Because the witches, warlocks and whirligigs of surrealism fall emphatically into the category damned by numbskulled Nazis as "degenerate" art, most people thoughtif they thought about it at allthat the Nazi invasion of France would spell surrealism's doom. Not at all. Surrealism simply moved to Manhattan. Last week 57th Street's galleries broke out with more showings of surrealist art than Manhattan had seen in many a year.
Since surrealism was founded in 1924 by the French philosopher and poet of the subconscious, Andre Breton, it has become a hotly defended cult, of which Poet Breton has become a sort of political boss. Despite superficial appearances, surrealism had certain rather logical foundations. Fearing that the art of photography would some day beat all realistic art at its own game, Breton and a band of modern painters decided to find a field of painting where the camera could not go. The subconscious world of dreams was obviously inviolable. The researches of Sigmund Freud suggested that dream symbols, were often more real to the human mind than reality itself.
By the late 1930s the ideas of the surrealists had rippled so wide that many prominent European artists were searching their subconscious minds, recording and treasuring their dream impressions, practicing a hundred ingenious methods of outwitting their everyday sense of logic. Some of the queer things they turned up made their way into more popular forms of art, influenced things like 'poster design.
Most notable of last week's surrealist shows was that of 51-year-old, white-haired German-born Max Ernst, who joined the ism 18 years ago, and has since become its master technician and high priest. Surrealist Ernst depicted a rock-candy fairyland peopled with crawling monsters and dismembered nudes in feathery fur coats.
Other surrealists whose pictures attracted crowds were Chilean-born Matta Echaurren, a specialist in vaguely visceral abstractions, and Leon Kelly, a U.S.-born newcomer, who had been painting odd dreams in Paris and Philadelphia for years, but had waited a long time to show them in broad daylight. Drawn with the care of an Italian Renaissance master, Kelly's tenuous vistas had a quietly horrifying aspect.
Today surrealism's headquarters is a dignified old mansion on Manhattan's fashionable East Side, overlooking the East River at the point where Nathan Hale was hanged by the British as a spy.
The group's financial angel, who lives in the mansion and is married to Surrealist Ernst, is black-haired, husky-voiced Peggy Guggenheim, niece of philanthropic Copper Tycoon Solomon Guggenheim. Peggy Guggenheim, who loves to sport eight-inch earrings and a housecoat made entirely of peach-colored feathers, does no painting herself, but practically supports the group by collecting its pictures, plans next fall to open a Manhattan museum where they can be shown.
To her surrealist party conclaves one very famous surrealist is very pointedly not invited. He is Salvador Dali, who was read out of the party several years ago by Boss Breton for indulging in "cheap publicity."