The shock of the schlock

The big new show at the Israel Museum, Surrealism and Beyond, is, of all things, pretty much bereft of examples of classic Surrealism. But there are an enormous number of worthwhile exhibits to ponder.

bayer art 88 298 (photo credit: )
bayer art 88 298
(photo credit: )
The big new show at the Israel Museum, Surrealism and Beyond, is, of all things, pretty much bereft of examples of classic Surrealism. But there are an enormous number of worthwhile exhibits to ponder. Drawn entirely from the museum's holdings, much of the show is about Dada, which preceded Surrealism; and there is a collection of found objects by Marcel Duchamp, who preceded Dada. There's a great deal of sculpture by Hans Arp, whose real interest was abstraction. And controlled gestural painters like Miro, Motherwell, Pollock, Hoffman and Appel must be spinning in their graves at having their carefully considered gestural works assembled under the rubric of Automatism. Morandi would also be surprised, as I was, to find his still life hung in the modest Surrealism section. All that's missing in this huge grab bag is the kitchen sink, but then there's Duchamp's urinal. The four most important Surrealist oils in the show are poorly presented. Inexplicably, Rene Magritte's Castle of the Pyrenees, 1959, a great mountain of rock suspended above the sea, is placed far too high for observation, as is Paul Delvaux's sarcastic Waiting for the Liberation, 1944, an oil of skeletons in an office. You need to get your nose into both these carefully painted canvases, but there's no chance of that here. A fine little Yves Tanguy landscape and an early Salvador Dali oil, Surrealist Essay, 1934, are modestly set among walls of lesser works. Sigmund Freud was once a household word and his Interpretation of Dreams was constantly "interpreted" in the press of the 1930s. Dali and Tanguy made the most of the dream milieu. Back in the early '30s, Surrealism became another household word among people who had never seen an original painting, because Dali's dream landscapes and soft pocket watches were widely reproduced in newspapers and glossy magazines. Dali, an early master of public relations, delighted everyone with his often erotic shenanigans; a great favorite was a photo of the pop-eyed master eating fruit off a live table: a naked young woman. Sadly, Dali descended into reams of kitsch and his late oils were entirely painted by a skilled "assistant." The art world turned its back on him. As for Tanguy, he kept more or less repeating himself and died young. Surrealism was not a new way of painting or composing pictures; it consisted of the manipulation of enigmatic images. At its heart was always a visual contradiction: a table and chair became Surrealist when the chair was placed on the table, with a figure seated on the chair. The masters of contradiction were the two Belgians, Paul Delvaux and Rene Magritte, who survived not only the German occupation but also the advent of abstract expressionism and color field painting. Magritte turned out hundreds of carefully painted oils, each with a different, often brilliant, contradictory illusion. A typical mystery was his canvas of framed paintings of daytime landscapes hung in a night sky above a small house setting the scale (I once met Magritte at the Israel Museum late in 1967. He and his wife were dressed to the nines. A square-bodied, square-faced man in a white hat and white suit, he carried a gold-tipped cane and a small lapdog.) Delvaux moved from painting skeletons to more sellable bevies of naked, ghostly young girls wandering in dream landscapes against a backdrop of classical architecture. The continued success of works by Magritte and Delvaux at auctions notwithstanding, Surrealism did not outlive them. Despite many contributions by Lam, Matta, Picabia and others, Surrealism was not sophisticated enough to hold the interest of young artists looking for new ways to change the face of painting. THANKS TO the generosity of collector-historian Arturo Schwartz, the Israel Museum has a huge collection of Dadaist works and documents. Dada, initially a group of impudent theorists of no great talent, survived for a while by moving into Surrealism, often employing photomontage or a collage of cutout details of erotic photographs. Dada's chief aim was to shock. Today, its shockers all look pretty tame. Collage as a technique was new, cheap and immediate, and put to grim use by Max Ernst and Herbert Bayer, among many others. On the other hand, the splendid collages by Kurt Schwitters are examples of brilliant composition rather than examples of Dada; they survive as works of art that require no interpretation. Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitsky), an inventive American-Jewish photographer working in Paris, also produced enigmatic wrapped sculptures decades before Christo (who is unaccountably dragged into in this show). Man Ray made Surreal sculptures that defied reason, like his laundry iron sporting a row of nails. There's also a number of Man Ray camera experiments on view and his photo-portrait of the seductive and equally imaginative Meret Oppenheim, who is represented with her tankard of beer sporting the tail of a squirrel. Oppenheim liked fur and once made a much-imitated fur cup and saucer. Take a look at Hans Bellmer's eerie, single-breasted, one legged doll. There must be nearly 300 exhibits in this show. It's worth getting the 280 page full-color catalog, with texts by Werner Spies, Dawn Ades and editor-curator Adina Kamien-Kazhdan, who has clearly labored mightily to give us a show of epic dimensions. HOME TO this show is the basically impractical Weisbord Pavilion at the entrance to the museum, but this time it has been put to good use. The hugely obtrusive staircase has been cleverly concealed between a double wall that breaks up the space of the lower level. The atrium nicely displays The Sun at Croton, 1960, the heavy mobile-stabile by Alexander Calder, which has never looked better. Ironically, this failure of a pavilion will soon be the only art exhibition space available at the museum for the next two years. Massive renovations will begin taking place in July, when the entire Bezalel wing will be shut down. As usual, parts of the show are poorly lit. And guides and schoolteachers who love the sound of their own voice need to be instructed to speak quietly. Well worth a visit. ANOTHER NEW show at the Israel Museum is devoted to the early and late gouache paintings of Sofia-born Avraham Ofek, once Israel's most ubiquitous muralist. The exhibition features some 70 paintings and drawings and focuses on the artist's wonderful early landscapes of the 1950s and their link to those painted closer to the time of his death in 1990. This exhibit is a reminder of the days when art in Israel was dominated by painters. A review of Ofek's still powerful work will appear in our next column.