Surrealism Beyond Borders at Tate Modern review: a fascinating look at how a movement went global


he Surrealists always made dramatic statements. “Our Surrealism will enable us finally to transcend the sordid antinomies of the present… Surrealism – the tightrope of our hope.”

This was written in 1943, when the present was sordid indeed. But its author is not one of the canonical members of the Paris-based group that represent the movement to most of us – its arch-priest, poet André Breton, say, or painters Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí. It was written from Martinique by the writer and activist Suzanne Césaire, one of a pioneering group of Antillean artists and poets, including her husband Aimé Césaire, the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, and the Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite, who embraced Surrealism as part of a wider anti-fascist and anti-colonial project.

This pocket of Surrealist activity is one of many explored in this fascinating, scholarly show, which takes us far beyond the movement’s traditional European centre, to the Caribbean, Egypt, Eastern Europe and Japan. Césaire’s quote is written high on a wall here, in a room which draws connections between artists and writers in Cuba, Haiti and Martinique. Beneath it are paintings by Hyppolite, whose Surrealist tendencies pre-date his meeting with Breton, who went on to own one of the works on show. Nearby Lam’s painting Bélial, Emperor of the Flies (1948), a typically dynamic composition of human-animal hybrids, reflects how Surrealism shifted in the hands of its global adopters – here, the irrational, mystical power of Surrealism is married to Caribbean myth and folklore.

Ramses Younan’s Untitled 193

/ Estate of Ramses Younan

Time and again, we see the malleability of Surrealist ideas in its different locations. In Cairo, too, it was identified as a liberating force against fascism and imperialism, but also recognised as innate within Egyptian culture: the artist Yusuf al-‘Afifi declared of Surrealism’s preoccupation with imagination and free expression that “the Orient has been the home of all of this since time began”. Stylistically, this balance of the global and local is clear in the work of Ramses Younan, whose untitled painting here clearly nods to Dalí, while also rejecting what Younan considered the Spaniard’s overly premeditated approach, allying it instead with a more abstract, poetic style nodding to automatism, a language of forms free from any rational structure.

Surrealism, of course, is not a style, and in the Cairo room alone, the breadth of painterly languages is dizzying, whether it’s Amy Nimr’s fluid drawing in her Anatomical Corpse, or the brutal, thick impasto in Kamel El Telmisany’s Wound (1940), where a woman is violently nailed to a tree — the oppression of women in Egyptian society was among the evils against which Cairo group protested.

But such stylistic variety means that no one could enjoy everything here. Surrealism can hover on the edge between grotesque and hilarious kitsch and Samir Rafi’s Nudes (1945), with its hairy bird’s nests, is among many works that made me wince. But this is a trait common even to the best known artists associated with the movement – think of Dalí and Magritte’s shockingly awful later work.

Untitled, from Az Div o Dad series, 1976, by Kaveh Golestan

/ Kaveh Golestan Estate, Courtesy Archaeology of the Final Decade

But the show gets lots right: dense rooms with smaller works, ephemera and literature are followed by big, bold showpieces. Familiar friends join names that are likely to be new to most of us.  I’d never come across the Iranian artist Kaveh Golestan’s tiny but marvellous phantasmagorical Polaroids for instance, and one of the show’s biggest highlights is a section on the American jazz poet Ted Joans, whose Long Distance might be the show’s defining object. It consists of a nine-metre-long version of the Surrealist automatist game Exquisite Corpse, where one artist follows another’s previous drawing, the emphasis being on irrational, free creation of images to create fantastical hybrid forms impossible from a single author.

Joans’s version was produced over more than 30 years and ended up including contributions from 132 people across various continents – including writers like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, the British Surrealist Conroy Maddox and African American artists Betye Saar and Romare Bearden. It’s wonderful: a manifestation of how the tentacles of this extraordinary movement reached so far, and for so long.

Tate Modern, to August 29,

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