Sexy surrealism?

On the Tate Modern's exhibition 'Surrealism: Desire Unbound': How does the raunchiness of surrealist art fare in today's prudish society?

Aidan Campbell

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘Surrealism: Desire Unbound’, Tate Modern, London (to 1 January 2002)

Launched in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, and lasting until the love fest that was the Swinging Sixties, surrealist artists were the epitome of raunchy wackiness. But as this latest exhibition of their art at the Tate Modern shows, their spectacular carnality has long since been emasculated by the regiment of the politically correct.

Not surprisingly for a show subtitled ‘Desire Unbound’, the Tate Modern’s comprehensive exhibition of surrealist art from the 1920s to the 1940s comes complete with depictions of sexual imagery – from fellatio to flagellation. And the gallery’s curators argue that the surrealist lifestyle liberated us all with its evocative eroticism.

But how do such displays of lust accord with today’s atmosphere of chaste rectitude?

In our politically correct contemporary society, the surrealist-inspired urge to indulge in bizarre experimental partnerships has been kicked aside by scares over AIDS, date rape and accusations of sexual harassment. We are often told how familiar surrealist icons now influence the popular worlds of advertising and the media – but we hardly live at a time of boundless desire.

If anything, we are headed in the opposite direction to the surrealists. Ours is a ‘you can look, but you can’t touch’ culture, where both material objects and physical intimacy are often the subject of scares. A proliferation of spicy surrealist icons is poor compensation if the price is the dread of any real relationships.

‘Surrealism: Desire Unbound’ is sponsored by financiers Morgan Stanley; the BBC has several tie-ins to the exhibition via its websites, radio and TV channels; and the Tate Modern itself is one of the chief citadels of the global cultural industry. Suddenly surrealism has secured the affections of the establishment, because its radical imagery has been converted into an effective brake on the drive to become ever more human and civilised.

‘Desire’ hasn’t really been ‘unbound’ by the popularity of surrealism in the new millennium, because it has been converted into impotent cerebralism. According to exhibition curator Jennifer Mundy, ‘The surrealists subverted, transgressed and in many ways broke free of the constraints of logic and fixed identity in order to make the dream-like appear real and the real appear dream-like. Only in this state of fluid interchange, they believed, could men’s desires find complete expression’.

The powers-that-be can live with this sort of subversion that ‘completely expresses’ itself as a whimsical reverie. Rather than awaken our real desires, surrealist imagery now is seen as creating a never-never land of safe but unrealised fantasies. Instead of surrealist pictures paving the way to lives of greater sexual license, they offer a sad substitute for our loss of the real thing.

The failure of surrealist art’s social purpose leaves only its aesthetic significance remaining. So how does surrealism as art rather than aphrodisiac measure up?

The Tate Modern show is marvellous, so long as we see surrealism as an aesthetic, not a political strategy – as we are used to doing in the case of classical art, baroque and impressionism. There is stuff at the Tate Modern that cannot be seen in a single location anywhere else, and mostly brought in from galleries and private collections around the world.

There are a couple of phenomenal Dalí paintings from the 1920s that I was unaware of, as well as masterpieces like Max Ernst’s bestial ‘Robing of the Bride’ (1940) and Alberto Giacometti’s idolatrous ‘Invisible Object’(1934). Filling no less than 13 rooms on the gallery’s fourth floor, there are also works by artists previously considered too obscene to be put on public display: the sculptural mannequins of Hans Bellmer; lewd photos by Man Ray and Lee Miller and Dora Maar; and André Masson’s drawings inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade.

There are welcome contributions from some of the forgotten female surrealist artists, including Dorothea Tanning, Leonara Carrington and Léonor Fini – as well as the somewhat better known Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois. Unlike some of its predecessors, this Tate Modern exhibition is a memorable visual experience.

Just don’t entertain any hopes that it will equally inspire a glamorous new lifestyle.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today