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The tradition of the fantastic and dialogues among works of art*

List
Pierre Jahan
Sin título, 1937
Colección Dietmar Siegert

Modern art's roots, in particular those of the Surrealists, are the focus of this exhibition, whose model is Alfred H. Barr's legendary exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, presented in 1936-37 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its chronological scope ranges from the mid-fifteenth century to around 1945.

What links Man Ray to Albrecht Dürer? The question pinpoints the broader issues lying at the heart of this exhibition, though at first it might seem as incongruous as a sewing machine and an umbrella's encounter on a dissecting-table. In 1920, before his arrival in Paris, the American photographer Man Ray created L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse (The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse). In his major work, Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869, Lautréamont (the pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse) praises the extraordinary beauty of a youth with an extraordinary comparison: "He is fair […] as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." This absurd, contradictory metaphor with its trace of cold, alienating eroticism was taken up by the Surrealists as a poetic revelation. The stunning incongruity opened their fantasy to completely new, unheard-of dimensions.

List
Herbert Bayer
Einsamer Großstädter, 1932
Colección Dietmar Siegert

The enigma of Isidore Ducasse is unresolved to this day, and so it shall remain. This at the very least connects Man Ray's Enigma to Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I. Few works of art have been subject to so many attempts at interpretation as Dürer's Melencolia I, yet there always remains something unresolved about it as well. Precisely in this respect an ample arc may be drawn over the four centuries from Dürer's engraving to Man Ray's Enigma of Isidore Ducasse.

The juxtaposition of Man Ray and Albrecht Dürer is only one example of this exhibition's effort to generate a dialogue between modern works of art and works from earlier periods. The perception of modern life's complexity and sundry contradictions led the Surrealists to new forms of artistic expression. They developed a sharpened awareness of the artistic tradition, spurred by fantasy and the fantastic stretching from the late Middle Ages into modern times. The historical manifestations of these concepts as they are treated here range from the medieval Christian fear of hell and the early modern enthusiasm for the natural sciences, especially optics, to the irruption of the subconscious and the irrational in the Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism. Time and again, artists have questioned norms and boundaries in their search for a world beyond the visible. They have created controversial and subversive worlds of imagery full of the unexpected, the enigmatic, and the melancholic—revealing, likewise, that which is suppressed in dreams, fears, and desires.



The exhibition is divided into eleven sections:

1. The inner eye
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux
A Glance into the Theater of Besançon,
1804
Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek
Darmstadt

In many cultural contexts, the eye stands as a central pictorial metaphor, representing both a window onto the visible world and the window of the soul. Dreaming, intoxication and hallucination belong to the experiences of the inner eye.

2. Magical spaces
Karl Friedrich Thiele
Karl Friedrich Thiele, after Karl
Friedrich Schinkel
The Queen of the Night, , 1823
Friedrich Schinkel
Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
Núremberg

From Baldung to De Chirico, the formal devices of accelerated perspectives, extreme foreshortenings, and heavy shadows serve to charge the space with meaning and expressiveness, elevating it to a reflection of psychological states.

3. Changing perspectives
Karl Friedrich Thiele
Matthias Zündt, after Hans Lencker,
colored by Georg Mack III
Roman capitals,
1567
Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
Núremberg

This section presents striking connections between Mannerist studies of perspective, anamorphoses, optical illusions, and texts on optical theory from the sixteenth century, on the one hand, and the works of Surrealist artists, on the other.

4. Composite figures
Hannah Höch
Hannah Höch
Monument II: Vanity, 1930
Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
Núremberg

Grotesque or monstrous composite figures spawned in an artist's subversive fantasy—hybrid creatures half-human, half-animal—have belonged to the standard repertoire of satirical images from at least as early as the time of Reformation iconoclasm.

5. The constructed human being
André Masson
André Masson
Study for "The Murder of the Double",
1941
Musée national d'art moderne/Centre
de création industrielle, Paris

De Chirico's manichini, Man Ray's mannequins, Bellmer's Puppen ("dolls"), and Masson's skeletonized figures are faceless constructions, like anonymous human maquettes.

6. The (dis)order of things
André Masson
Wenzel Hollar
Still Life with muffs and festive
adornments
,
1647
Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
Núremberg

Lautréamont's "chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella" as the paradigm of beauty already itself suggests the poetic principle of collage. The historical antecedents for collage—still lifes, trompe-l'oeils and quodlibets, which originally served as examples of the virtuoso imitation of nature—underwent a novel reinterpretation in the hands of the Surrealists.

7. Capriccio
Maestro E. S.
Maestro E. S.
Letter x (Beggar-musicians),
ca. 1435-67
Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
Núremberg

Works full of artistic whimsy and flouting strict academic rules are the subject of the seventh section. From the late sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, from Callot to Goya, numerous series of etchings appeared that seemed to establish the capriccio as an independent artistic genre—one which, however, followed no set rules in terms of subject or form.

8. Metamorphoses of nature
Maurice Tabard
Maurice Tabard
The Fetishes of Easter Island,
1935
Dietmar Siegert collection

This section grapples with transformation and metamorphosis as one of Surrealism's central intellectual and creative principles and seeks to establish comparisons with historical parallels. Nothing is as it seems: In this phrase one might encapsulate the Surrealists' fundamental doubts regarding the unambiguity of the visible world of things.

9. Phantasmagorias
Maurice Tabard
Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter
Brueghel the Elder
Envy, 1558
Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
Núremberg

The ninth section is devoted to the tradition dating from Antiquity of representations of enigmatic or supernatural phenomena such as demons and chimeras. From the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, pamphlets described the appearance of strange creatures that in the period before the Enlightenment were interpreted as omens of terrible events.

10. Shadows of Shadows
Maurice Tabard
Michael Wolgemut
Dance of Death, 1493
Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
Núremberg

This section—like the section titled "The (Dis)order of Things"—is presented as a collage free of commentary, so as to stimulate the viewers' imaginations, unguided, enabling them to establish their own personal dialogues with the works of art.

11. Day dreams, night thoughts
Francisco de Goya
Francisco de Goya
A Way of Flying, 1814-19
Private collection

Artist's dream visions are the subject of the eleventh and final section. Dreams were a realm of reality not only for the Surrealists and the generations after Sigmund Freud. The list of artists whose oneiric visions are presented as examples in this section ranges from Dürer to Goya, Grandville, Klinger, and Redon, all the way to Ernst and Höch.



*Passages extracted from the essay by Yasmin Doosry, "The Not-So-Chance Meeting of Man Ray and Albrecht Dürer," published in the exhibition catalogue.