Mad About Surrealism 11.02.2017 – 28.05.2017
Mad About Surrealism brings together more than three hundred artistic masterpieces, rare books and archival documents by Dalí, Ernst, Magritte, Miró and other famous Surrealists. The exhibition concept was developed in partnership with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and the Hamburger Kunsthalle.
The works come from the former private collections of Roland Penrose, Edward James and Gabrielle Keiller, supplemented with works from the collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, who are still actively collecting. Mad About Surrealism shows not only the passion and motivation of four European collectors but also the madness the Surrealists sought in their work.
On view in the exhibition
Mad About Surrealism
Surrealism is not so much an art movement as a way of life. It is a way of thinking, a way of seeing everyday things differently. With a different perspective, everyday reality can be experienced in a totally new way.
It was not only the artists who were ‘mad about Surrealism'. The collectors Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch also have an intense connection with the movement. By placing their collections side by side, it becomes clear how each of the collectors took their own personal inspiration from Surrealism.
Surrealism in Rotterdam
It should come as no surprise that this exhibition is being shown in Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has an extensive collection of Surrealist art. Indeed Surrealism is one of the pillars of the museum’s collection. The exhibition’s focus on the central role played by private collectors also fits perfectly within a museum that owes its existence to the initiative of a private collector, namely Frans Jacob Otto Boijmans.
Inspired by old masters
The museum owns several extraordinary works by Hieronymus Bosch, whose bizarre imagery was a source of inspiration for the Surrealists. Detail from: Jheronimus Bosch, Hell, circa 1515, oil on panel, loan from Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation 1940
Highlights from the collection
Among the masterpieces in the museum’s collection that were once in the collection of Edward James are Magritte’s painting ‘Not to Be Reproduced’ (1937) and Dalí’s 'White Aphrodisiac Telephone' (1936).
René Magritte (1898-1967) was fascinated by the mystery of the everyday. The strange quality in his work often resides in the unexpected combination of familiar elements. The man portrayed in Magritte’s painting ‘Not to Be Reproduced’ (1937) is the eccentric, wealthy Englishman Edward James. He was a friend of the artist and bought many of his works. Magritte based the painting on a photo he took of James looking at the painting ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’.
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) created Surrealist objects by combining two items that normally have nothing to do with each other. According to Dalí, the resulting objects reflect repressed impulses and desires. For example, lobsters and telephones had strong sexual connotations for Dalí. Edward James commissioned the artist to design the 'White Aphrodisiac Telephone' for his house in 1936.
This mysterious photograph shows Edward James standing in front of René Magritte's painting 'On the Threshold of Liberty’ (1930). The Belgian artist used the ‘portrait’ of James as the basis of his work ‘Not to Be Reproduced’. Both works are in the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Edward James in front of ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’, 1937, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2017.
The abovementioned works come from the former collection of Edward James. Born into a wealthy family, he inherited a vast fortune at the age of five when his father died in 1912. He later decided to use this money to buy art and to support Surrealist artists, including René Magritte and Salvador Dalí.
James did not wish to be seen as a collector and patron bur rather as a poet and someone who actively collaborated with artists. Because he was so closely involved with many of the Surrealist artists, he nonetheless amassed an impressive collection. He later sold several important masterpieces by Dalí and Magritte to fund his Surrealist garden 'Las Pozas' (The Pools) and his school West Dean College.
In 1970-1971 Edward James loaned no fewer than 32 works to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen for the Dalí retrospective exhibition. The contact between James and the museum’s senior curator of modern art, Renilde Hammacher, resulted in a long-term loan in 1972. This formed the basis for the spectacular purchases from James’s collection that the museum made in 1977 and 1979.
Polygoon (newsreel) Dalí exhibition 1970-1971
The museum’s acquisition of important works from the collection of Edward James was spearheaded by Renilde Hammacher (1913-2014). In 1963 she became the museum’s first senior curator of modern art and chose a new direction for the collection: Surrealism. This was a clever decision in putting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen on the map: no other Dutch museum was focusing on Surrealism.
One of her greatest achievements was undoubtedly the acquisition of fourteen masterpieces from the enormous collection of Edward James. Hammacher and her husband, Bram Hammacher (former director of the Kröller-Müller Museum), established a close relationship with James and were regular guests at his estate, West Dean in Sussex. The most important purchases were made in 1977 and 1979: the museum acquired fourteen works by Dalí and Magritte from his collection, thus laying the basis for the Surrealist collection.
Renilde Hammacher on Dalí
In addition to focusing on the collectors, the exhibition Mad About Surrealism also examines several themes central to the Surrealist movement, a few of which are briefly elucidated here.
Surrealism began as a literary movement but during the course of the 1920s the visual arts began to play a greater role. Like literature and poetry, visual art proved capable of giving form to the dream imagery of the subconscious mind. Painters such as Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) strove to create a visual form of poetry: a stream of free association on the canvas. Although Delvaux did not consider himself a Surrealist, his work is often associated with the movement. He referred to his work as ‘poetic realism’: an unwritten poem whose exact meaning is unclear.
A dash of chance…
Les chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont (pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse) contains a sentence that was especially appealing to the Surrealists: ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.’ It was a source of inspiration for many of their works, in which chance and contrasting elements played a central role. By combining coincidental elements, the Surrealists undermined logical thought. They employed various techniques and games in order to allow chance to determine the outcome. One of these games is the cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) in which a chance sentence or image is created. You don’t have to be an artist to play this game! Would you like to make a Surrealist chance-generated sentence? Make your own sentence here.
Max Ernst invented several Surrealist techniques, including 'frottage'. He created these kinds of images by rubbing pencils or chalk over various textured surfaces, thus allowing chance to play a role. Max Ernst, L’Évadé (The Fugitive), From: Histoire naturelle, 1926, photogravure, purchase 1995, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2017.
... and a touch of automatism
In addition to chance, automatism was an important theme in Surrealism. Automatism is the spontaneous expression of thoughts unfiltered by the conscious mind. Inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists employed techniques to bring the subconscious to the surface. These included automatic writing, automatic drawing and free association. Dreams often played a role in this. The Surrealists believed that the creativity that arises from the subconscious is more valid than ideas generated by the conscious mind. Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy are among the well-known artists who used (semi-)automatic techniques to make their works.
The strangeness of everyday things
Although the Surrealists often seemed to undermine reality, they also found inspiration in the everyday. René Magritte, for example, made use of everyday reality to create extraordinary situations. His paintings depict realistic situations, but with a strange twist. The titles of his works amplify their strangeness: to avoid explaining the works, he usually allowed artist friends to supply the titles. René Magritte, Le Poison (The Poison), 1939, gouache on paper, purchase 1977, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2017.
Objects of desire
Inspired by the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists were convinced that people have numerous unconscious desires. And they believed that these urges - many of them erotic - had to be liberated. By making objects based on the principle of ‘the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’ they expressed these subconscious desires. Dalí was a master at making these sorts of ‘objects of desire’: just look at his 'Objet scatologique à fonctionnement symbolique' (1931).
About the collectors
All the works exhibited in Mad About Surrealism come from the collection of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller or Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. It is exceptional to be able to mount an exhibition of this size with works from only four private collections. The collections were amassed in very different ways and at different times: whereas Penrose and James were actively involved in Surrealism in its heyday, Keiller and the Pietzsches began collecting Surrealist works much later. This has resulted in four unique collections. The people behind these extraordinary collections are introduced below.
Collector Roland Penrose
Roland Penrose (1900-1984)
Roland Penrose never planned to build an art collection and often said that his collection ‘collected itself’. Penrose, himself a painter, befriended Max Ernst who introduced him to the other Surrealists. In 1932 he inherited a fortune and decide to use the money to finance projects by his artist friends. He was one of the co-organisers of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, which introduced the movement to the British public.
Without intending to, Penrose soon amassed a large collection of Surrealist art. When his friend the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard was in need of money in 1938, he sold his collection of 129 works to Penrose for only £1500. By the late 1930s Penrose had assembled a large modern art collection with works by many famous artists. The exhibition demonstrates not only the variety and high quality of the works in his collection but also the relationship between the collection and Penrose’s life as an artist, patron, exhibition curator and writer.
Collector Edward James
Edward James (1907-1984)
As mentioned earlier, Edward James was born into a wealthy family and inherited a vast fortune at an early age. He never viewed the works he bought with this money as a collection. James did not wish to be seen as a collector but as a poet who supported young, talented artists. He was not only a patron to artists including Dalí and Magritte but also actively collaborated with these artists. For example, Dalí made the 'White Aphrodisiac Telephone' (1936) and the 'Mae West Lips Sofa' (1938) at James’s suggestion.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen acquired several masterpieces by Dalí and Magritte from James’s collection. He used the fund from these sales to finance his school, West Dean College, and his surrealist garden, ‘Las Pozas’ (The Pools), in Mexico. Since the 1980s there have been several large auctions of works from James’s collection with the result that his collection is now spread across the world.
Collector Gabriëlle Keiller
Gabriëlle Keiller (1908-1995)
Whereas Penrose and James were actively collecting in the 1930s, Keiller did not begin to assemble her collection of Surrealist works until the 1960s. During a visit to Venice in 1960, she saw the collection of Peggy Guggenheim, which contained several Surrealist masterpieces. While in Venice, she also met Eduardo Paolozzi, whose work was inspired by Dada and Surrealism. Upon his advice, she shifted the focus of her collection from old masters and classical modern art to Dada and Surrealism.
Keiller was primarily interested in the more hermetic, literary side of the Surrealist movement and built an impressive library of artists’ books, magazines, manuscripts and catalogues. Her collection may be small, both in the number of works and their format, it is outstanding in terms of composition and quality.
Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch
Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch
By contrast, the collection of the German couple Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch is much more extensive. There was no real tradition of collecting Surrealism in post-war Germany; before the war, many modern artworks had been seized by the Nazis as ‘degenerate art’. As museums re-established their collections after the war, they focused on other modern art movements rather than on Surrealism. It is therefore all the more extraordinary that Ulla Pietzsch became interested in Surrealism through her fascination with the work of Sigmund Freud. Her husband Heiner Pietzsch eventually also warmed to Surrealism.
A house like a museum
Ulla en Heiner Pietzsch live in their villa in Berlin, 2016. In the background, two works by Miró from their own collection can be seen: Peinture, 1925 and Peinture, 1926.
Around Mad About Surrealism
Alongside the Mad About Surrealism exhibition, the museum is hosting another Surrealist presentation. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen owns many other Surrealist works besides those from the collection of Edward James. These works can be seen in the exhibition Surrealists from the Collection. This summer the museum will also publish a richly illustrated catalogue of the Surrealist collection with essays by Saskia van Kampen-Prein, Sandra Kisters and Laurens Vancrevel and entries by Bert Jansen, Marijke Peyser and others.
Around Mad About Surrealism
Destino - Walt Disney & Salvador Dalí
That we are no longer astonished by a sofa in the form of lips - the Mae West Lips Sofa was seen as very shocking in the 1930s - does not mean that Surrealism has disappeared from our lives. More so than ever, our everyday world is saturated by surreal images. Just think of the advertisements, films, fashion and pop videos that appropriate the visual language of Surrealism. New digital technologies have made it easier to create alienating imagery. Take a look at this collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney. Although only fifteen seconds of it were actually made by Dalí in 1946, Disney completed the project in 2003 based on the original ideas and Dalí’s original sketches.