Martica Sawin

Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School

On the evening of January 17, 1938, a row of elegant black automobiles lined the curb of the rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré near number 140 which housed the august Galerie des Beaux-Arts.  Men and women in evening dress edged into the courtyard jostling each other in order to peer into an antique taxi parked before the gallery entrance.  Although the skies were clear inside the taxi rain poured over a blonde-wigged mannequin on the back seat.  Snails left trails of slime across her breasts and leafy vines obscured her feet.  A crocodile chauffeur was seated at the wheel, his gleaming teeth bared.

Having gained the doorway, visitors found themselves in a corridor lined with mannequins poised beneath street signs like prostitutes beside their doorways along the rue St.-Denis.  The head of one was encased in a birdcage, another was draped in widow's weeds; one body was covered with tiny spoons, another with scorpions; one cried crystal tears, another held a lobster as a telephone receiver.

"But there should be labels, explanations," a news reporter heard a heavy-set woman exclaim.  "Ridiculous, lamentable," responded her escort. 

The crowd pushed on toward a large round gallery at the end of the corridor where guests were provided with flashlights so they could find their way in its cavernous darkness.  The gallery's 18th century décor was obscured by a dense array of dusty coal sacks hanging limply from the ceiling.  An odor of roasting coffee prickled the nostrils, mingling with the sous bois fragrance of the dead leaves that carpeted the floor.  Flashlights played over bizarre objects: a seat supported by four human legs in high heeled pumps, a soup tureen covered with the feathers of a dove, and a tabernacle mounted on female legs with an arm raised in the papal benediction.  On a white gramophone the shadow of a hand caressed two plaster breasts and another hand projected from a door in place of a knob.  More hands floated on fluorescent liquids contained in a glass-topped table.  Four beds in Louis XV style with rumpled linen stood near a pond, on which floated water lilies, surrounded by reeds and moss.  In opposition to the cool water, red hot coals gleamed through the perforations of a nearby iron brazier.

As the flashlight beams crisscrossed the "grotto" they flickered over paintings hanging on revolving doors that led nowhere.  Like apparitions in the shifting light there hovered before the eyes landscapes from another planet by Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí's Great Masturbator. Magritte's Je ne vois pas--cachée dans la foret, Wolfgang Paalen's Fata Alaska, two versions of Max Ernst's Garden Airplane Trap, a Miró Dutch Interior, and a host of other Surrealist works, caught in the crossfire of the flashlights. 

The reactions of the guests ranged from nervous laughter to blatant scoffing.  Disconcerted, they begged for explanations or offered each other their own interpretations.  There was a large crowd on hand by ten p.m. when the poet Paul Eluard officially opened the exhibition and reaed a blessing on the occasion composed by the spokesman for the Surrealist movement, André Breton.  The event's stage manager, the technician of shock, Marcel Duchamp, did not stay around to see the impact of his handiwork but was already en route to London.  He later disclaimed any responsibility for the evening's climactic surprise, which occurred sometime after midnight when a "hairy sorceress, a specter in rags, aging and brittle" bounded onto one of the beds brandishing a live rooster, performed a wild dance, and jumped into the pond, splashing water over the assembled evening clothes.  This was the dancer, Hélène Vanel, an acquaintance of Dalí, performing "The Unconsumated Act."  Although the invitation had promised his appearance, Frankenstein's offspring, Enigmerell, did not materialize.

Selected Works

Art History
The surrealist artists flee wartime Europe and change the course of American art.
An artist triumphs over early seeing disorder, poverty, and crippling polio in mid-life.
Masson flees wartorn Europe for rural Connecticut where the natural surroundings make a transformative impact on his art.