Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum’s ‘Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York’

Amy Henderson
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Jean (Hans) Arp, ‘Shirt Front and Fork,’ 1922. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., has just opened the first comprehensive exhibition to focus on Surrealism’s three-dimensional outpouring. Marvelous Object: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York seeks to reconsider the prominence long given to Surrealist paintings, drawings, photographs, and film, with sculpture appearing mainly as an adjunct to other media. In this new exhibition, curator Valerie Fletcher persuasively argues that Surrealist sculpture deserves its own spotlight. The timing is also ripe: Surrealism in 3-D is a linear poster child for today’s world of innovative disruption. xxxxx

Surrealism spun out of the Dada movement that rose in Europe from the horrific ashes of World War I. Like Dada, Surrealism crossed the Atlantic, and Marvelous Objects includes 85 sculptures from an international array of artists, including Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, and Isamu Noguchi. What united them all was their search for the marvelous: As French poet Andre Breton wrote in the 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, children are weaned on the marvelous, but then lose their ability to fantasize.www.artesmagazine.com What the Surrealists proposed was to restore adult life with the “glowing excitement part of its childhood.”

Right: David Smith, Saw Head, 1933. The Estate of David Smith, New York © The Estate of David Smith. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

A century ago, life was transformed by urbanization, modern technology and a horrific war—upheavals that fascinate us today as our own century unspools its own epochal change. One exhibition that explored life a century ago was Dada, which opened at the Pompidou Centre in 2005 and then traveled to the National Gallery in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art. When the exhibit was at the National Gallery of Art, it presented a wide range of Dada art in all kinds of media, including an orchestra of automated musical instruments (plus alarm bells and sirens) that was programmed to play George Antheil’s 1924 score, “Le Ballet mecanique” several times a day.

In 2010, the Guggenheim Museum organized an exhibition focused on the “sober postwar period,” Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936, arguing that the radical artistic experimentation of the www.artesmagazine.comearly Twentieth Century was tempered by World War I’s terrible destruction. In the war’s aftermath, artists sought out Classicism’s clean lines and assertion of beauty.

Left: Henry Moore, Two Forms, 1934. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sir Michael Sadler Fund, 1937 Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.

In addition to the rise of exhibitions that examine the art of chaos that resulted from World War I, the medium of sculpture is also enjoying an uptick on the art radar screen. The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting what New York Times critic Roberta Smith describes as a “staggering” exhibition, Picasso’s Sculpture, that graphically reveals how Picasso’s genius blossomed in three dimensions. In December, the National Gallery will open Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, a major traveling exhibition that originated at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Building both on contemporary interest in postwar art and specifically on sculpture, the Hirshhorn’s Valerie Fletcher has organized Marvelous Objects to assert the central and unique role of Surrealism in 3D. She has curated a


highly-accessible and uncluttered exhibition with thematic galleries that easily propel the visitor forward and somehow make sense of “Surrealism.”

Right: Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920, edition 1964. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Deborah and Ed Shein © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2015.

The first gallery, “The Object,” introduces works by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray that exemplify the object-based sculptures they introduced in Paris after the war. The next gallery, “Biomorphism,” describes Surrealist work based on organic abstraction and the fluid contours found in nature. This gallery features the work of Jean Arp, who invented an anti-rational art that proposed to “save men and women from the furious madness of the times.” Rather than deal in darkness, Arp delighted in “ambiguity, whimsical humor, and nonsense.” He loved to invoke magical transformations as if to emphasize the passing transcendence of life itself.

Her focus on Arp also allows Fletcher to discuss a major tenet of Surrealism—the idea of “automatism,” in which the hand freely draws or sculpts without a preconceived subject. The idea of “free association,” in which dreams and the unconscious imagination were used to augment reality, was essential to Surrealism and illuminated the impact Freudian analysis had on this art. Poetwww.artesmagazine.com Andre Breton, who was also a trained psychiatrist, injected Freudian tenets into the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, proclaiming that this movement was forging a new “absolute reality, a surreality.”

Left: Jean (Hans) Arp, Objects Placed on Three Planes Like Writing, 1928. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Purchased through the gift of James Junius Goodwin.

Fletcher presents “biomorphism” as one of the two major themes of Surrealist sculpture; the second is the idea of “found-object assemblages,” the surprising constructions that characterized the work of artists like Marcel Duchamp and David Smith.

Duchamp coined the word “readymades” to describe the sculptures he created from mass-produced everyday objects. His interest was not in the “retinal”—i.e., the visual product—but in the idea embedded in a work. Humor was often intended, as in his “Object to Be Destroyed,” in which a graphic cut-out of an eye is attached to a metronome—a machine whose original intent was www.artesmagazine.comto keep a set time for musicians. When the metronome is set at a wildly-crazy speed, the eye careens off like a cannonball. As Fletcher suggests, Duchamp is commenting on “the toll of time on us all.”

Right: Man Ray, Object to Be Destroyed (Indestructible Object), 1932, edition 1965. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Samuel M. Greenbaum and Helen Mark families in memory of Helen Mark Greenbaum © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015.

Americans Alexander Calder and David Smith were both influenced by Surrealism. Calder, who split his career between the U.S. and Paris, was trained as an engineer and used industrial-grade sheet metal to create such fantasy creatures as “Devil Fish.” “Apple Monster” was something he assembled at his Connecticut farm, using an apple tree branch painted with bright colors as a body and a cow vertebra as the monster’s head.

David Smith concocted assemblages with industrial items he used as a welder. In his sculpture “Saw Head,” he parlayed workmen’s tools and iron and steel www.artesmagazine.comremnants into a whimsical allusion to the power of American manufacturing.

Left: Isamu Noguchi, Lunar Landscape, 1943–44. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 © 2015 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Although whimsy and humor were vital Surrealist elements, the outbreak of World War II injected a darker vision onto the Surrealist landscape. Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese American sculptor renowned for his portrait busts, underwent voluntary internment in an Arizona camp for several months during the war; in the wake of that experience, he created “Lunar Landscape,” a work that features undulating forms bathed in eerily glowing areas of colored light. He wrote, “The memory of Arizona was like that of the moon, a moonscape of the mind…Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent—an illusion within the confines of a room or a box—where the imagination may roam to the further limits of possibilities, to the moon and beyond.” From 1945 to 1948, he also sculpted a series of hybrid creatures that he described as memories of humanity—vulnerable figures standing precariously on slender legs: “The very fragility….It’s like life—you can lose it at any moment.”

Below: Alberto Giacometti, Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932, cast 1949. The  Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase, 1949 © 2015 Alberto Giacometti Estate / Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York, NY.


The most damning contemporary perspective in Marvelous Objects is a section devoted to “Women as Objects.” Here, Fletcher examines how the European Surrealists—most of whom were male—enjoyed portraying women as inanimate objects whose chief purpose was to appeal to male desire. Misogyny was rampant in such works as Alberto Giacometti’s “Woman with Her Throat Cut,” which, for today’s audiences, becomes a blatant statement about violence andwww.artesmagazine.com submission.

Right: Joseph Cornell, Medici Princess, c. 1948–52. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Museum Purchase, 1979 © The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / VAGA, New York.

Misogyny permeates Marvelous Object’s recreation of the 1938 “International Exhibition of Surrealism” at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where the Surrealists blithely conveyed “Women as Objects” in art that incorporated female body parts taken from dolls, puppets, and store mannequins. The Hirshhorn has used large format photographs to illustrate such images as Salvadore Dali’s nearly naked, life-size wax figure of a woman passenger smiling blankly as water showers her from pipes above and live snails crawl over her head and body.

Other photographs show the original exhibit’s rows of mannequins lining the walls; some are presented as prostitutes waiting for customers. Dali’s mannequin has dozens of spoons glued to her skin and stands next to an www.artesmagazine.com“Aphrodisiac Table” where glasses of peppermint liqueur encircle a telephone with a real lobster substituted for the handset: the nude woman/mannequin/object exists only to satisfy a man’s sexual appetite.

Left: Salvador Dalí, Lobster Telephone, 1938. West Dean College—part of The Edward James Foundation Group © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2015.


Max Ernst, Moonmad, 1944, cast 1956. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

In her well-written and highly-informed catalogue, Valerie Fletcher concludes that Surrealism, which had “risen phoenix-like from the ashes of World War I,” declined and died in the aftermath of World War II. But she also contends that the lasting impact of biomorphism and a fascination with ordinary objects can be found in the work of such contemporary artists as Claes Oldenburg, Magdalena Abokanowica, and Robert Rauschenberg.

As a final thought, Fletcher poses the question for our social media age: is the Surrealist sensibility “really so different in spirit from the fantasies of virtual reality?”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through Feb. 15th. The catalogue is by Valerie J. Fletcher. For more information, visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.

Amy Henderson is a cultural critic and Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery

The catalogue accompanying the show presents an overview of the development of sculpture by artists who were inspired by the goals and methods of Surrealism, delineating a dialogue between the two dominant www.artesmagazine.commodes of sculpture that evolved in tandem within the Surrealist movement: found-object assemblages and nature-inspired biomorphism. Nearly two hundred illustrations and a selection of historical texts accompany the insightful essay and chronology by Valerie Fletcher. Fans of Surrealism and those new to the genre will appreciate this book’s in-depth approach to its innovative and influential threedimensional masterpieces.

The catalogue is also available from Random House for $49.95 at http://www.randomhouse.de/book/Marvelous-Objects-Surrealist-Sculpture-from-Paris-to-New-York/Valerie-J-Fletcher/e486502.rhd?pub=58500.

On the catalogue cover: Salvador Dalí, Venus de Milo with Drawers (detail), 1936, edition 1964. Mugrabi Collection © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2015.


One Comment

  1. Amy Henderson November 25, 2015 6:27 pm

    The impact of World War I on artists, writers, playwrights, composers, and filmmakers was devastating, and their work coming out of those years reflected vastly altered perceptions about man’s infinite progress and the promise of the “new.” What surprises today is their humor–they never lost an ability to laugh.

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