Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity: Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Leonora_Carrington_Grandmother Moorhead_s Aromatic Kitchen
Leonora Carrington
La cucina aromatica di nonna Moorhead – Grandmother Moorhead‘s Aromatic Kitchen – 1975
Center for Visual Performing Arts, Ardmore, Oklahoma

From April 9 through September 26, 2022 the Peggy Guggenheim Collection presents Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, curated by Gražina Subelytė, Associate Curator, Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This is the first large-scale international loan exhibition to focus on the Surrealists’ interest in magic, alchemy, and the occult, and it includes about 60 works by more than 20 artists, from 40 international lenders, including prestigious museums and private collections. Chronologically, it ranges from the “metaphysical painting” of Giorgio de Chirico around 1915, through iconic paintings such as Max Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride (1940) and Victor Brauner’s The Lovers (1947), to the occult symbolism of  the late works of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. The exhibition is organized by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, and the Museum Barberini, Potsdam. There, it will be on view from October 22, 2022 to January 29, 2023, curated by Daniel Zamani, Curator, Museum Barberini, Potsdam.

With his Manifesto of Surrealism, published in October 1924, the French writer André Breton founded a literary and artistic movement that became the leading international avant-garde and also offered a philosophy of life. Affected by the horrific experience of World War I and II, the Surrealists rejected rationality, and chose to pursue alternative avenues: dreams, the irrational, the unconscious, but also magic, myth, alchemy, and the occult. For the artists that moved in the intellectual orbit of the movement, these were powerful ways to stimulate and free the imagination from any imposed limitations, and thus produce marvelous art works that they hoped could regenerate humanity and bring about change in the world at a time of struggle, anxiety, and profound socio-political shifts. For them, magic provided a gateway to a postwar cultural and spiritual renaissance and fulfilled their goal of a total revolution, which was not just material, but one of the mind and, thus, of individual transformation. They drew on occult symbolism, relating it to both arcane knowledge and self-empowerment, and cultivated the traditional image of the artist’s persona as a magician, seer, alchemist, goddess, witch, and enchantress. The lasting influence of these interests was reflected by the exhibition Le Surréalisme en 1947, held at the Galerie Maeght in Paris and conceived of as a Surrealist initiation into a new, emphatically magical, worldview. In his book L’Art magique (1957), Breton defined magic as the power that renders the invisible visible, and described Surrealism as the rediscovery of magic in the midst of a disenchanted and rationalized modernity, placing it at the end of a long lineage of “magical art,” which included precursors such as the early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch. 

The exhibition’s point of departure is the world-class Surrealist holdings of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, containing emblematic paintings that reflect the Surrealists’ dialogue with the occult tradition. Many artists represented in this show were exhibited by Peggy Guggenheim, who emerged as one of the most energetic collectors and patrons of Surrealism in the late 1930s. Having familiarized herself with Surrealism during her stay in Paris between the wars, she was on intimate terms with Max Ernst and Breton.

The exhibition will explore themes such as alchemy, metamorphosis and the androgyne, the tarot, the evil eye, totemic substance, invisible and cosmic dimensions, as well as the notion of the artist as a magician and woman as a magical being, goddess, and witch. It will begin with the “metaphysical paintings” of Giorgio de Chirico, whom Breton considered the chief precursor of the Surrealist movement, and confirmed his influence on their early fascination with magic and the occult. De Chirico’s seminal painting The Child’s Brain (1914), which was part of Breton’s personal collection at home, will be on view. It was described by Breton as a case of androgyny and gender transformation that “was not merely Freudian, but also magical.” For many Surrealists, the androgyne signified an erasure of the male/female binary and consequently subverted the power hierarchies inherent in patriarchal societies. The next room will explore the alchemical notion of the Royal Wedding, which represents the unity of the sexes, united into an advanced state of perfection to create a cohesive whole. This room will reunite two masterpieces, after 80 years, Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride and Carrington’s Portrait of Max Ernst (ca. 1939). In his painting, Ernst depicts Carrington as a witch and an enchantress, while Carrington portrays Ernst as an alchemist/a hermit/a shamanic figure. This highlights their artistic exchange and shared interests in witchcraft, magic, and alchemical and animal symbolism. Also, it reveals Carrington’s influence on Ernst, since her portrait likely acted as a key inspiration for Ernst.

The next room will explore the influence of totemic substance, and the cosmic vision of the universe, pointing at the endless analogies between man and nature, and the micro- and macrocosm, as reflected in works such as Ernst’s Day and Night (1941-42). The Swiss-born artist and occult scholar Kurt Seligmann will be the protagonist of the next room. He painted works infused with magical undercurrents and wrote the book The Mirror of Magic (1948), now an occult classic, widely read by the Surrealists, Carrington among them. The following rooms will delve into the notion of woman as a magical being, and the overlap between animal, vegetal, and human life, with works such as Carrington’s Cat Woman (La Grande Dame) (1951), Leonor Fini’s The Ends of the Earth (1949), René Magritte’s Black Magic (1945), and Dorothea Tanning’s The Magic Flower Game (1941). The next three rooms will be dedicated to the proto-feminist embrace of alchemy, witchcraft, the goddess, and androgyny, and strategies of female empowerment in the works such as Carrington’s The Pleasures of Dagobert (1945), Fini’s Portrait of the Princess Francesca Ruspoli (1944) and Stryges Amaouri (1947) and Remedios Varo’s Celestial Pablum (1958). The final room will be devoted to the theme of cosmic forces and invisible dimensions with works by Salvador Dalí, Óscar Domínguez, Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Kay Sage, and Yves Tanguy placed in dialogue.