Salvador Dali's "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)" is included in the surrealism exhibit. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Appropriately for a show about the reality-subverting surrealists, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new exhibition welcomes visitors with a domestic scene that’s just slightly, unsettlingly off-kilter. There’s a folding screen that doubles as a live story, a Giacometti-designed standing lamp, a pair of Elsa Schiaparelli leopard skin shoes and a Dorothea Tanning sofa with its own half-formed inhabitant built in. On the wall above hangs a portrait by Philadelphia artist Thomas Chimes of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who coined the term “surrealism.”
This motley collection is the exhibition’s first evidence that, as curator John Vick said during a tour, “It’s impossible to say that surrealism has a single look or a single identifiable style. It’s also impossible to say that there’s one major concern that was central to surrealism throughout its entire lifespan. Really, it’s a movement about diversity, difference and individuality.”
“The Surrealists: Works from the Collection” delves into the museum’s own holdings for about 100 pieces by more than 50 artists and writers. Some of the pieces, such as Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Soothsayer’s Recompense” or Salvador Dali’s “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War),” are masterpieces regularly showcased on the walls of the PMA. Others, including a pair of collages by Jean Arp and a de Chirico sculpture, have rarely, if ever, been shown.
“This is a case where we’re shopping in our own closet, and luckily our closet is fantastic,” said Matthew Affron, the museum’s newly arrived curator of modern art. “I think it’s a great way to highlight something that’s always here but not always entirely visible.”
The exhibition follows the movement from its birth in France, via Andre Breton’s foundational manifesto, through its arrival in the U.S. following the onset of war in Europe, and its triumphant return to Paris with the 1959 International Surrealist Exhibition.
“Breton and his fellow surrealists put forth the idea that surrealism could initiate a revolution in the arts and literature,” Vick said, “and provoke a revolt against traditional and conservative norms and values. They strove to do so by aligning their methods and their subjects with the then-new science of psychoanalysis, by tapping into the unconscious to challenge rational thought and predictability, and by examining dreams and myths, fantasy, taboos, fears, desires and a host of other influences that would spur them on and manifest in their paintings, sculptures and other works.”
"The Surrealists: Works from the Collection" Through March 2 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building 2525 Pennsylvania Ave. $14-$20, 215-763-8100 www.philamuseum.org