The first time I saw Andre Masson’s 1928 Battle of the Fishes it was hanging in the permanent collection galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’d skipped past the rowdy knot of people taking one another’s pictures in front of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (you know, the one with the melting clocks) and the Masson was just around the corner, unassuming, a backdrop for no one’s selfie. I had been concentratedly blasé through all of the museum’s halls (my ungenerous reaction to the excitable, loud-talking throngs of MOMA free-day visitors) and was thereby caught extremely off guard by the deep and sudden sadness that struck me as I stood in front of Masson’s modest painting. It is a small rectangle, wider than it is tall, with a fluid, horizontal rush of fish-like black marks wound around irregular blocks of beige sand, and interspersed with a few bright splotches of blood red. Like many of this artist’s works, Battle of the Fishes made use of automatism: a favorite Surrealist process that deploys chance in the hopes of circumventing the mind’s stubborn grasp on reason. The idea is that if we can find a way to flummox or distract our conscious, rational minds, we might allow the unconscious free reign within the artwork, without regard for coherent narrative, style, or ‘good taste.’ The automatic element of this painting created the large irregular blocks of sand that structure the composition. Masson spilled wet gesso and sand onto the canvas and then shook it; the sand that happened to stick became the bones around which the rest of the picture was shaped. Masson was a French Surrealist and a veteran of the First World War, during which he was seriously wounded. Automatism offered him a strategy for addressing the horrors of his experience; an experience that was far from rational. The action of Battle of the Fishes is lurid and cruel and hectic, and its busy, illogical energy would have dissipated in a painting directed by conscious authorship alone.
All of this is to say that the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century offers techniques especially well suited to artists who are survivors of major trauma, and as follows, versions of automatism have been adopted by veterans from World War 1 through the present. This past Memorial Day, Chicago’s National Veterans Art Museum opened an exhibition of contemporary veterans’ surrealism. The NVAM moved to its current Portage Park location in 2012, downsizing from a large multi-story space with a robust permanent collection to a few rooms on the second level of a residential loft building. Curator Aaron Hughes’s Surrealism and War makes good use of the modest space, featuring the work of nine living artists, veterans all, and a corner of “Exquisite Corpses” that refashion a traditional surrealist game in which chance is deployed to generate logic-defying visual combinations. In this iteration, the game becomes a kind of tribute in which each collaboratively developed “corpse” is dedicated to a specific veteran. Judith Raphael’s drawing The Exquisite Corpse of Lt. Colonel Theodore Raphael D.D.S., for example, was composed in collaboration with two friends and in honor of Raphael’s father.
The project, organized by Chicago artist Jeanne Dunning and titled The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran, is among the few in the exhibition to engage deliberately with Surrealism’s automatist techniques. The rest of the show bumps up against the movement’s aesthetics and symbols in a less direct way, and its organizers acknowledge as much in the show’s poster-blurb, describing the nine featured artists as “intentionally and unintentionally” engaged with “Surrealist processes and concepts.” There are elements of the exhibition’s organization and documentation that use a bit of force in making that connection to historical surrealism. The artists’ words, for example, are interspersed with quotes from Rene Magritte and Max Ernst in the show’s printed materials, and there is even a short glossary of Surrealist terminologies with color-coded links to potentially relevant sections of the exhibition.
My experience with Battle of the Fishes—and with the capacity for raw, fluid, emotional communication that automatism can offer—is what drew me to Surrealism and War, but that movement’s ability to cut through reason and give voice to trauma was less present in the exhibition than its printed pamphlet and guide suggest. It isn’t Surrealist technique that binds these artists overall as much as trauma itself, communicated in ways that are often more Expressionist than Surrealist; the spirits of George Grosz and Otto Dix are, for me, more clearly present throughout the exhibition than those of Magritte or Ernst. A vocabulary of nightmarish imagery is another of the exhibition’s unifying forces: bronze cast butchered chickens and tiny frogs individually wrapped in gauze share the space with a variety of assemblages built from bones and a torture-chair whose blade is positioned to slice its occupant straight up the middle. Two strikingly intense mixed media panels by Randolph Harmes sprout grimacing, injured-looking faces, their uncannily lifelike teeth jutting out towards the viewer from within bent wood supports. All of these works make a strong emotional impact, and seeing them gathered together sets them in interesting conversation with one another. The qualities that connect them, seem, however, to derive less from experimentation with automatism or any other strictly Surrealist technique than from the artists’ real-life experiences with combat and violent death, communicated in a relatively straightforward way, and supplemented, perhaps, by a vocabulary of horror imagery extant in the popular visual culture of the present.
One of the exhibition’s two rooms is dominated by Jim Leedy’s massive mixed media assemblage The Earth Lies Screaming, a grisly, forty foot long wall composed of scores of human skulls, wrecked dolls, abandoned baby shoes, and animal parts that transform, as you move from left to right, into a rippled surface of swans pushing aggressively through the mass of violent wreckage. As you stand facing the wall— and it is difficult to look away—a set of ghoulish crows, cast in the same white material as the main assemblage, stare down from the gallery ceiling behind your head; you can feel them there before you see them. Leedy’s assemblage is an index of the exhibition as a whole, and offers a better guide to most of its contents than any historical model of Surrealism. Its combination of crows and skulls (literary, and then literal markers of death), its pointing towards transformation (piles of bones become swans-and-bones), and its overall aesthetic: bleak, savage, and just a little bit funny (the tiny, bemused face of a George Washington doll swims, disembodied, amongst the assemblage’s horrors), are qualities with which nearly every other work in the exhibition shares something fundamental.
Surrealism and War at the National Veteran’s Art Museum, 4041 N. Milwaukee Avenue, 2nd floor. Through November 1st. http://www.nvam.org