Surrealism and magic

A report on the exhibition

Author: Alice Deubzer
Category: Art, Music & Literature
Issue No: 93

Occult symbolism, magical paraphernalia, irrational tram landscapes, dissolving motifs and magical beings await you at the remarkable and well worth visiting exhibition “Surrealism and Magic. Enchanted Modernity” at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam.

The Surrealist movement, a new artistic and literary current initiated by the Manifesto of Surrealism by the French writer André Breton in 1924, saw itself as more than an art movement. It was much more a view of life that was in search of a higher synthesis, of an absolute reality that abolished the dualities of life, the boundary between dream and reality, the rational and the fantastic. At the same time, there was no uniform “form”, no unified appearance, rather this art movement was united by its common interest in the world of the dream and the irrational, which the artists expressed, each in their own way, using different processes, whether abstract or figurative or a mixture of both. Another characteristic of surrealist works is that their meaning cannot be fully deduced. The pictures are characterised by the irrational and the enigmatic, motifs that appear contradictory and whose connection is not obvious are combined with each other, objects as well as beings are depicted alienated or mixed. Thus, the viewer is given a lot of room for his own interpretation and imagination, which was one of the creators’ intentions. For her intention has not only been to deal with her own inner life, with mental wish images and fears and to give them expression, but also to involve the viewer in this surrealistic process or surrealistic perception and to introduce him to a dreamlike, ‘surreal’ view of reality.

“With their dreamlike pictorial inventions, the Surrealists wanted to spur the human imagination and encourage viewers to engage with their inner lives,” explains Daniel Zamani, curator of the show. “In this sense, encountering a surrealist work was meant to be a transformative event, opening up a new view of reality. Dorothea Tanning, for example, explained that in her works she wanted to ‘leave the door open to the imagination, so that the viewer sees something different each time.'”

Victor Brauner, The Surrealist, 1947

Another common thread running through the Surrealists’ work and setting the tone in the exhibition is their shared interest in magic and the occult, which strongly attracted the attention and fascination of various circles and artists in the 1920s and experienced a revival. In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton proclaimed “the occultation” of the Surrealist movement, i.e. the programmatic preoccupation with magic and the occult, a millennia-old view of the world that assigns thoughts, imagination, intuition as well as inner images and hunches an essential role both in magical work and rituals and in our interaction with the world, and which assumes that invisible forces are also as real as the obviously visible ones. The works of the exhibited artists were inspired by various occult-magical concepts, for example the “theory of correspondences” or chains of association. According to the magical view of the world, the microcosm and the macrocosm, man and nature are dynamically connected to each other through analogies, exert influence on each other and mirror each other – in the sense of “As above, so below, as without, so within”. Furthermore, magicians and occultists assume, and some surrealists also adopted this view, that the universe is a single living organism that cannot be reduced to mechanical processes and numbers, but is full of mysteries, uncertainties and contradictions, which can be explored by man, and that man is not only an integral, also living part of this universe, but that he can exert influence on it by means of his thoughts and feelings, and this invisible power of man, his effect on his external world, fascinated the surrealists deeply.

Many surrealists were familiar with the works of Sigmund Freud, and in particular the treatise Totem and Taboo, published in 1913, attracted their attention because in it Freud links the emergence of artistic activity to a magical impulse. For Freud, the belief in the “omnipotence of thought” was one of the basic principles of the magical worldview. This omnipotence of thought means that thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires can directly shape and influence external reality. Thus, the inner images, imagination and inner impulses of the human being become a magical force that can influence external reality. The surrealists also saw themselves as magicians and sorcerers, and also staged themselves as such, since both are able to create new illusory worlds through their imaginary powers and draw people into them. Breton himself pleaded for a re-enchantment of modernity, which is characterised by technology and rationality and has banished the sense of mystery and magic from his view of the world.

Leonora Carrington, Der Nekromant, um 1950

But whose paintings can one admire and be enchanted by at this exhibition? The extensive show features around 90 works by more than 20 artists from 15 countries and exhibits from the years 1914 to 1987, showing Surrealism as a global, transnational art movement whose radiance and impact extended far beyond France in the 1920s and 1930s. Many important players in the Surrealist movement are present, alongside famous painter personalities who are part of the art canon, such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst and René Magritte, but also works by lesser-known artists including Victor Brauner, Enrico Donati, Óscar Domínguez, Wifredo Lam, Wolfgang Paalen, Roland Penrose and Kurt Seligmann. Women were underrepresented in Surrealism and often “reacted” to the femme fatale or muse. It is therefore all the more gratifying that the exhibition deliberately presents the artistic work of female Surrealists and highlights their central contribution around the field of Surrealism and Magic. The female artists represented include: Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo.

The viewer is guided through various thematic fields; from magic and occultism to modern artist-magicians to goddesses and witches. Magical images of women. Painting highlights in my opinion are Victor Brauner’s The Surrealist, Giorgio de Chirico’s “Metaphysical Painting” as well as the works by Max Ernst on display, for example “The Dressing of the Bride”.

This show transports us to magical worlds of enchantment, reawakens in us a belief in magic and a sense of contemplation for the wonder and mystery in which we live, and, just as art is a suitable medium for overcoming supposed opposites and polarities such as the conscious and the unconscious and leading us into a higher reality, so it allows us humans to experience ourselves as companions and creators of the creative universe in which we live.

For further information about your visit, please visit the homepage of the Museum Barberini:

Picture credits: © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

This is the full article that also appeared in Tattva Viveka 93. Also available for download individually, as ePaper for 1,00 € (Pdf, 3 pages).

This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Surrealismus und Magie

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