Surrealism Beyond Borders; Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan – review

Tate Modern’s enormous and surprising Surrealism Beyond Borders is a round-the-world tour of what must be the 20th-century art’s most far-reaching movement. It has Austrian totem poles and Egyptian fetishes, paintings from Sweden and Senegal to Haiti and Cuba, silent movies filmed in New Zealand and Colombia (The Blue Lobster, co-scripted by Gabriel García Márquez) and photographs from just about everywhere that André Breton’s call to astonish, disrupt and rifle the unconscious was ever heard.

Eighty years of art are condensed with extraordinary agility into a sequence of galleries that dramatise the transit of this comet right cross the globe, without sticking to conventional geography or chronology. Unfamiliar art from beyond the usual European circuit is subtly interspersed with old classics so that they appear on equal footing. A sinister Portuguese sculpture, featuring a cloven buffalo hoof topped with an all-seeing eye, appears next to one of Marcel Duchamp’s caged readymades. Magritte’s train rushes out of its famous fireplace alongside Japanese painter Koga Harue’s painting of a bathing belle standing triumphant between a zeppelin and a submarine (made nine years before), and both visions appear surpassingly strange.

Marcel Jean’s startling Armoire surréaliste opens the show: a painting of (and upon) partly opened wardrobe doors, drawers and panels through which – look closely – two different landscapes can be hauntingly glimpsed, rocky below, sunlit above. It was made in 1941; Jean was trapped in Hungary, unable to return to France, so that the closet is intensely poignant.

The lives of other surrealists were equally interrupted. In Japan, the movement flourished before the second world war but was forced underground immediately afterwards. In Romania, its brief moment during that war was suppressed by the Soviet invasion. The protagonist of The Flat, un 1968 film by the Czech genius Jan Švankmajer, is trapped in a dingy apartment where the objects set up an oppressive (read communist) regime against him. His soup spoon is full of holes, his boiled egg cannot be cracked and the bed tries to suffocate him with sawdust. Surrealism Beyond Borders would be worth seeing just for this superb satire alone.

But there is so much more. The photo-collages of the German artist Grete Stern play with scale to the most outlandish effect. The three striding boots in Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral’s cityscape all have the weirdest critter faces. The photomontages of the Iranian artist Kaveh Golestan fuse human beings and animals into hybrids so eerie they feel like Freudian archetypes. Once seen, never forgotten.

It is true that some strains of surrealism appear tenaciously dominant. There are galleries full of trance-induced drawings, psychic automatism, creepy crawlies and gross bodily extrusions straight out of Dalí. Black hats, broken statues, bare-breasted torsos: some tropes remain the same all over the globe.

And a section titled The Uncanny in the Everyday looks dated and bland to the modern eye. Photographs of the Sphinx hotel in Paris, the bombed-out stomach of a classical caryatid in Brno, or the mannequin so positioned in natural light that it appears to come strangely alive: this is routine snapping and tweeting today.

But it throws the focus upon incongruity, the bizarre and the dreamlike: a sense of what it is to be human in this alien world, no matter where you are. Anxiety in Syria, hallucinations in Lagos, visions of birdlike nuns cycling through Mexico: pure surrealism is a vision unimpaired by reason, proportion or mundanity.

What becomes increasingly apparent, through this show, is the way surrealism grows more political the further its shock waves travel from the French point of origin. It feels enormously more about radicalism – the horrors of war, famine, torture, oppression – than dreams, or the writhings of the psyche.

Several painters reprise Picasso, at Tate Modern, but none more pungently than the South Korean Byon Yeongwon, with the torn and running figures in his violent Pangongyohan (Anti-Communist Female Souls). But the Japanese artists may be the greatest revelations here. Kikuji Yamashita’s 1967 painting Deification of a Soldier invokes his horror as a Japanese conscript sent to fight the Chinese in the second world war: a crucifixion of helmets, howling mouths and broken body parts, presided over by an imperial figure with a cocked rifle. It is an indelible nightmare of remorse and cruelty.

There are so many works in this show, by so many different artists (quasi 150) that not everything will be of equal fascination. There is dilution and regurgitation. Some of the painting is barely proficient, the content mattering above all else. And surrealism, especially across almost a century, occasionally repeats itself as kitsch. Enrico Baj’s monster Gollum bestriding a dainty Alpine landscape undoubtedly relates to cold war anxiety, as we are told, but it is a ludicrous B-movie of a painting nonetheless.

There are so many unfamiliar names here, and such arcane discoveries, that anyone remotely interested in surrealism might consider investing in the massive and phenomenally detailed catalogue by Matthew Gale and Stephanie D’Alessandro, curators of this exhibition, along with their contributors. It is filled with tales of subversion, acts of bravery, romantic liaisons and all sorts of international collaborations from pyramid letters to road trips to movies and the surrealists’ favourite game, Cadavre exquis, where each artist draws a body part and passes it on.

Conceivably the longest game ever played was organised by the black American artist Ted Joans (who called himself a “Sudanese Chirico”). He gets a lot of airtime here, not least because he once lived with the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Joans’s beautiful commemoration of Parker hangs high on a wall – a tragic, humped silhouette of a painting titled Bird Lives!

The game Joans began nel 1975 involved 132 contributors, all over the world, and it runs the full length of the room. It feels like an emblem for this inexhaustible movement, for it continued even after his death in 2003.

It is said that surrealism attuned our eyes so that we now see incongruities everywhere; just as we never saw fog, quipped Oscar Wilde, before Whistler started painting it. His remark is worth bearing in mind at the Royal Academy for the degree of celebrity it recalls. For it is all but impossible, adesso, to imagine the controversy roused by Whistler’s Symphony in White, No 1: The White Girl. Questo 1862 painting of a red-haired woman with vacant green eyes, dressed in white muslin against a white damask curtain, a white lily dangling from one hand, is now the very cynosure of aestheticism.

But in those days the girl was an enigma. Was she a virgin, new bride, fallen woman (the lapsing lily) or some kind of enchantress, dominating the wolfskin (or is it a bear?) beneath her feet, its red tongue hanging from open jaws?

The small but beautifully focused Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan examines the row, and the relationship between Whistler and Jo Hiffernan, his Irish model, lover and amanuensis for more than a decade. Their life together unfolds in his art: Jo by the Thames at Wapping, lying on the studio couch, surrounded by japonaiserie, on a trip to Trouville where they meet up with Courbet (three of whose magnificent seascapes star alongside Whistler’s diaphanous equivalents).

Most fascinating are the prints, where Whistler finds so many ways of describing the shimmer and fall of Jo’s amazing copper tresses, and the curious changeability of her face, with its full lips and long nose. The show is haunted by other women in white: pre-Raphaelite damsels, wilting virgins, fashionable reprises of The White Girl by lesser painters; a marvellously dynamic poster for a dramatisation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), from which Whistler borrowed more than the title. But nothing quite rises to the original painting, seven feet high and with an astonishing range of colours in its palette of whites: Jo Hiffernan graciously lending herself to the future of modernism.

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