André Masson, “Tauromachie,” 1937. (The Baltimore Museum of Art/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Art and architecture critic

Walking through the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new surrealism show, one senses the world getting busier, more chaotic and confusing, roiling with dark forces and demonic ambitions.

“Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s” connects art to a moment in history when traditional politics was failing in spectacular and horrifying ways. Surrealism, the curators say, was a desperate cry as the world plunged into one of its longest nights. Many of the paintings are teeming with stuff, full of detail and surface energy and freighted with meaning — the work of artists whose imaginations could barely keep pace with the times.

Max Ernst, “Europe After the Rain II,” 1940-1942. (The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

The exhibition, which includes some 90 works by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, André Masson and others, traces one of the stranger arcs of art history. It begins with psychological dream worlds and paintings made in response to the Spanish Civil War, and ends in the United States with surrealism partly fading and partly morphing into abstract expressionism. Some of the key artists associated with the movement barely made it out of Europe, took refuge in the United States, and brought with them an understanding of art that would become fertile ground for the more subjectively expressive adventures of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. The Baltimore show does a good job of making that evolution feel natural, even inevitable. It underscores how the surrealist mandate, especially the need to find imagery as horrifying as current events, was unsustainable.

Salvador Dali, “Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War),” 1936. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, the same year Dali painted his grotesque “Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War),” a monstrous, quasi-humanoid form that is gripping and crushing itself and grimacing in pain and horror against a cloud-filled blue sky. The war was covered closely by the media at a time when photography brought a new level of intimacy and immediacy to the coverage of daily death and atrocities. The extremity of Dali’s vision, like the supersized and overly muscled arm of a figure painted by Joan Miró, suggests the difficulty artists were facing in a world newly awash with dreadful images.

The 1930s were a decade of almost no good news or so it must have seemed to artists who watched the rise of Hitler in Germany in the early 1930s, the defeat of democratic forces in Spain in 1939 and the outbreak of another world war.

André Masson still bore scars, physically and mentally, from the first war. As a soldier in the French army, he had been wounded during a brutal artillery barrage and lay bleeding on the battlefield for hours.

Perhaps those scars showed up on the canvas.

In Masson’s 1937 “Tauromachy,” the artist was likely to have been borrowing expressive features from Picasso’s “Guernica” (painted in response to the civil slaughter from a fascist air raid on a Basque town) in his depiction of what is ostensibly a bullfight. But the bull that has run down a green-faced and dying matador is probably a reference to the Minatour, a half-bull, half-human mythological figure that became a frequent subject for surrealists.

Joan Miró, “Summer,” 1938. (Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Masson’s image is distributed to the edges of the canvas (and, by implication, beyond), and while it is a picture of recognizable figures (two matadors, a bull and a horse), it is full of the same aesthetic energies that would lead painters such as Miró to break down any sense of center and edge, or focus on the canvas.

Other forms of decentering were also in play during that period, especially the decentering of contemporary psychology and psychoanalysis, which seemed to undermine old ideas about the stability and integrity of the self. Surrealism was originally a poetic and literary movement that sought to channel unconscious forces directly into expression, and throughout this exhibition the focus on war often feels like a confirmation in real terms of what poets had already understood: Man is beastly.

The focus on the unconscious continued as its own driving force within surrealism, and it was that preoccupation that survived the war. Max Ernst, who escaped France after Hitler’s invasion, created both a gruesome landscape of a devastated Europe (the 1940-1942 “Europe After the Rain II”) and a 1941-1942 landscape of the American Southwest, which feels like a dreamscape agitated by personal, rather than political, demons.

By the mid-1940s, figurative surrealism begins to feel vitiated and a bit dated. Mankind was in a muddle, and the way out seemed to be more about personal liberation than collective political action — at least, in those countries not still yoked to authoritarian ideologies. With the rise of abstract expressionism, surrealism seems to have come full circle, back to ideas about unconscious drawing. It’s a very small step from some of the more cluttered but traditionally surrealist works on display in Baltimore, such as Masson’s “There Is No Finished World” and “Germination,” and the early paintings of Pollock.

André Masson, “There Is No Finished World,” 1942. (The Baltimore Museum of Art/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

The exhibition, co-curated by the Baltimore Museum’s Oliver Shell and Oliver Tostmann of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., is in some ways strongest when it strays from the connection between war and surrealism. Maria Martins, who came to the United States as the wife of the Brazilian ambassador, is a happy discovery. In her “The Two Sacred Ones,” a female form, cast in bronze, seems to emerge from tormented storms of raw metal. Kay Sage’s “I Saw Three Cities” might be tangentially related to the war (it was painted in 1944 and perhaps presages some optimism about the allied cause), but it is also a compelling surrealist cityscape of pure Platonic forms immobile in a dead, gray world with nothing green, nothing organic and nothing redemptive.

The Baltimore exhibition demonstrates that a movement rooted in exploration of the individual consciousness could also take up collective themes and political content. It was an ugly time, and much of this art is relentless, cries of the heart against the defining din of barbarism. But surrealist artists were engaged with the world at a time when all too many people retreated into mute horror or escapism — neither of them effective, or responsible.

Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s Through May 26 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.