Surrealist: Art’s Weirdest Worldview Bounces Back A Century After It Was Born | Art
A century ago in the workshops of Montparnasse in Paris, surrealism was born from the gloom of the First World War which had engulfed and devastated Europe.
The cultural movement led by the French writer and poet André Breton gave birth to internationally renowned artists such as Max Ernst, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí.
There were also surreal women, many of whom were shunned as muses and too often remembered only in terms of their romantic relationships with the famous but now fully recognized men – among them Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim and Frida Kahlo.
Today, in the shadow of a new European conflict, the literary and artistic movement is experiencing a new golden age with international events and exhibitions including the very first auction dedicated to surrealist works in his hometown.
The main attraction of the Sotheby’s Surrealism and its Legacy sale will be a rare work by Cuban-born surrealist Francis Picabia from his Nu de dos series never before seen at auction and considered the “Pulp Fiction of painting”, according to Sotheby’s expert Thomas Bompard, and Pavonia of Picabia’s transparency series estimated at €8m (£6.5m).
Bompard, vice-president of Sotheby’s France, said the artist is one of the underrated stars of surrealism.
“I’m meeting more and more people who want us to source great works from Picabia and those showing the most interest are contemporary artists like [Jeff] Koon, [John] Baldessari, who inherited his legacy and is grateful that Picabia paved the way for them.
He added: “Surrealism is almost 100 years old but to me it has never seemed so young. Creativity, beauty, artistry and artistic technique…the surrealists sought beauty, poetry, mystery and entered uncharted waters.
The term “surrealism” was invented around 1919 but the official beginning of the movement is considered to be Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism, published in 1924.
Surrealism was not a style of painting, but a state of mind, its followers argued. He was flexible and had no rules, which made him hard to pin down. Each Surrealist artist chose their own form of expression, making the genre too diverse to be strictly categorized.
The Paris sale, preceded by an exhibition of works by Picabia as well as Magritte, Man Ray, Tanning and others, will feature a special section dedicated to the work of Surrealist women whose work, Bompard said, showed an “awareness of self and intuition” lacking in work among male contemporaries who eclipsed and sidelined them.
“Most had romantic relationships with the surrealist artists and they were seen as muses or part of the art scene only as partners of male artists. Now they are properly attracting interest in their own right,” added Bompard.
The surrealism event also includes the sale of a private collection belonging to André Mourgues – the partner of the famous Parisian avant-garde gallerist and former ballet dancer Alexander Iolas – including works by Ernst, Claude Lalanne, Magritte, Pablo Picasso and Dali and valued at more than 5 million euros.
Mourgues, now 83, spent 25 years with Iolas and met many artists whose paintings he sells.
“The surrealists were wonderful, cultured, polite, gentle people… I was just 25 years old and had finished my military service when I met Iolas and it was the start of a long celebration of the spirit,” Mourgues told the Guardian.
“The paintings have now disappeared from my walls but have left their marks. They had an extraordinary presence and I will miss them.
“It’s hard to let them go, but they have to be looked after and preserved and I don’t have the energy to do that anymore.
“I am an old man without children who turns a page and hopes that the works will make someone else happy now.”
Surrealism is currently experiencing a modern renaissance; last week, Magritte’s Empire of Lights sold for £59.4 million with bids from 46 countries to become the most valuable painting ever sold at auction in Europe.
The Surrealist Calendar is hosting exhibitions around the world this year, including Surrealism Beyond Borders – now at the Tate Modern after moving from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Auctioneers Bonhams will also hold a surreal sale, The Mind’s Eye in London next week featuring works by Ernst, Bréton, Dalí and Grace Pailthorpe.
Bompard said he scoured private collections for Sotheby’s auction. “I am very excited about this sale. We are very proud of the quality of the works we have sourced and I am really looking forward to seeing how the market will react. I hope it will generate a lot of excitement,” he said.
“It is impossible not to take into consideration the difficult period that Europe is going through. Surrealism was born from the ashes of an ancient world, destroyed after the First World War.
“If there had been no war, there would have been no surrealism. Artists realized the world as they knew it was gone and had a desire to invent something radically different.
“The context of surrealism has always been a very political movement. The Surrealists truly believed that art could and should change lives.
“In today’s increasingly complex, contradictory, multipolar world, surrealism resonates more because it embraces all contradictions instead of resolving them.”
Presale exhibition: Surrealism and its legacy, Galerie Charpentier, 76 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris from March 11 to 15. Auction: March 16, 6 p.m. CET.
Pre-sale exhibition: André Mourgues Collection, Galerie Charpentier, from March 11 to 16. Auction: March 17, 3 p.m. CET.