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MutualArt's Q&A with Thomas Padon of the Vancouver Art Gallery

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(Via MutualArt.)

“I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers, the way I surrender myself to those who read me with eyes wide open; in order to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought,” artist and poet André Breton wrote in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto. Influenced by the teachings of Freud, the complexities of the human psyche and the exploration of dreams, Breton’s writings initiated a movement that would revolutionize the art world, freeing artists from what the he called “False Rationality.”

Rose Hobart (film still) by Joseph Cornell, 1936

Inspired by the vast body of work produced in this vein, the Vancouver Art Gallery's The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art showcases a staggering 350 works by over 80 preeminent surrealist artists, including Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, Leonora Carrington, Brassaï, André Masson, Man Ray, Edith Rimmington, Wifredo Lam, Salvador Dali and André Breton himself. This extensive array of work is the largest display of surrealist art ever shown in Canada, featuring evocative pieces from the genre and covering five mediums, as well as a selection of indigenous art that inspired the work of surrealists for decades.

This is the Colour of My Dreams by Joan Miro, 1925

The title of the show is derived from Joan Miró’s 1925 oil work This is the colour of my dreams (pictured), featuring a canvas with a brilliant splash of blue paint. This work - and others the artist produced during this period - was heavily influenced by the surrealist movement and the poets and artists who formed the circle Miró came to know through his neighbor André Breton. The works featured in this innovative show highlight the surrealists’ use of experimentation in a variety of media - including painting, sculpture, collage, photography, and film - and are on loan from over 60 galleries, museums, and private collections.The show is guest-curated by renown surrealist scholar Dawn Ades, who worked for three years on this massive exhibition in coordination with the gallery’s assistant director Thomas Padon.

In an exclusive interview with MutualArt.com, the Vancouver Art Gallery's Thomas Padon discusses the highlights and challenges involved in curating such a formidable show and how the exhibit has affected visitors. Padon also reveals how surrealism has influenced - and continues to impact - contemporary society by addressing controversial issues and challenging traditional ideologies.

Lobster Telephone, by Salvador Dali

Lobster Telephone, by Salvador Dali, 1936

MutualArt: The exhibition is huge in every sense - 80 artists, 350 artworks, 5 mediums - was this the most ambitious show you've worked on? Just what does it take to put something like this together?

Thomas Padon: It’s not the most ambitious show that I’ve worked on, but it is definitely the most ambitious show we’ve done here at the gallery. It is ambitious in every sense, starting with the curatorial premise of the show...surrealism is such an overwhelmingly large field, because the surrealist artists worked from around 1924, when the first surrealist manifesto was written, and there’s really no end state (I think it’s totally subjective - some say surrealism ended in the late 1940s, some say it happened when some of the surrealists left Europe at the start of World War II, around the late 1930s and early 1940s, and still others will tell you surrealism continued up until the late 1950s). That makes it more challenging to frame a surrealism exhibition and put parameters on it, so that the public can get a sense of this very important movement and not just be assaulted by decades of work by so many artists.

The House Opposite (detail), by Leonora Carrington, 1945

The House Opposite (detail) by Leonorra Carrington, 1945

Dawn Ades, whom we were very fortunate to secure as the guest curator of the exhibition, is without a doubt the foremost scholar of surrealism in the world. In working with Dawn for over 3 ½ years, I think she came up with a very impressive way to frame surrealism so visitors to the exhibition get a very good sense of the evolution of the genre. The exhibition gives a very good rounding of how surrealism started-out being very influenced by the writings of Freud and the idea of the subconscious and the power of dreams, but also looking at the different techniques that the surrealists pioneered and really ran with, like collage, for example; this medium had already existed but the surrealist artists really took that technique and brought it to a different level because it was a very good way to juxtapose totally different images and come up with these dream-like, irrational interpretations.
The exhibition highlights all of these different techniques employed by the surrealists. The artists of the movement were wildly experimental... they dabbled in so many different media, like painting and film and photography, and the exhibition really cross-references all these different experimentations. The show also looks at the different themes that sparked the interests of the surrealists, like desire, sexuality, violence, natural history, and grotesque forms in nature which they really celebrated - this idea of “savage beauty” (a concept of André Breton).

MA: Where did the works come from? How were the works selected?

Spoon Woman, by Alberto Giacometti, 1926-1927
(Above: Spoon Woman by Alberto Giacometti, 1926-1927)

Padon: The works came from all over North America, France and Israel. They were selected by Dawn and I over the years, and we came up with a list of works and then proceeded to travel all over to negotiate the loans. They come from the best private and public collections in the world...for example, we have works from the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Gallery in London, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and MoMA, as well as the Israel Museum which has a staggering collection. We were also able to borrow works from very important private collections, one in the US and one in France. So we were very fortunate to get some of the best surrealist works, which took a lot of effort, time, and negotiation. We were able to get some truly exceptional pieces, like a painting collage from MoMA and two beautiful Mirós done in the same summer of 1925, one from the Metropolitan and one from the Guggenheim, and it’s interesting to see the similarities in the works - Miró used the same pigments for both pieces. A lot of the works we have in the show are very prominently displayed in the museums they come from and we were very excited to be able to get them all here, to show them together in this huge collection.

MA: Who are some of the more obscure surrealists included in the show?

Padon: Judging by people’s reaction, I think some people didn't know artists like Hans Velmer and Claude Cahun (Self Portrait (As a weight trainer), 1927 pictured below), whose works are less well known, but exceptional. The exhibition also really brings due attention to Jindřich Štyrský - a Czech surrealist painter, photographer and collagist whose works are brilliant examples of the surrealist movement - he was also an editor and a poet. The majority of the artists in the exhibition are well known to the visitors because surrealism really strikes a chord in people and retains a very powerful effect; the imagery is so evocative and it was a pretty tight circle of artists, so they were all connected, both influencing and influenced by each other’s works.

Self Portrait (As weight trainer),  by Claude Cahun, 1927

MA: How are the different types of surrealist works (the modern works on canvas vs. the indigenous works) similar, in terms of the surrealist interpretation? How are they different?

Padon: While we’re not attempting to give a surrealist interpretation of these first nations (which is the term used by Canadians in reference to indigenous peoples), what we are doing is highlighting the very powerful fascination the surrealists had with the indigenous works from the Pacific Northwest, in places like British Columbia and Alaska - this is one of many areas of interest in what they called “primitive cultures” (which they didn’t mean in a negative sense). The surrealists were drawn to these first nation cultures in a very positive way, especially within the context of the wars - specifically after WWI and leading up to WWII, because there was this overall feeling amongst the artists that Western culture had become morally bankrupt and the whole visual culture along with it had become bankrupt as well. So the indigenous cultures had a very powerful effect on the surrealist movement; within these cultures the surrealists saw a real, direct quality and purity and this inspired many of their works.

The pieces created by these first nations - specifically the masks, bowls, and other ornaments - were viewed by the surrealists as individual works of art, not as mass groupings representative of a culture, which was a common belief at the time. They also thought a lot about the makers of these works as people and as artists. They wrote about it, were inspired by it, and cultivated individual relationships with these early works. There’s a section in the exhibition featuring the masks and bowls and other indigenous artworks that belonged to some of the surrealists, like Enrico Donati and Wolfgang Paalen. The surrealists believed that whoever were the indigenous artisans who created these works, they were in effect tapping into subconscious thought and primal feelings.

MA: Film was an important - and at the time, highly experimental - part of Surrealist Art. What is your favorite piece in the exhibit from this media, and why do you think the surrealists were so attracted to cinema?

Padon: There’s a wonderful film that’s displayed in the rotunda, right as you walk in [to the Gallery] you get a glimpse of it. It’s called Rose Hobart, which we borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art, and it was made by artist Joseph Cornell in 1936. This is a brilliant example of appropriation because the artist took this B-grade Hollywood film East of Borneo that he had bought a copy of because he was obsessed with the star of the film, an actress by the name of Rose Hobart. He cut out all the scenes not featuring the heroine of the film [Rose Hobart], spliced together all of the scenes she is featured in and then he toned the whole film blue and cut out all the dialogue. So the film jumps around, but simultaneously it has a single focus on Hobart - it’s a juxtaposition of scenery and time and scale...and it’s a splendid example of appropriation, which sets the stage for the whole show. I think it’s truly about the undertones of surrealism and how it explores different ideas and themes in society. (Below [and top of article]: Rose Hobart (film stills) by Joseph Cornell, 1936)

Rose Hobart (film still) by Joseph Cornell, 1936

MA: What do you hope to relay to your audience? What is new to learn or understand from the show? Do you think surrealism has influenced/continues to influence contemporary art?

Padon: I hope the visitor comes away with an exciting overview of surrealism and the degree of experimentation that the surrealists brought to art over a period of decades and the brilliance of their vision. It is astounding how this work holds up, even in a modern 21st Century context, like Miró’s work which we used for the title of the show. As the artist said, “This is the color of my dreams” and it’s a painting of a bare canvas with a splash of blue paint and there’s this amazing freshness to the work; I think it has the same power today that it did when it was first shown. People will also come away with a sense of the degree to which the surrealist artists knew each other, at times worked together, knew each other’s works, utilized each other’s work to play off each other, and exhibited together. People will get a sense of how the artists were really collaborating and disseminating their work worldwide, which is how it became the dominant visual force throughout the late 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. This applies to both the well-known and lesser known artists, on why surrealism was such an important movement - a movement which continues to influence and expose ideas about gender identity and appropriation. I think these explorations informed a lot of contemporary art (especially in the 1970s and 1980s) and it continues to have an influence on art in the 21st Century.

The Forest, by Max Ernst 1927

The Forest, by Max Ernst, 1927-1928

Written by MutualArt.com Staff

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