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"A Way of Life": The Museum of Modern Art and the Marketplace for Surrealism
University of Houston
With Surrealism’s debut at the Museum of Modern Art in Alfred Barr’s 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Surrealism spread from the museum to the marketplace, traversing the increasingly fraught territory between the avant-garde and the commercial. While the MoMA exhibition contributed to the recognition of Surrealism as an avant-garde movement, it also seemed to endorse Surrealism’s role in the commercial realm, as Barr sought to make the case that Surrealism was an active part of contemporary culture. Thus, the exhibition doubly increased Surrealism’s appeal to advertisers who immediately repackaged the movement for American consumption, sometimes in collaboration with the artists themselves. The most flagrant example of this collaboration involved artist Salvador Dalí, who participated in several commercial projects in the U.S including window display, and then incorporated his commercial work into official Surrealist projects including the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1938, further mixing avant-garde and commercial production. Despite Barr’s initial proposition, by 1939, against the backdrop of Dalí’s amusement at the World’s Fair, Surrealism’s fluidity in crossing between art and mass culture rendered Surrealism in direct contradiction with the formal concerns for the avant-garde for which critic Clement Greenberg powerfully advocated, and which would dominate art criticism in the U.S. for the next two decades.
Keywords: Surrealism / Museum of Modern Art / Alfred Barr / advertising / Dalí
In December 1936, Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, presented the mammoth exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, in New York. Earlier that year Barr had put on his now famous Cubism and Abstract Art show. While Cubism’s place within the domain of avant-garde art was assured by the time Barr displayed the work at MoMA, the Surrealism exhibition was the first of Barr’s exhibitions that he considered to be truly pioneering because Surrealism was still an active movement. With MoMA’s endorsement, Surrealism spread from the museum to the marketplace, traversing the increasingly fraught territory between the avant-garde and the commercial.
From the start, Barr wanted the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition to be far broader than the purview of the official Surrealist movement.1 Amidst 700 objects, Barr presented Surrealism as a leading movement in avant-garde art alongside cartoons by Walt Disney Productions and drawings by insane asylum patients. Barr hoped that this ‘comparative material’ would help illuminate to the American public what he understood was not only an art movement, but, for some, “a way of life” (Barr 8). Barr himself was comfortably ambivalent about the nature and status of Surrealism. He recognized that once Surrealism was “no longer a cockpit of controversy, it will doubtless be seen as having produced a mass of mediocre pictures…, a fair number of excellent and enduring works of art, and even a few masterpieces” (Barr 8). Barr’s willingness to display an untested assortment of objects—many of which had only just been produced earlier that year and thus were quite contemporary—was characteristic of his stance toward modernism, which he saw as a developing, rather than definitive idea.
In planning Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Barr had to fight to frame Surrealism as a heterogenous mix of art and visual culture. Over the Surrealists’ protests, Barr decided to include what he saw as the art historical antecedents to Surrealism, dating back to the 15th century, crafting an exhibition that covered the broadest range of fantastic visual production from oil painting to a nineteenth-century ceramic cat and an “object made from a Sears-Roebuck catalog” (1936). For these unconventional choices, Barr risked alienating the Surrealists—particularly the movement’s founder André Breton and the poet Paul Éluard—who refused to lend key objects, and they encouraged other important collectors to follow suit.2 Breton and Éluard issued a list of demands to Barr, above all insisting that the exhibition feature only Surrealists (and thereby become a more official Surrealist manifestation), but Barr, annoyed but undeterred, persisted in his original curatorial vision.
Barr also met with protest internally from the Museum’s administration. President A. Conger Goodyear urged Barr to remove what he called “the most ridiculous objects” from the traveling show, embarrassed by headlines such as “Modern Museum a Psychopathic Ward” and more broadly, “Farewell to Art’s Greatness.” (The headlines were from The New York Post and The New York Sun and respectively.) The most famous of the works in question, Meret Oppenheim’s Object (1936), was reproduced extensively in newspaper reviews. Covered with the fur of a Chinese gazelle, the teacup, saucer and spoon conflated a tactile pleasure with an oral one, destabilizing the mundane domesticity of the dining room with the exotic pelt of the Asian animal. The teacup became a symbol of both the psychosexual dynamics of daily life and, perhaps closer to home for Goodyear, a send-up of the seriousness associated with fine art and sculpture. Barr convinced Goodyear to let the objects remain, arguing that the root of the misunderstanding came from the Museum’s pioneering effort to exhibit the anti-rational strain in modern art, rather than the generally accepted aesthetic of form (Exhibition #55, MoMA Archives). Thus Barr recognized that the Fantastic Art exhibition challenged and expanded the category of the avant-garde, pushing MoMA and its patrons in new directions.
Of course, not everyone was willing to abide by Barr’s vision. Perhaps the most important lender to withdraw from the tour of the exhibition was Societé Anonyme founder Katherine Dreier. She too objected to Barr’s wide-ranging display, not because of its avant-garde material, but because of Barr’s inclusion of works by children and the insane, which she saw as deleterious to the cause of the Dada and Surrealist artists. Barr seemed to take this in stride, writing to Duchamp that he would be “entertained” to hear this news, though it was mainly Duchamp’s works that Dreier withdrew. Yet Barr remained committed to the display of children’s work, so much so that following the close of the exhibition, he secured for MoMA’s collection a drawing that had been on view done by an 11-year-old girl (Exhibition #55, MoMA Archives). He did the same for the Sears-Roebuck catalogue creation, which he wrote proudly to its maker, was “accepted by our Exhibitions Committee as a part of our collection of ‘comparative material’” (Exhibition #55, MoMA Archives).
Barr’s fluid interpretation of the fantastic aesthetic set the tone for the exhibition’s critical response. Proving popular with the general public, over 50,000 visitors saw the show during its six-week run. While reviewers were generally accommodating, the notion that Surrealism was worthwhile artistically was very much contested. Many art reviewers found the array to be a hodgepodge. Art Digest wrote, “If you’ve misplaced anything around the house, trot into the Modern; chances are you’ll find it there” (6). Critic Emily Genauer declared that “the real value of this show…rests on the good pictures in it. And there are probably only a few dozen…out of the 700 items.”3 Barr’s decision to make a broad case for Surrealism ultimately confused critics, who felt that the exhibition was an unvetted array of non-traditional folk, commercial and avant-garde objects mixed with fine art. But several mass-circulation magazines recognized Surrealism’s psychological dimension as something deeply relatable. Life magazine asked its readers to identify with Surrealism, “Surrealism is no stranger than a normal person’s dream….When you scribble idly on a telephone pad you are setting down your irrational subconscious” (24). Similarly, other reviews found Surrealism to be a reflection of society. In The New Yorker, critic Lewis Mumford concluded that “it would be absurd to dismiss Surrealism as crazy. Maybe it is our civilization that is crazy. Has it not used all the powers of rational intellect…to turn whole states into Fascist madhouses?” (79). The New York Times expressed a similar opinion: “A view of what’s going on under the name of surrealism in the Museum of Modern Art suggests…that the artists of the lunatic fringe, however they rank in their own field, are better than the political commentators at describing what’s going on in other spheres. Outside the galleries…the contemporary eye must rest on objects and images much more grotesque….”4 For these critics, the rise of Fascism lent Surrealism’s anti-rational images a cultural relevance that transcended the question of aesthetic quality alone.
Despite these political connections, Surrealism was greeted with enthusiasm for its applications to advertising. At the Advertising and Marketing Forum in New York in January 1937, the art director of Condé Nast publications declared that Surrealism “deals primarily in the basic appeals so dear to the advertiser’s heart.”5 Advertising companies openly availed themselves of imagery inspired by the Surrealism exhibition and Barr even collected such ads, telling the agencies that the museum would simply like a copy for its files of “any material that might indicate the influence it has had upon American commercial design” (Exhibition #55. MoMA Archives). Barr’s broad exhibition—which even included older advertisements—unofficially authorized the ready application of Surrealist strategies in other realms of visual production.
The most prominent commercial application of Surrealism outside the museum was a set of windows that debuted at the fashionable Bonwit Teller department store on Fifth Avenue, coinciding with the exhibition’s display at MoMA. Bonwit Teller took out a newspaper advertisement on the Sunday before Christmas 1936, not to showcase alluring models or its latest merchandise, but instead urging shoppers to come to the store to see the new window displays, one of which was designed by Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. The ad—illustrating a disembodied eye—proclaimed Bonwit’s inspiration to be the “sensational shows of Surrealist paintings at the Museum of Modern Art and the Julien Levy Gallery,” cleverly gesturing to other trendy institutions of display. An article appearing the same day as the ad noted: “To distract thousands of women bent on Christmas shopping, on the last Saturday before Christmas is not easy. But these eight Bonwit Teller windows stop traffic and evoke hundreds of comments of admiration, amusement or revolt. Never indifference, however.”6 Even in this diluted format, Surrealism’s eye-catching quality proved effective.
Of the eight Surrealist-themed windows, Dalí’s window garnered the most press. It also was the most eccentric. Dalí’s design flouted recent display trends that advocated foregrounding the merchandise in uncluttered, spare yet dynamic arrangements. Only a few items featured in the window were for sale in the store—the mannequin’s black gown, and accessories including a purse and jewelry. The rest of the display was described by New York City Retailing as “an assortment of junk.”7 Women’s Wear assessed Dalí’s window as “the gayest of all,” describing how “hundreds of teaspoons cover the floor; dozens of cocktail glasses hang suspended from a dinner jacket, and red arms, their fingers tipped with white fur nails, reach out from the walls of the case toward the mannequin whose ‘head’ is one mass of red roses.”8 Pushing elegant items to garish conclusions, Dalí used the accumulation of objects to create a total environment that diffused the aesthetic aspects of the merchandise.
Instead of emphasizing the clothing, Dalí’s window dwelled on the drama inherent in the tension between the scarlet hands and the black-gowned woman, as the hands unsuccessfully stretched to touch her or ply her with gifts. One writer reviewing the windows declared “This is Dali at his best.”9 Many critics realized that Dalí’s window borrowed heavily from his fine art work (especially Three Surrealist Women and Lobster Telephone, both 1936), but the author’s proclamation—“this is Dali at his best”—presciently predicted that Dalí would become best known for his commercial forays—or more accurately—for blending his artistic practice with a commercial one. The elated coverage Dalí received in trade magazines like New York City Retailing contributed to this, while the art critical coverage of MoMA’s exhibition concentrated instead on detangling Surrealism’s aesthetic worth and cultural relevance.
The other seven Surrealist-inspired windows, far more conventional than Dalí’s display, were conceived by professional window designers. They showcased mannequins in “mysterious black” dresses, each punctuated with bursts of different “Surrealist” colors—delphinium, canary, gold, white, red, pink and violet. These displays were far more spare, and consisted of the mannequins looking at or away from framed images propped on easels, so that the Surrealist aspects of the scene were not visually integrated with the fashions on display. The collage in the violet window combined eyes, women, bottles with cellophane champagne fizz, and even a New York Times story on King Edward’s abdication, providing a disjointed vision of romance, glamour, and altered states.
But Bonwit’s windows were more than an appropriation of Surrealist visual strategies, for they also included reference material. In the corner of each of the windows, except for Dalí’s, was the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. Open to the first page, which had a distinctive Arp-ian illustration, the title of the show, and curator Alfred Barr’s name were easily visible. Behind the open catalog was another closed copy. In the Canary window, in front of these two iterations of the catalog was a page featuring reproductions of the more eye-catching works in the show—Oppenheim’s Object (1936), René Magritte’s The False Mirror (1928), and of course Dalí’s already well-known Persistence of Memory (1931). The inclusion of the exhibition catalog cemented the windows’ connection with Surrealism and lent them legitimacy through their association with MoMA. The relationship between Bonwit Teller and MoMA demonstrated that these institutions were not in competition over visual culture, but recognized that cross-promotion could strengthen their appeal to their shared audiences and provide them with new ones.
The publicity opportunities generated by the windows was just as multi-layered. Bonwit Teller took out ads for its windows, the windows advertised for the store, and in addition, the papers promoted the windows as news items. Though window display was an acknowledged mass entertainment, the extra attention that the Surrealist windows garnered was noted in the newspapers. According to store management, the Surrealist windows “not only attracted large crowds of passers-by, but also sold far more of the dresses shown than was the case with a more usual form of display.”10 The week after the windows opened, Bonwit ran a more conventional advertisement to promote its “Fashion Fantasy for New Year’s Eve,” illustrated with fashion sketches of women in dramatic gowns. But the text promised that the “finishing touch” would be “the zany cloud-cuckoo mood that has set the world talking about the Surrealist art exhibitions and our current Surrealist windows.”11 Again, Bonwit’s copy gave credit to the museum and gallery displays of Surrealism, while simultaneously foregrounding the store’s own. Scattered amidst the fashion illustrations were a mix of motifs borrowed from Dalí and Magritte: drawings of a melted timepiece at five minutes to midnight and a floating eye with a clock face at five minutes past 12, marshaling the Persistence of Memory and The False Mirror (both in MoMA’s collection) to reference the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, but perhaps also commenting on the importance in the world of fashion of being as current as possible.
Dalí’s window provided the best example of the integration of Surrealism for commercial ends. Dalí’s window demonstrated how Surrealism could convey a mood, suggesting how psychological space might be more important than showcasing any specific object for sale. Thus, a major difference between earlier windows decorated in an “artistic” theme (such as Saks Fifth Avenue’s Van Gogh-inspired windows of 1935) and the Surrealist-influenced ones was that Surrealist windows were able to function as an adaptable style, not just static quotation. Also, because Surrealism was a contemporary avant-garde movement it likely held a certain modishness for upscale consumers—whether or not they had extensive art knowledge. That there was a Surrealism show at Julien Levy’s midtown art gallery demonstrated Surrealism’s currency, while the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art spoke to the movement’s historical importance. When the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition traveled around the country, so too did the influence of Surrealism on window displays and Dalí’s imprimatur helped Surrealism dominate advertising in the 1930s.
As might be expected, what advertisers valued about Surrealism differed from what art critics and academics emphasized. The Bonwit campaign foregrounded Surrealist color (an aspect that MoMA’s exhibition did not acknowledge) and other commercial venues soon followed suit. A “surrealist color card brought out by the Celanese Corp. of America,” boasted “such unusual combinations as orchid, lilac and Bagdad [sic] blue.”12 Lord and Taylor introduced woolen evening capes “which contrast vivid and pale shades, like Tarantella red with hyacinthine blue, or intense green with faded pink, in the Dalí technique.”13 These companies hailed Surrealism for its exotic color, considering that to be one of the prime aspects of its attention-getting ability. The Surrealist windows were instrumental in demonstrating new ways that color could be used disruptively and how the marvelous could be marshaled to cultivate consumers’ interest.
On the heels of the MoMA exhibition and the Bonwit windows, several companies also came out with black and white print ads that borrowed from Surrealism’s visual strategies. Elizabeth Arden perfumes debuted an advertisement using Surrealist motifs for their Blue Grass Perfume on February 7, 1937. The Elizabeth Arden ad concentrates on Surrealism’s associations with love, depicting a half-dozen hearts struck with arrows that cling to a cracked wall. Two hands reach toward each other, but one of them is only a shadow. An eye with a cupid for a pupil looks on, to remind viewers that Blue Grass Perfume “is the perfect Valentine.”14 Instead of seeking inspiration from a specific Surrealist work, the ad references the motifs seen in Dali’s Bonwit Teller window and even more directly, copies the collaged scene in the Canary window.
An ad for Gunther Fur which came out shortly after, uses a de Chirico-esque landscape as its setting, depicting a woman dripping in furs. A few stylized clouds hover in the sky, vaguely reminiscent of the floating lips seen in Man Ray’s large-scale painting The Hour of Observations (1932), featured prominently in MoMA’s exhibition, before it was moved to appease trustee concern (Barr, "'Our Campaigns'" 49). The exaggerated perspectival landscape of de Chirico was also put to use in an advertisement published in The New Yorker by the high-end furniture company W & J Sloane, in a scene that depicted a fallen Dionysian bust, a disembodied hand at a café table, and a leafless tree on which to hang wine glasses. A clock—not melting—is traced over the clouds in the sky. The company seemed to want to use Surrealism for its eye-catching ability, ultimately equivocating about its appeal: “Your taste in decoration may not run to Surrealism…But if you wanted a room done in the manner of exaggerated reality, Sloan could do it for you” (57). No matter how outlandish a client’s taste, the company would be accommodating. At a time when it was still unclear which works were to be considered serious art, Surrealism’s appropriation by advertising could only cause more confusion.
To add to that confusion, the Surrealist artists themselves began actively incorporating mannequins and ready-made objects into assemblages as official Surrealist manifestations. The most prominent example was the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalism, held at the Galérie Beaux-Arts in Paris from January to March. Here, in the hall of mannequins, Dalí reprised some of the motifs he had featured in his 1936 Bonwit window, including the lobster-telephone, which according to art historian Lewis Kachur was “within reach of his mannequin” (41). Dalí similarly obscured the mannequin’s face (with “Schiaparelli’s shocking pink knitted helmet”) and included “tiny coffee-spoons all over”15 the mannequin’s body similar to the teaspoons that littered the floor of the Bonwit window which now take the position on the body (echoing the glasses affixed to the dinner jacket in the Bonwit display). The reaching red arms that stretched toward the mannequin in the window certainly reference the mannequin’s sexual allure, a relationship that the viewer comes to occupy in the 1938 installation, in which visitors traversed a "gauntlet" of mannequins, forced to reckon with them as bodies in space. In some sense then, Dalí’s Bonwit Teller window of 1936 can be seen as an inadvertent prototype for the next major incarnation of official Surrealist display technique.
The Surrealists in Paris may have incorporated mannequins into their avant-garde display, but the context was hardly commercial. In the U.S., where Surrealism had been unmoored from its socio-political context, Dalí in particular embodied a specific challenge for his prominent combination of art and commerce at a moment when the burgeoning American art world began to insist that a division be made between them. Yet Dalí continued to have opportunities in the U.S. to exploit Surrealism’s commercial applications. When he was invited back to Bonwit Teller to design its windows in 1939, the collaboration ended in disaster after the store tried to censor the artist’s displays and the artistic community shunned Dalí for being a sell-out. For his 1939 windows, Dalí created an installation that foregrounded sex, myth, sensuality, and violence using the themes “Day” (Narcissus) and “Night” (Sleep). From a contemporaneous account: “The Narcissus window centered [around] a fur-lined bathtub filled with water. Three wax arms on floats bobbed in it, each holding up a medieval mirror. The walls of the chamber were upholstered in purple and from various points other mirrors obtruded.”16 Another newspaper account described: “Gazing into the tub and the mirrors was a [manikin] clad in a green negligee of feathers.”17 Meanwhile, the "Night" window, “showed a manikin lying on a black bed. The mattress consisted of flaming coals. At the headpiece loomed the snout of a grumpy old water-buffalo.”18 Dalí may now have been inspired by another room of the 1938 Surrealism Exposition, in which Duchamp famously installed 1200 Coal Sacks on the ceiling of a room that included several beds. But while the windows may have played off recent Surrealist exhibition display, this connection was lost, along with any connection to Bonwit Teller’s merchandise.
The windows failed on the level of avant-garde installation because of their commercial context, and on a commercial level because of their risqué nature. Unveiled on the morning of March 16, by midafternoon, Bonwit Teller had received enough complaints about the windows that the store decided to make alterations: “At 2 p.m. it was decided to change the display, and a more modernistic type of mannequin was placed in the window. Nor was it clad in the feather negligee, but in a tailored suit.”19 A central aspect of the conflict generated by the windows revolved around the type of mannequins Dalí had used, even more so than what they were or were not wearing. Several reports focused on the replacement of “the old-style dummy with a modernistic model.”20 Dalí’s original display had purposefully featured a turn-of-the-century style mannequin, made of wax, which was more realistic (and more eerie) than the stylized mannequins in vogue in the late 1930s. The outmodedness of Dalí’s mannequins may have been a gesture to the Surrealist sense of the uncanny, but it also served as a subversion of the fashion industry’s obsession with constant currency.
In an attempt to salvage his original design, Dalí ended up breaking the window as he struggled with the bathtub. While most reports focused on the fur-lined bathtub that smashed through the Bonwit Teller window (and Dalí’s near-decapitation as he tumbled through the shards of glass after the tub), the larger issue was Dalí’s loss of creative control over the project. Even at night court, the issue of artistic merit was central. Dalí’s lawyer explained “that Mr. Dali, a recognized leader in a school of art, could not bear to see his work changed.” The Magistrate, credited as “a discerning appraiser of art and manners…suspended the sentence”21 but Dalí did not walk away from the incident unscathed.
Because the Bonwit windows had been timed to coincide with Dalí’s solo show at the Julien Levy gallery, the art press criticized the event as a publicity stunt, one ironically generated from Dalí’s attempt to maintain artistic control. Nonetheless, the Julien Levy show nearly sold out, with lines of interested viewers winding around the corner, waiting to get into the gallery. And just as the Bonwit scandal garnered more attention for Dalí’s exhibition at Levy’s gallery, the gallery show, in turn, was offered up as a tie-in to what was to be Dalí’s next project, an amusement at the New York World’s Fair called Dali’s Dream of Venus. It was Levy who bailed Dalí out of jail following the Bonwit Teller incident. And it was Levy who first proposed the Surrealist attraction to the World’s Fair Committee and with the architect Ian Woodner drew up the initial plans in early 1938. In his proposal, Levy highlighted the widespread popularity of Surrealism, noting its drawing power as evidenced by “the extraordinary exhibitions such as the one held at the New York Museum of Modern Art…and…the statistics on sales results from a Show Window dressed by Dali for Bonwit Teller.”22 Tellingly, Levy does not point to the windows as worthy displays in their own right, but to the quantitative data—the sales results—generated from the collaboration between artist and commercial venture.
The Fair’s Director recommended the project for approval on the basis of Surrealism having “great mass as well as class attractions. It is one of the very few amusement projects which will interest the Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar set and it is essential that the Fair in New York should have some of this type of appeal.”23 For the World’s Fair, an association with Surrealism was considered a boon that could still attract the highly cultivated while engaging the general public. In this context, Surrealism’s dual position as both a high and low cultural phenomenon would be put to the test.
The pavilion drew on the same themes as Dalí’s scandalous Bonwit window—playing with mirrors and reflections, sleeping and dreaming, and perhaps especially the water motif of the "Day" window. On the façade of the amusement display, plaster arms (now representing coral) would stretch out in all directions, never quite reaching the Venus of their dreams. But the project proved to be a financial failure, bankrupt by the end of the Fair’s 1939 season. Even Dalí later recognized, “what they wanted of me was my name, which had become dazzling from the publicity point of view” (Secret 376).
The events of 1939—the near sell-out show at Julien Levy’s gallery sandwiched between the crashing (or smashing) of the Bonwit window and the Dream of Venus pavilion at the World’s Fair—demonstrated Dalí’s inability to control his creative contributions to commercial projects and signaled the difficulty faced by Surrealism’s overexposure. André Breton dismissed Dalí from the movement in May 1939, citing Dalí’s politics and his increasingly conservative painting style, but would soon thereafter coin the effective anagram, dubbing Dalí “Avida Dollars,” synthesizing both his eagerness for commercial enterprise and the American context that sustained his fame.24 Scribner’s had already predicted in 1938 that “come a few more years, and we may be examining Surrealism in Macy’s bargain basement” (20). Now a critic in P.M. complained, artists were no longer to be trusted—“our confidence has been shaken by a clever young mountebank Salvador Dalí ….The element of freakishness in art…has finally succeeded in reducing art to the level of a rather highbrow honky-tonk attraction.”25
Because of Dalí’s flamboyant expression of the infiltration of market forces, he was recognized as dramatizing the constraints of a circumscribed art world—the type of art world that the influential critic Clement Greenberg was just then articulating in his now classic 1939 article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which would thereafter be central to the problem of Surrealism’s critical fate. As critic Paul Bird in the Art Digest pointed out:
Dalí is a bombshell in art: he can’t be ignored, for all the petulant, ostrich-like attitudes of those who intensely dislike his art.…the fellow is doing a real service and that is why it hurts. He is dramatizing, as it has not been dramatized in years, the fact that the art world is a tight little field in the habit of issuing a lot of self-satisfying little dictums…that ought to be upset (18).
Just such a set of dictums was advanced by Greenberg in the September 1939 issue of Partisan Review in which “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” first appeared. While Greenberg insisted that modern art must reject the growing pressures of commodity culture, by 1939, Surrealism—or at least the branch of it represented by “Avida Dollars”—offered a set of visual strategies that were by then fully integrated into the American consumerist landscape. Greenberg addresses Surrealism only in a footnote, admonishing that “surrealism in plastic art is a reactionary tendency which is attempting to restore ‘outside’ subject matter. The chief concern of a painter like Dalí is to represent the processes and concepts of his consciousness, not the process of his medium” (9). Like Breton’s initial dismissal of Dalí a few months earlier, Greenberg too criticizes the painter’s style, rather than the array of extra-aesthetic activities that dominated Dalí’s undertakings that year. Nonetheless, the latter critique is built into the very premise of the essay. Greenberg would elaborate on his concerns in his two-part diatribe “Surrealist Painting,” of 1944, which further rebuked the figurative side of Surrealism.
Barr’s earlier recognition that Surrealism was “more than an art movement: it is a philosophy, a way of life, a cause” (8) put it in direct contradiction with Greenberg’s formal concerns for the avant-garde that would dominate art criticism for the next two decades. Nonetheless, MoMA maintained an interest in the fantastic strain in art through the first half of the 1940s, regularly displaying the work of Surrealists, Magic Realists, the self-taught, and children—still hoping to make the case that modern art and modern life were deeply, inevitably, intertwined.
1Earlier on in the exhibition planning, Barr had considered naming the exhibition to more broadly reference the marvelous aesthetic he planned to exhibit. Writing to James Thrall Soby, he expressed concern about the show’s title, even as he refers to it as a Surrealism exhibition: “I wanted very much to ask your advice about our Surrealist show which we plan to open in November. I am not sure at the present moment whether we shall really call it Surrealist, perhaps some such title as marvelous or Fantastic would be more appropriate for I do not intend to confine it to the orthodox Surrealist group, but intend to include certain analogous masters such as Chagall, Klee, Blume, Quirt and certain earlier men such as Redon, Blake, Grandville, Goya, Bresdin, Rastrelli, Bosch --- as well as popular and perhaps ethnological material subject to Surrealist esthetic.” (Alfred Barr, letter to James Thrall Soby, Exhibition #55, MoMA Archives, May 2, 1936).
2Breton and Éluard eventually agreed to lend, thanks to intervention from Margaret Scolari Barr and Marcel Duchamp (I am grateful for Anne Umland for clarifying this point).
3Emily Genauer, “Drawings by Lunatic Asylum Inmates as Good as Most of the 700 Items in Museum’s Fantastic Exhibit,” New York Herald Tribune, 1936.
4“Surrealism,” New York Times, January 2, 1937. The author mentions the war in Spain and the Chinese government as examples of “surrealism translated into politics.”
5Dr. M. F. Agha, quoted in “Links Surrealism and Ads,” New York Times, January 23, 1937. M. F. Agha wrote that “The Surrealist school (or rather, Dalí, because he is the Surrealist school of today) has such immense capacity for propaganda…that its influence is felt everywhere. … What is snobbish art scandal to-day, is an accepted style to-morrow, and a merchandizing style the next day” (M.F. Agha, “Surrealism or the Purple Cow,” Vogue, 1936).
6Alice Hughes, “Dali Does a Surrealist Shop Window,” New York American, December 20, 1936.
7“Newest Art Sensation Inspires Bonwit’s To Do ‘Surrealist’ Windows,” New York City Retailing, December 25, 1936.
8“Surrealism Inspires Newest Window Displays at Bonwit Teller,” Women’s Wear, December 21, 1936.
9Alice Hughes, “Dali Does a Surrealist Shop Window,” New York American, December 20, 1936.
10 “‘She was a Surrealist Woman – Like a Figure in a Dream,’ The New Art in Show Window Display,” The Daily Telegraph, January 9, 1937.
11Bonwit Teller, New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1936.
12 “Surrealist Colors Offer Fresh Ideas for Negilgee [sic] Promotions,” Women’s Wear Daily, December 31, 1936.
13“Dealing with Dalí,” Women’s Wear Daily, December 15, 1936.
14Elizabeth Arden Company, “Blue Grass perfume Ad,” New York Times, February 7, 1937.
15Bettina Wilson, “Surrealism in Paris,” Vogue, (March 1, 1938), 144 (qtd. in Kachur 57).
16 “Dali, Surrealist, Has a Nightmare While Wide Awake,” New York World Telegram (March 17, 1939).
17 “Dali Comes Out Store Window With a Bathtub,” New York Herald Tribune (March 17, 1939).
18“Dali, Surrealist, Has a Nightmare While Wide Awake,” New York World Telegram (March 17, 1939).
19“Dali Comes Out Store Window With a Bathtub,” New York Herald Tribune (March 17, 1939).
20“Bathtub Bests Surrealist Dali in 5th Ave. Showwindow Bout,” Daily Mirror (March 17, 1939).
21“Dali, Surrealist, Has a Nightmare While Wide Awake,” New York World Telegram (March 17, 1939).
22Julien Levy, Proposal for Surrealist Fun House, 1938, n.p.
23Memo from Director of Exhibition and Concessions to General Manager, March 21, 1938, Box 178, New York World’s Fair Archives, New York Public Library.
25Ben Crisler, “Critic at Large,” P.M. (August 19, 1940).
Exhibition #55, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
New York World’s Fair Archives, New York Public Library.
---. “Surrealism,” New York Times. January 2, 1937.
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