Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Dream of Dada: Surrealism at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Since May 26, the Vancouver Art Gallery has been showcasing a phenomenal new exhibition for the summer of 2011. This is easily the most exciting collection assembled by VAG since their seminal 2004 Andy Warhol exhibit. Entitled The Colour of My Dreams, this year’s exhibition is a stunning collection of Surrealist art.

For the uninitiated, Surrealism was an aesthetic and philosophical movement that arose in 1920s Paris. French writer André Breton was heavily influenced by the Dadaist belief that excessive rational thought and capitalist bourgeois values had given rise to the First World War. After serving as a military doctor during WWI, Breton and like-minded artists produced writings that, although initially thought as gibberish and nonsense, were actually open-ended and open to interpretation. These were collections of essays published together with like-minded artists in the radical artist journal LitteratureThe idea was to create a movement of associated art that rejected what came before it. Breton and his contemporaries called their work “anti-art”.

Use of free association, non-linear thoughts and unusual presentation of ideas was vital to the Surrealist artistic and philosophical conceits. Surrealist art maintained that this presentation of art, heavily reliant on symbolism, imagery and presented in a manner that at first defies logic, is paramount to the aesthetic. The effect is dreamlike, and as such it has its own logic and purpose, one outside of rational thought but open to interpretation. It is no coincidence that Sigmund Freud’s writings, dismissed as obscene just a decade earlier, and the unconscious reflected heavily in the Surrealist movement. It is with these visual arts and writings where much of the Modern Art movement first came to major public attention. Art was, at this point, no longer just pretty pictures and portraits. It is therefore fitting that the exhibition is entitled The Colour of My Dreams.

They’re all here on glorious display, and the list of artists whose works are presented is dizzying: Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and Joan Miró, amongst others. Edith Rimmington’s famed The Oneiroscopist, a dazzling Mother Whistler interpretation with a monstrous creature dressed in scuba gear, is the appropriate choice for the exhibit’s publicity materials. Why? Because “oneiroscopist” means “one who interprets dreams”, of course.

The collection is particularly bold because VAG has chosen to show local indigenous art pieces alongside the Surrealist works. It is revealed that some of these artists have made pilgrimages to British Columbia during the period and they were undoubtedly influenced by the local native art. It is bold and startling to see seemingly disparate oeuvre not only displayed side-by-side, but to see just where influence and vision originated, and where it has advanced and informed the Surrealist movement.

On a recent visit, the Blogger was particularly taken by the inclusion of several films in the collection. Surrealism invaded all art forms at its zenith, which coincided with the height of the silent film era. Film directors immersed in and influenced by the movement sought to expand beyond conventional narrative and instead evoked feeling and sensorial appeal. They were often a collection of beautiful and sometimes very disturbing images, such as the famous eye-slitting scene in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. The aim of these films was to create startling imagery that borders on the absurd, while crawling under the viewer’s skin. These directors demonstrated how cinema is a language and not just a medium.

The exhibition’s film collection shows that the Surrealist movement has influenced cinema to varying degrees throughout the century and even to today. These influences can be felt in more conventional narrative films such as Charlie Chaplin’s A Day’s Pleasure and in F.W. Murnau’s early vampire classic NosferatuThere is much stylistic overlap, particularly in the mise-en-scène, with the German Expressionist cinema which was then in vogue. The heavy use of symbolism and lighting effects lent richer meaning to these films than realism ever could, and remain true to the Surrealist aesthetic. These, together with numerous other films and the aforementioned Un Chien Andalou, are shown in clips throughout the Gallery. It’s even hinted that some of the aesthetics in the movement are manifest in earlier works, such as Georges Melies’s influential 1902 classic short film Le Voyage dans la Lune, which is being shown in its entirety. 

The Gallery is also screening a number of later twentieth century films influenced by Surrealism, in conjunction with the exhibition, including Buñuel’s later erotic classic Belle de Jour (which gave Catherine Deneuve one of her first major roles), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre. More information is available on the Facebook event page. The Surrealist movement still informs narrative film today, most memorably in Terrence Malick’s current film The Tree of Life.

You can obtain more information on VAG’s stunning The Colour of My Dreams exhibit by reading the official media release and also on their website. This exciting collection is presented to September 25, 2011, and is worth several visits in order to fully experience it. VAG has also issued a hefty volume commemorating the exhibit, including several critical essays on the pieces presented, which is available for purchase in their ever-delightful store and in the exhibit’s dedicated exhibit shop, located to the far left from the entrance.

The Vancouver Art Gallery is open seven days a week from 10 am to 5 pm, although they operate on Tuesdays until 9 pm and accept entry by donation from 5 pm onward on those evenings only. You can find more information on visiting the Gallery here. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to visit their sumptuous café in the summertime, the only place in downtown Vancouver where you can have a glass of wine on a patio while classical music soothes you over the loudspeakers.