On a recent visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, we were thoroughly impressed with the incredible quality and diversity of their programming with exhibitions on lauded local artist Ed Ruscha, Italianate Baroque master Caravaggio, and film legend Stanley Kubrick simultaneously on view – in addition to their extensive permanent collection displays. But the exhibition that made the biggest impression on us was Drawing Surrealism, a more subdued but thought-provoking examination of the innovative drawing and works on paper created by participants of the movement. Although exhibitions dedicated to Surrealist painting and sculpture are common, this is the first large-scale exhibition to focus on Surrealist drawing. And while it lacks the immediate grandeur of many of the other concurrent shows, with 250 works by nearly 100 artists, Drawing Surrealism is a tour de force in its own way, illuminating the importance of drawing for the Surrealists as an art form in its own right (rather than a preparatory process) and giving the media its due as a means of expression as powerful as any other.
André Breton’s Manifeste du surrealisme (Surrealist Manifesto) published in 1924 defines Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…the functioning of real thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, beyond all aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” Uniquely suited to these ends, Drawing Surrealism unites imaginative and exquisite examples of the inventive processes the Surrealists created as ways to break free of the confines of rational thought, and the exhibition is divided into sections exploring these experimental methods tapping into the subconscious and unpredictable.
In automatic drawings, the hand was allowed to move freely across the paper, without directed purpose, to reveal something of the subconscious – André Masson was a primary practitioner and Allégories féminines is an excellent examples of his characteristically intricate, freely scribbled masses from which he has fashioned recognizable forms. Cadavre Exquis were collaborative drawings, defined as a “game of folded paper” in which the participants composed a phrase or drawing together, without knowing what has preceded them – the results are riotously discordant and incongruous as in André Breton, Marcel Duhamel, Max Morise and Yves Tanguy’s figure whose head is an orange, tusked elephant, its mid-section is a strange biomorphic mélange holding an umbrella, and its bottom a box with a tail. Techniques like frottage, in which graphite was rubbed on paper placed over a textured surface, and fumage, in which smoke from the flame of a candle was used to draw on a sheet of paper held above it, created an image but distanced the artist from the final impression. Using everyday materials in collage, which was politically positioned against the “bourgeois” media of painting, artists like Roland Penrose and Joseph Cornell – subtly and audaciously – juxtaposed found imagery to “draw” quirky, unlikely and quietly beautiful scenes. Still, some artists chose more conventional methods, notably Dalí who derided some of the practices described above as passive. Artists like Alfonso Ossorio chose to depict, in great detail, bizzare, dream-like and sometimes nightmarish imagery.
If the aim of Drawing Surrealism was to establish that the Surrealists challenged conventional understandings of drawing it absolutely succeeds. But more than that, Drawing Surrealism demonstrates the way drawing was uniquely suited to the exploration of Surrealist ideas, that the movement and this media were inextricably intertwined, with drawing as important to expressing Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto as painting or sculpture. Ending with a section titled, Drawing after Surrealism, including work by Wols, Pollack, Rothko and Bourgeois, the impact of the Surrealist’s experimentation is immediately apparent. Contemporary respect for and interest in drawing is in many ways indebted to the Surrealists’ expansive approach to this uniquely immediate media.