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Cabinet Secrets: Exhibition of Prints and Drawings at Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Leonora Carrington, The Dogs of the Sleeper, 1942. Etching.
TEL AVIV.-The publication of the Surrealist VVV Portfolio in 1943 is considered to be one of the highlights of Surrealist activity in New York in the early 1940s. This album features works by 11 artists – including both European artists in "exile" and American artists living in New York and its environs. It includes etchings by Alexander Calder, Leonora Carrington, Marc Chagall, André Masson, Yves Tanguy and Kurt Seligmann (in whose workshop the etchings were printed). In addition, the album contains hand- duplicated drawings by Roberto Matta and by the young American artist Robert Motherwell; an experimental, altered photograph by David Hare that was printed from a burnt negative; and a frottage by Max Ernst. Also featured in the album is a poem-object by André Breton – a collage composed of a postcard to which the artist added several hand-written sentences, thread and sequins.

Originally, the album was planned to be published in a limited edition of 50 copies, yet only 20 were actually printed. For this reason, VVV Portfolio is considered today to be especially rare. The works are gathered in a wrapper bearing the large thumbprint of Alexander Calder, which marks the point where the wrapper should be withdrawn from the slipcase.1 Also included is a list of the participating artists. Each copy of the album was numbered and personally dedicated to a specific owner.

According to Bernard Reiss, the idea to put out this album came up during a Thanksgiving dinner he hosted in 1941, which was attended by artists including Seligmann, Chagall and Breton (who had arrived in the US that same year). The artists were invited in order to raise funds for the publication of the Surrealist review VVV. Although the review was intended to be a quarterly, only three issues were eventually published in New York between 1942 and 1944. Reiss, who also helped market the album, suggested that each artist contribute a print that would be sold for 100 dollars, in order to help fund the review.

Although David Hare was its official editor, the review was conceived of and ran by Breton, with the participation of additional editor-consultants: Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. In addition to poems and visual art, this experimental project included essays in anthropology, sociology and psychology, ready-made works and variously-sized pages characterized by their colorfulness and bold typography. Each issue was illustrated with works by numerous artists and poets, including Giorgio de Chirico, Irving Penn, Victor Brauner, Oscar Domínguez, Wifredo Lam, Jacqueline Lamba, Joan Miró, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, Philip Lamantia, Guillaume Appolinaire, Benjamin Péret and others. The review's editors also enlisted a number of thinkers and writers, including Claude Lévi-Strauss and Charles Henri Ford – the editor of the art periodical View, which was published between 1940 and 1947 and was sympathetic to Surrealist art.

The title VVV Portfolio alludes to a number of words beginning with the letter V: "veil," "victory," "vow." The word "view" was also noted in this context, due to its association with an eye oriented outwards toward the external, superficial world that Breton – who came up with the review's name – was out to battle. This choice also involved implicit criticism of the periodical View. Motherwell argued that this title was also related to the language barrier confronted by the French artists in the US. According to him, Breton also conceived of VVV as a new letter – the 27th letter in the French alphabet and an extension of the letter W, which in French is called a "double V." Motherwell claimed that Breton intentionally gave the review a name that had no meaning in English. Since the Americans did not immediately grasp this, the need arose to explain this choice to them.

The circumstances in which the VVV review was published are directly related to the history of the Surrealist movement in the US and to its affinity with American Abstract Expressionism – a development that stemmed from the encounter between American and European artists. The presence of Surrealism was already felt in the US beginning in the early 1930s. The first exhibition featuring Surrealist painting took place in Connecticut in 1931, and was called "Newer Super Realism." This exhibition introduced American viewers to European artists such as De Chirico, Dalí, Ernst, Masson, Miró, Picasso and others. Two months later, Julien Levy presented a selection of these same works in his New York gallery, together with the works of three American artists – Joseph Cornell, Charles Howard and Man Ray, who was living in Paris at the time. The collages by Cornell and the drawings by Howard were among the first Surrealist works created in the US. Levy titled this exhibition "Surrealism," arguing that the French world could not be translated into English – an argument that would also recur later on in relation to VVV Portfolio. 4

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Surrealism became one of the leading art movements in the US, and its influence was also strongly felt in the worlds of fashion and design. This development was mainly due to the arrival of numerous Surrealist artists who fled Europe during the Second World War. Their presence in the US was regarded with mixed feelings both by the "exiles" themselves and by their American hosts. Yves Tanguy, who arrived in New York in November of 1939, expressed his feelings in a letter he sent Breton, who was still in France at the time: "I have many things to tell you about life here – a strange life. No way to really get in contact with people… European artists seem to be completely hated here, one talks only about American art."5 Yet despite the ambivalence and reciprocal suspiciousness that characterized the relationship between French and American artists, in some ways America also served a source of inspiration for the French exiles. Matta and Masson, for instance, developed a new painterly iconography based on the unconventional, rugged and majestic character of the American landscape, its particularity and its strange fauna and flora.

At the same time, various art-world figures and tastemakers detected an affinity between certain European and American artists. The interest in art reviews was prevalent in Europe, yet less so in the US. For this reason, the October-November 1941 issue of View, which was devoted to Surrealism in New York and in Europe, featured an interview with Breton. Breton played an important role in representing the community of artists in exile, and in creating a sense of affinity and continuity between the two cultures. Both View and VVV made an important contribution to the cross-cultural introduction of different repertoires and tastes. These reviews functioned as a point of encounter for French and American artists, and provided a sense of continuity between American and European culture. A similar role was filled by Kurt Seligmann's studio and by Stanley William Hayter's Atelier 17, where most of New York-based printmaking activities took place during the war.

Most of the French artists residing in New York, however, refused to learn English and tended to associate with other French friends and colleagues, while only few American artists spoke French. Motherwell was an exception in this context, since he had studied philosophy at Stanford University and formed close relations with the French Surrealists, especially with Seligmann and Matta. Yet despite the language barrier, the French and American artists were aware of each other's activities, and often exhibited in the same museums and galleries. Prominent among these exhibition venues was Peggy Guggenheim's gallery Art of This Century, which opened in New York in October 1942. Guggenheim's collection included both Surrealist and abstract works. The texts for the catalogue published in conjunction with the gallery's opening exhibition – which were written by Breton, Arp and Mondrian – supplied the Americans with in-depth, up-to-date definitions of these two artistic trends, which were presented together in a manner that underscored the affinities and reciprocal relations between them. This approach is also reflected in the works of the American artists supported by Guggenheim – including Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and Hare – some of whom were represented in VVV Portfolio.

The model established during those years tended to examine modern art in terms of a dichotomy between Surrealism and abstraction. Do to its concern with literary, symbolic and poetic themes, Surrealism was considered an anti-thesis to pure abstraction. Surrealist automatism, however, contributed to changing definitions of abstraction, which had previously been narrowly defined according to the principles of geometric abstraction. This more liberating approach led to the formation of a new repertoire of amorphous forms, using technical means which were often based on automatist principles. The connection between abstraction and spontaneity represented a dynamic model, which enabled the fusion of approaches that were previously considered antithetical to one another. Indeed, artists affiliated with both of these movements exhibited together at various venues. This trend could already be detected in the two large exhibitions staged at the Museum of Modern Art between 1936 and 1937. Although these exhibitions seemingly presented Surrealism and abstraction separately, in order to underscore the differences between them, they actually created an affinity between them by featuring the works of artists that mediated between them – such as Duchamp, Ernst, Klee and Miró.

Prominent among the artists who attempted to mediate between Surrealism and abstraction was Jean Arp, who was a member of the Abstraction-Creation movement. This movement, which was active between 1931 and 1936, affiliated itself with an approach defined as international "non-figuration," which reflected the cosmopolitan status of Paris. Under the influence of Arp, who also exhibited with the Surrealists, Surrealism and abstraction were synthesized into organic-amorphous abstraction. Among the artists affiliated with this approach one may note Calder, Seligmann, Arshile Gorky, Wolfgang Paalen and others – some of whom would eventually join the ranks of Surrealism.

Roberto Matta held workshops devoted to automatism in his studio, allowing American artists such as William Baziotes, Motherwell and Pollock to encounter Surrealist ideas. In the course of these workshops, the participating artists explored new creative approaches and focused on accessing primordial psychic experiences by forging a connection between collective myths and techniques of automatism. These myths represented the origins of humanity, while the liberation of the unconscious through the use of automatic techniques was designed to expose the primordial aspects of the individual. The clearest attempt to combine the goals of Surrealism with geometric abstraction appears in the works of Robert Motherwell. His collages and paintings from the early 1940s combine geometric structures with expanses in which he experimented with automatism – a fusion reflective of his desire to create art that would be at once spontaneous and rational. Some of the artists represented in the portfolio employed automatic techniques, as a means of seeking inspiration and encouraging the creative process. So, for instance, Ernst used the frottage technique, which consists of copying existing forms by rubbing oily pastels across a support. In this manner, he created amorphous man-bird hybrids. Hare created another automatist technique known as brûlage, which involved the heating of an unfixed negative, thus leading to the distortion and expansion of the photographed image.

Following the interest in these processes, the influence of Surrealism in the early 1940s was mainly related to its abstract, automatic dimension. When the artists in exile returned to Europe at the end of the war, and following the rise of Abstract Expressionism as a central artistic trend, the interest in Surrealism waned in the US. The Surrealist repertoire that had infiltrated American art did much to pave the way for the rise of this new American repertoire, which elevated the international status of American art in the post-war period. Motherwell saw automatism as a key element enabling American artists to build on Surrealist principles in order to develop an independent style, which came to be known as Abstract Expressionism.

The American art field was thus shaped by a struggle between these two repertoires, and by changing tastes. This dynamic was already noted by art critics in the early 1940s. In 1942, for instance, Rosamund Frost wrote in Art News that: "In less than a decade, America has made room for the biggest intellectual and artistic migration since the fall of Constantinople. Outwardly the infiltration has been peaceful enough, yet the conflict is already on, and as there is no melting pot which fuses ideas, one side or the other must inevitably dominate. Another ten years will tell us which." 6Frost described the influence of French Surrealist models on American art as a process of cultural interchange that infused American culture with new life. These processes led to innovations in abstract art that stemmed from models based on the principle of automatic action, the processing of images culled from ancient myths and primitive art, and the use of amorphous shapes. Abstraction, which largely ruled the American field in the form of rigid geometricism prior to the arrival of Surrealism, set off on a new path. Abstract Expressionism – a new version of abstraction – subsequently became the leading style of the American avant-garde, in large degree thanks to Surrealism.

This portfolio thus points to the importance of the Surrealist repertoire – and especially of the abstract, organic-amorphous works created by European "exiles" such as Arp, Masson, Tanguy and Matta – for American artmaking. Moreover, the portfolio reveals the Surrealist influence on American artists such as Calder, Motherwell and Hare – an influence that, as noted above, both heralded the rise of Abstract Expressionism and marked the decline of Surrealism in the US.

Emanuela Calò, Exhibition Curator

1. Saphire Laurence, Andre Masson – The Complete Graphic Work: Surrealism, 1924–1949, Vol. I (New York: Blue Moon Press, 1990), p. 453.
2. Martica Sawin, "New York, 1941: In a Land without Myth," Surrealism In Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), pp. 191-192.
3. Isabelle Dervaux (ed.)," Introduction," Surrealism USA (New York: National Academy Museum, 2005), p. 19, note 16.
4. Ibid., p. 13.
5. Ibid., p. 15.
6. Rosamund Frost's review, which was published in 1942 in Art News, is quoted in Sawin, p. 196 (see f.n. 2 above).


*The works are from the Department of Prints and Drawings, Tel Aviv Museum of Art Collection, gift of Charles and Evelyn Kramer, New York, 1990

English Translation and Editing: Talya Halkin



Tel Aviv Museum of Art | Cabinet Secrets | Alexander Calder | Leonora Carrington | Marc Chagall |


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