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A Passage into the Occult at the Guggenheim Collection by Caroline Benedict

24 May 2022


On the occasion of the 2022 Venice Biennale, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection explores the theme of the occult in Surrealism. The exhibition Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, organised by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Museum Barberini and curated by Grazina Subelyte, immerses visitors into a world of mystery, where marvellous landscapes and mystical creatures challenge the laws of nature.

As a multifaceted cultural movement encompassing literature, poetry and visual arts, Surrealism is well-known for its free imagery that disregards logical boundaries and embraces the enigmatic world of the unconscious. The Surrealist movement, whose name was coined in 1917 by poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, takes its roots in the aftermath of World War One, with André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s 1919 publication of the first chapters of Les Champs magnétiques. The two authors gave free play to their thoughts through ‘automatic’ writing, unlocking ideas and images from their unconscious. As artists witnessed humanity tearing itself apart through two world wars in the span of half a century, Surrealism allowed them to express the sense of absurdity they perceived in the world. They let go of rules and found strength in symbolist, magical, and illogical representations.

Works of art identified as part of that artistic stream are often related to the exploration of the unconscious mind, relying on Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Artists like René Magritte, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí drew on the development of Freud’s theories and discoveries relating to the unconscious mind to explore new territories and unlock unconstrained and disturbing imagery. However, the sixty works of art gathered at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection reveal the interest that artists affiliated with Surrealism had for the supernatural, the occult and esoteric symbols. Breton was interested in the occult and declared a 1915 portrait of Apollinaire by de Chirico as an ‘act of divination’, as it had effectively predicted the death of the writer.

Across the works displayed in Venice, absurd, hybrid, and fantastic creatures evolve in disturbed environments charged with symbols. Bright blue skies and lush forests seem treacherous and as unpredictable as the devastated landscapes or rocky mountains. In Leonor Fini’s Portrait of Princess Francesca Ruspoli, 1944, an intimidating female figure alludes to witchcraft. She holds a wand and wears a black, silk dress, with a torso like that of a black crow. A murky landscape and a gargoyle-like creature at her feet add to the iconography of the occult, suggesting a far-away fantasy land. In Leonora Carrington’s The Pleasures of Dagobert, 1945, a series of fable-like fantastic histories, dangerous rituals and ceremonies seem to unfold across the canvas, with a variety of hidden meanings.

These paintings play with time. Symbols and irrational shapes that could belong to our century pervade the paintings. In Victor Brauner’s The Surrealist, 1947, a peculiar, gigantic insect-like creature feeding on a fire seems to come straight from a contemporary video game or an animated movie. While some of the exhibited works could have been painted today, they also draw on the past. Don’t these paintings hint at the famous fantastic iconography of Hieronymus Bosch, or the grotesque characters of both Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger? In Carrington’s painting, maidens wear medieval attires and interact with mystical creatures. As in Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1500, a variety of scenes take place simultaneously: in a corner, a priest is performing a ritual, burning an upside-down figure in a fierce fire, right next to a strange creature peacefully bathing in a river against a blue sky. In Max Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride, 1940, a grotesque gargoyle-like creature and a menacing, green man-bird flank the two central naked female creatures, reminiscent of characters often found in medieval manuscripts.

It is quite clear that, in organising the show, the curator wished to display the works of a variety of artists. As well as male dominant figures of the movement, Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity emphasizes the work of less famous female artists affiliated with Surrealism. The exhibition thus resonates both with Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of Surrealist paintings she built in the interwar period and her effort to represent and support female artists throughout her career. Guggenheim was amongst the most influential women who shaped the art world of the twentieth century, alongside Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) and Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984). At the age of 22, after inheriting a fortune, Guggenheim left New York for Paris, where she moved in a circle of avant-garde artists and writers. Through these acquaintances, she started a collection of abstract and Surrealist paintings, initially mostly including works by male artists such as Piet Mondrian or Salvador Dalí. She moved to London and opened a gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, where she exhibited the works she had acquired in Paris. The gallery’s financial difficulties precipitated its closure and, although Guggenheim wished to return to Paris to open a gallery there, she had to flee National Socialism due to her Jewish identity. Initially finding refuge in the South of France, she eventually had to return to New York upon the Nazis’ invasion of the region.

In New York, Guggenheim opened The Art of This Century, a new gallery exhibiting cubist and abstract art in an interactive and innovative space. By that time, Guggenheim had amassed a large and diverse collection of works of art. In 1942, she organised a pivotal exhibition named 31 Women, one of the first ever exhibitions exclusively dedicated to female artists. This groundbreaking show presented abstract and Surrealist paintings and sculptures, amongst which Leonor Fini’s Shepherdess of the Sphinxes, 1941 and Carrington’s Horses of Lord Candlestick, 1938, both present at the Venice show. 31 Women displayed works by Louise Nevelson, Xenia Cage, Frida Kahlo and Meret Oppenheim. The show was a success and a second exhibition dedicated to female artists, The Women, followed in 1945, featuring 33 artists, including Louise Bourgeois.

Thanks to Guggenheim’s collection of Surrealist works, visitors can dive into the mystical and spiritual realms of Surrealism. These works embody the spirit of the time, the craving for a mental and emotional escape from socio-political turmoil. More than ever, we may understand and even share that craving which we usually satisfy through our contemporary – often virtual – means of distraction. Although popular amongst modern art lovers, Surrealism is a multifaceted movement that proves to have grounds left to investigate. The exhibition at the Biennale is the opportunity to explore this enigmatic facet of the Surrealist movement.

Caroline Benedict is an MA student at The Courtauld and is a Reviews Editor at The Courtauldian.

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