Sex and subtext in the BMA’s ‘Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War’ exhibit

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Max Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain II.” Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Recognizable in the corrosive oranges and reds of “Europe After the Rain II” is the unforgiving desert landscape of Sedona, Arizona, where Max Ernst lived as a refugee for years after fleeing Nazi-occupied France. The 1942 painting, a bombed-out widescreen of radioactive rubble currently on display as part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War” exhibition, shows two mutated figures standing among a heap of coral-colored, crushed bones and gazing off into the horizon, frozen by the impossibility–and necessity–of imagining a future.

War is an insistent presence in the exhibit, which frames Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Andre Masson and Ernst as interpreters of a violent century, unable to forget what they saw. But it’s far from the only one. There’s also sadomasochism, cybernetic anxieties and at least one castration fantasy embedded in this slice of the surrealist canon, most of which flies under the radar of the BMA’s cataloging.

Dali’s “auto-strangulation” scene, “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of War)”, is as much about gratification as agony. In the 1936 painting, a disgustingly misshapen labyrinth of boney limbs squeezes itself in an Escherian loop. Above, a craggy, Mick Jagger-esque face tenses its neck muscles and looks up to the clouds with a teethy grimace. Below, it squeezes its own nipple. War isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind.

Classical eroticism is the subtext of a 1926 crayon sketch by Giorgio de Chirico, in which a faceless beige mannequin sports a pair of ionic columns for pectorals, reclining self-consciously as if nude, head cocked 45 degrees–an uncanny mixture of sensuality and infrastructure, sentience and blankness. 

Chirico’s interwar anxieties over modernity and technology prefigure André Masson’s “In the Tower of Sleep,” where a serpent-like, toothed machine squeezes and pierces a flesh-monster. Both imagine the perversion of bodies by machines, though Masson’s spiked constrictor (with bleeding nail nipples) is a more explicitly gendered castration allegory.

Freud is correctly identified as an influence here, but curiously only in reference to the dreamlike scenes and their mythological elements (like the Minotaur motif) rather than their screaming perversion.  

The implicit sadism in Masson and Dali’s torture scenes are literalized in Man Ray’s “Imaginary Portrait of the Marquis de Sade,” which envisions the libertine as stone-faced, taking stoic pleasure in the burning of the Bastille, where he was imprisoned prior to the French Revolution.

More body horror comes in Hans Bellmer’s erotic life-sized pubescent dolls, of which two prints are included here. In each, dismembered body parts are pieced together ad-hoc and photographed in harsh, expressionistic light. One is hand-colored in gaudy pinks and purples and swells with lumps. Both are blatantly fetishistic. 

The Nazis condemned Bellmer’s work as “degenerate” and he fled Berlin in the late ’30s to take up with the surrealists in Paris, who were thrilled to publish his equal parts erotic and grotesque photos.

Belgian René Magritte remained in Nazi-occupied Brussels without major issue, painting lush romantic landscapes in an attempt at escapism. His relative distance from the visceral reality of war and destruction perhaps accounts for the abiding whimsy of even his “political” works.

One example, “The Fickleness of the Heart,” depicts a bloodied, decapitated neoclassical statue head sitting at the base of a tree, and stands out for its tidy minimalist backdrop and straightforward themes: defiled Greco-Roman idols, Western civilization in ruins. It makes the same point as many of the other pieces here, but its closed sullen eyes suggest a cultivated sadness rather than an exposed wound. 

René Magritte’s “The Fickleness of the Heart.” Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Magritte’s emo legibility stands far apart from the inscrutable hellscapes of Dali and Ernst, which overflow with subconscious signifiers and emit a ferocious, damaged quality. Though many of these artists were uprooted or traumatized by war, it was emphatically not the only thing on their minds.

Far from simply producing a visual response to the horrors of war, surrealism was an aesthetic pose that allowed avowed iconoclasts like Dali to unleash the power of the subconscious mind, fusing imagery of sex and violence amidst irrational landscapes of fear and desire.



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