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These Galleries May Be the Menil Collection's Most Significant Asset

Houston-based conceptual artist Ryan Hawk reflects on the significance of the Menil Collection’s surrealist galleries.

By Ryan Hawk September 19, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Houston's beloved Menil Collection evokes the paradoxes of surrealism as establishment art.

Centrally located within the Menil Collection is a cluster of dimly lit galleries that starkly contrast the naturally illuminated, “white-cube” presentations for which the institution is otherwise known. Inside, on darkly painted walls and pedestals, is Menil’s rotating surrealist collection of over “300 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper.” 

Visitors to the Menil will encounter familiar names such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Méret Oppenheim, as well as artworks depicting thematic interests and styles common to surrealist narratives: expressions of dreams, psychoanalytic readings of the unconscious, illustrations of fantasy, etc. A little more difficult to glean are the political orientations that motivated surrealism’s initial practitioners. 

One needn’t stray far into the surrealists’ various manifestos and statements to discover that they were adamantly anti-imperialist and in pursuit of social revolution. However, encountering surrealist artwork in institutional contexts like the Menil presents a series of contradictions: Why aren’t the surrealists’ politics more explicit in their creative work? What is the political efficacy of such artwork if it is now housed within the bourgeois settings that surrealism’s politics would otherwise condemn? 

It could be that these artists’ aesthetic experiments upset historically specific sensibilities that are not as controversial today. Or we might consider it, more consequentially, as a matter of recuperation. Over the past 100 years, institutionalized framings have slowly eclipsed surrealist political engagements and reduced surrealism as a movement and visual phenomenon in the popular imagination to the point where a few painters and their aesthetic styles are representative. The conditioning of surrealism is also evidenced by its deformed use in language: assigned to the status of an adjective and bearing connotations of obscurity and incomprehensibility, common associations of surreality are now synonymous with the weird, uncanny, and unimaginable. But what would be the point in imagining the impossible?

From the start, the surrealists were motivated by such challenging contradictions. In the 1924 Surrealists Manifesto, the first definition of surrealism appears almost halfway through the document, with André Breton, the manifesto’s author, declaring, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Contrary to popular associations, surrealism is not anti-reality; it is expansive and supplemental. It is more reality. 

Surrealism does not illuminate “the impossible” for the sake of fantasy—we aren’t called to surrealist work to lose ourselves. Instead, surrealism challenges the social and moral codes that determine the limits of possibility by surfacing the repressed and the actively negated. Mining the unconscious, the early surrealists saw collectivity in processes of identification; they subverted the bourgeois designation of feelings, attitudes, and beliefs to the private sphere by publicly expressing ostensibly “personal” things. Not simply a style or a tradition, surrealism is a limitless form of collective dreaming that ruptures established ideologies and threatens the social order. 

This is precisely why, over the past century, surrealism has found allies in the anticolonial resistance in places such as Cuba, Japan, and Haiti and has inspired revolutionary thinkers, artists, and poets such as postcolonialists Aimé and Suzanne Césaire. And why, as historian and academic Robin D. G. Kelly has stated, surrealism is “present in contemporary anti-racist, feminist, gay and lesbian, indigenous, reparations, and environmental justice movements.”

But: we should not expect to find a revolution in the autonomous artworks of surrealism. What we can encounter, however, is a shared envisioning of freedom. When we recognize institutional strongholds of surrealism, it starts to appear almost everywhere, in otherwise unexpected places and among otherwise unaffiliated audiences. We should cherish institutions like the Menil for the light they shine on surrealist work. Yet we would be remiss not to recognize the surrealism lurking in the shadows.

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