Staring at Salvador Dali’s “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach” at the Phillips Collection’s new exhibit, Surrealism and Modernism, I found myself wishing I had gone into astrology rather than liberal arts. Maybe then I could have conjured Salvador Dali from the dead, just to casually inquire why he decided to devote an entire painting to the perplexing image of a face that morphs into a fruit dish, a dog’s chest cavity and a beach. But, alas, I could not. So I stood there for a good 15 minutes, listening to the wild interpretations of the people surrounding me while analyzing the Freudian, dreamlike imagery.
I would expect nothing less of Dali, who employed in his paintings – which he classified as “paranoic critical” – a spontaneous method of “irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations.” While this explanation of Dali’s paintings seems to parallel how I interpret the absurdity of everyday life a little too well, his willingness to break from convention is admirable, to say the least.
And after viewing the 58 remaining surrealist and modernist paintings, collages and sculptures by the most notable visionary artists of the early 20th century, my sentiment remained the same. In works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch, I found myself consistently praising the artists for being ingenious without completely dismissing tradition. All of the artists found in the Surrealism and Modernism are featured because of their coveted roles as pioneers who paved the foundation for the art we now so willingly label “modern.”
Granted, a few things have changed, such as the public’s unabashed eagerness to embrace cutting-edge installation art made of feces, dead animals and trash, among other controversial media. However, the intention – to introduce new, progressive art that challenges the viewer on multiple levels – remains the same. This marriage of the many avant-garde movements found in Surrealism and Modernism reflects half a century of change. And it is this sense of “change” (whether it be stylistic, political, social or symbolic) found in the artwork that manages to keep viewers on their toes from beginning to end. Transitioning from one room to the next, I viewed works including subject matter ranging from Picasso’s provocative imagery of a painter and nude model (“The Painter”) to meditations on the subconscious found in surrealist works. From O’Keeffe’s dreamlike painting “The Lawrence Tree” to Pollock’s action-painting, “Number 9, 1949,” there is a synergy within the works that demonstrates the artists’ intentions to break boundaries.
I had to stop once more for a long, hard look at Magritte’s “The Tempest.” While completely different in treatment and subject matter from other works, I was once again put in a position where I was mentally challenged by an inanimate object. How should I relate the title, implying a temptation of sorts, to the large geometric forms enclosed in a room with a large opening, revealing a sliver of sky and the optimism of a few white, fluffy clouds? The answer to this question is that there is no correct answer, one of the many refreshing reflections one might have while viewing the Surrealism and Modernism exhibit. Artists such as Dali and Magritte do not expect us to understand the exact meaning of their works; however, they would like us to at least give them some consideration.
After viewing the exhibit in its entirety, I felt privileged to have the opportunity to view such a range of surrealist and modernist works by artists of such high caliber and in as intimate a venue. In a little more than an hour, I had advanced my artistic knowledge ten-fold by taking advantage of the unparalleled opportunity to experience a painting firsthand. For those who appreciate the conceptual, the bold and the modern and enjoy the challenge of looking at art and accepting it not only for what it is but for what it could be, this show is required viewing. The eloquent balance of tension and imagination of Surrealism and Modernism will leave you with a vivid splash of beauty and color on the mundane landscape of an October sky.
Surrealism and Modernism is on view from October 4 through January 18, 2004, at The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. N.W. Admission on weekends: $10 for adults, $8 for students and persons 62 and over. Free admission on weekdays. Hours: Tues. – Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thurs., 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.