs and bodies of baby dolls, positioned to suggest violence, dismemberment and sexual abuse.
The dates on these works track with the dissolution of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler, the popularity of films such as Fritz Lang’s 1931 “M” (about a child killer and underworld retribution) and a popular obsession in Germany with “lustmord,” or sexual murder, in lurid newspaper stories. So one can’t hold sole responsibility for the degree to which these artists indulged some of the darkest of male fantasies. But it’s a strength of this exhibition that curator Valerie Fletcher is forthright about the almost inevitable direction that the freeing up of the creative mind would take so many of these men: straight to the rag-and-bone shop of misogyny.
Perhaps the necessity of dealing with that darker element of surrealism explains the exhibition’s other central theme: the lasting importance of biomorphism during and after the heyday of what we commonly think of as the core of the surrealist endeavor. Biomorphism, which celebrated organic lines and fluid contours as found in nature, emerged partly within surrealism and is presented in the context of this exhibition as a philosophical alternative to the direction taken by Giacometti and his more singularly sex-obsessed peers.
The hero of this contrasting narrative is Jean Arp, a German-French artist who moved to Paris in 1925 and had a profound impact on Joan Miro and Max Ernst (both of whom figure prominently in the exhibition). Among the works by Arp, and among the earliest objects in the exhibition, are two painted wooden wall sculptures, “The Forest (Earthly Forms)” and “Enak’s Tears (Earthly Forms)” from 1916 to 1917, which the artist began while he lived in Zurich during World War I. They are colorful, fluent pieces, built from layers of painted wood, and after a century of imitations, it’s not easy to fully appreciate their novelty and impact. But they were made years before 1924, when André Breton published his first surrealist manifesto, and they are almost purely abstract. In the context of so much harsh and destabilizing work, they feel radically anodyne, decorative and humble. Duchamp appreciated Arp’s work in this vein particularly for its humor: “Arp showed the importance of a smile.”
And so a tension emerges between two kinds of psychic liberation, or exploration. One is a route back to childhood, to the uncensored fecundity of play and experimentation; the other is liberation from restraint, with a particular fixation on unfettered desire. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. The exhibition’s title, “Marvelous Objects,” underscores the extent to which these artists saw their work in a different category than mere sculpture. The object, especially in Freudian terms, isn’t just a thing, but can be a powerful psychic formation as well, indeed, it can stand for the whole consuming fact of desire itself.
So if there is a central message to the exhibition, it is this: that there is no play and no freedom without all these other energies inevitably being released. Even biomorphism, with its charismatic analogues from the natural world, has its haunted side. The innocent and guilty sides of pleasure unleashed by the surrealist liberation flow into one another without clear lines of demarcation, like the insides and outsides of biomorphic sculptures by Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth. And both Moore and Hepworth are present here, drawing the energies of surrealism into the period during and after World War II. So, too, Isamu Noguchi, who is represented by work he made while interned (voluntarily) at a prison camp in Arizona. Biomorphism was also central to Noguchi’s work, and he gives it an anguished turn, creating wounded landscapes, pitted and slashed, and standing abstract figures that are punctured and interpenetrated by dull, blade-like forms.
The exhibition, which features more than 120 works, is well designed and installed, making a virtue of what curators often complain are the limitations of the Hirshhorn’s idiosyncratic galleries. Passage spaces are given over to photographs and smaller works, and a pleasing rhythm is established between rooms devoted to intimate exploration, such as the boxes of Cornell, and larger, more exuberant sculptural forms. A large gallery devoted to “Industrial Strength Surrealism” is a highlight, with exuberant work by Alexander Calder and the Hirshhorn’s iconic Miro sculpture, “Lunar Bird,” overseeing affairs like a house mascot. The scope is international, with a heavy presence from American sculptor David Smith, and works by artists from France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Britain.
By the time you reach Miro’s “Lunar Bird,” the libidinal seas are mostly calm again, and the work has become monumental and public. The radical days of surrealism are over, and whatever discoveries have been made along the way have now been incorporated into a style that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a public plaza, museum sculpture garden or corporate lobby. The migration from the unconscious to the conscious isn’t just complete, but a new kind of unconsciousness is settling over the art, a forgetfulness about its tumultuous origins, in Dada and the carnage of World War I. The pleasure of this exhibition isn’t just that it traces the history of surrealism over a longer and broader arc than others, but it allows one to work back from the present, to see the genealogy of artistic currents still very much in operation today, even if they’ve lost touch with their origins a century ago.
Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture From Paris to New York is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through Feb. 15. For more information, visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.