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Surrealist Art at Te Papa/He Toi Pohewa

Surrealist Art at Te Papa/He Toi Pohewa is an excellent catalogue published to accompany the major Surrealist show at Te Papa.


The 180 Surrealist masterpieces in the exhibition, are on loan from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. A chapter in the catalogue is devoted to how this famous museum, in the heart of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, acquired one of the world’s biggest collections of Surrealist Art.


In a scholarly insightful chapter, the history of Surrealism is traced. It was launched in 1924 in Paris and was originally expressed through literature and poetry. But as the movement spread rapidly throughout Europe it was translated into many different media including painting, photography, collage, assemblage, performance, and games.


Many people are intrigued and captivated by surrealist art because it is dreamlike, playful, puzzling, and provocative. What may not be so apparent to today’s audiences is that surrealist art was radical.


The surrealists “were disillusioned by world events and were intent on launching a revolution of the mind which they hoped would lead to profound social and political change.”


Not every surrealist artist conformed to these ideals. When some of them began to make incursions into the world of popular culture, Breton mockingly nicknamed the eccentric Salvador Dali “Avida Dollars,’ referring to the fact that fame and fortune seemed more important to Dali than holding fast to the movement’s original purpose.

Pictures of all the 180 masterpieces in the show are shown in the catalogue. As might be expected iconic works by artists such as Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray are there but also many works by lesser-known surrealists including a handful of works by Dutch artists.


Women were involved in surrealism most often as wives and muses and were portrayed as objects of masculine desire and fantasy. Some bordered on the pornographic like Hans Bellmer’s grotesque life-size dolls. A few surrealist women did become professional artists and although not gaining a great deal of recognition at the time, their works are now rightly celebrated and are pictured in the catalogue. I am especially drawn to Leonora Carrington’s mystical “Again the Gemini are in the Orchard” which represent her belief in the connection between people, animals, nature, and the spiritual world.


Reading a catalogue before visiting an exhibition is rather like perusing the menu before ordering dinner. It certainly whetted our appetites. We are planning to head down to Wellington before the show finishes on October 31, 2021. It will be wonderful to have an opportunity to view the largest exhibition of surrealist artworks ever shown in New Zealand.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Surrealist Art at Te Papa/He Toi Pohewa, the catalogue, was written by Lizzie Bisley and Els Hoek.

Publisher: Te Papa Press