St. Pete Dalí museum lands only U.S. showing of ‘Midnight In Paris,’ an examination of Surrealist beginnings

But finding female Surrealists was no easy task as the group was a men’s club as of 1929.

click to enlarge SOMETHING’S MISSING: “Le modè le rouge (The Red Model)” by René Magritte. - C/O THE DALI MUSEUM
SOMETHING’S MISSING: “Le modè le rouge (The Red Model)” by René Magritte.

So who’s ready for another art exhibition featuring the art of dead white guys? OK, now that I’ve either royally pissed you off, or at least gotten your attention, the Dali Museum has a new exhibition opening this month. Despite the dead white guys aspect, this promises to be an exciting and unique exhibition. I for one am guilty of writing off things if I’m in disagreement, and this show on Surrealism had me questioning myself for more than a few minutes — but stick with me, it gets interesting.

“Midnight in Paris 1929”
The Dalí Museum. 1 Dali Blvd, St. Petersburg.
Nov. 23-April 9. $10-$25.

The Dali opens “Midnight in Paris: Surrealism at the Crossroads, 1929” showcasing the work of 23 early members of the Surrealist movement, a group formed by French writer Andre Breton. This show was curated by Dr. William Jeffett, Chief Curator of Special Exhibits at The Dali Museum, and Didier Ottinger, Deputy Director of the Centre Pompidou at the Musee national d’art moderne in Paris. The co-effort produced a show including approximately 65 works, 55 of which will be on loan from the Pompidou. “Midnight in Paris” is a cross-continent project making only one stop in the US.

In an attempt to move past the dead dudes aspect, I spoke with Peter Tush, Curator of Education at The Dali. He assured me that efforts were made to include female artists. This is no easy task as the group was a men’s club as of 1929. The curators were able to secure Germain Dulac’s film “Seashell and Clergyman” (1928), solidifying one female artist. Attempts were made to include the works of a second female/nonbinary artist, Claude Cahun, but their estate was not able to loan any works. Considering Breton hated Cahun, perhaps they pushed more norms than Breton was comfortable with, it’s probably best. You see, the Surrealists were a group with legendary levels of disagreements and infighting — even Dali was eventually kicked out of the group for his political leanings (supporting a fascist in Spain was the last straw for Breton). Alas, all of this blew up well after 1929, so let’s get back to the point.

Dr. Hank Hine, Director of The Dali Museum, took the time to describe the exhibit in a way I could not.

“Art movements are the product of people. A product of their anxiety, their convictions, their doubt, even their boredom.” he continued. “‘Midnight in Paris, Surrealism at the Crossroads, 1929’ is about a special moment in the making of a culture. Surrealism was about to become the predominant expressive style (think of collage, or jump cutting in film) of our era.”

This was a highly-flawed group of men who survived a world war; the group was trying to find their way, their place within society. It functioned outside of the established art world and, unlike previous rebellious movements, the group set up structure and theories. In 1924 and 1929, Breton wrote two Surrealist manifestos that laid out Surrealist beliefs and practices. It was something each member had to sign in order to stay in the group. The group functioned mostly within Breton’s systems while using its art to question the rationale and realist. So yes, Surrealists were problematic, but they fought for what they believed in and attempted to address the political structures and the world around them.

“Midnight” curators have included a multitude of mediums, so don’t expect to just see frames on the wall. Excerpts from Dali’s own “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) will be included. This was his groundbreaking, experimental film (it’s online, but let me place a trigger warning for sexual assault in here). In 1929, Surrealists were experimenting with a plethora of mediums: Dali with film, Man Ray with photography, Breton with writing that intertwined with photography; the group was mixing mediums in ways the art world had not seen.

Beyond the multitude of mediums, this exhibit is coming together across continents. The majority of the works are coming from Paris with around five works coming from Breton’s estate. All of that meaning, these works are not ones that will pass through the U.S., let alone St. Petersburg any time soon. In fact, this show has not and will not be shown anywhere else in the US. so it’s a really unique opportunity for our community. 

I know I started this with comments around dead white men, but maybe as a society, we have been too quick to write things and people off, especially ones we don’t fully agree with. I asked Dr. Hine for his take. What would he like us as a community to take away from this exhibit? His response was pretty spot on.

“I hope our visitors will feel the creative energy, the tension, and excitement of something being made out of thin air, out of a yearning for something new,” Hine said. ”I hope they will feel we are in a time just like that and feel empowered.”

He has a great point. We are at a stage, collectively, where the old ideas and ways are not working anymore. Maybe, by taking a look at the early Surrealist years we could learn a thing or two about organizing outside of the conventional manner. At worst case, we can see the artists who inspired Frida Kahlo, right? 

The Surrealists made it acceptable, and eventually cool, to explore the imagination, dreams, and to just let ideas flow without restriction or rationality. They weren’t painting their garden or a mythical tale. This is a chance to see the people surrounding 25-year-old Dalí, see who influenced him, and how he even had influence within the group.

“Midnight in Paris” opens November 23 and runs until April 9, 2020. Tush made it clear that there would be several events at the museum planned along with the exhibit so keep an eye out for some movie nights and curator talks. 

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