Max's Dinner With Andre

What's an artist to do in the '90s? Modernism is dead, so forget about minimalism getting any more minimal. Postmodern ism's gambit of appropriating everything in sight is overused; it's impossible to tell-or care-how many generations of plagiarism are at work. Political art ends up preaching to the converted-and preaching is the key word here. Where to find inspiration? Well, there's always the old reliable, the seemingly bottomless pit of the psyche. Why not dredge up all the wonderfully fertile muck of the subconscious once again and splash it around? What about, in short, a revival of surrealism? That notion inevitably pops up while visiting the big retrospectives of two of surrealism's giants in Europe this summer. The antics of poet-provocateur Andre Breton, in a show called "La Beaute Convulsive," are on view at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris through Aug.26 and will make another stop in Madrid. The hallucinatory paintings and collages of Max Ernst have crisscrossed the continent from London to Stuttgart and will open in Dusseldorf Aug. 24 before moving on to Paris.

History made the Parisian Andre Breton (1896-1966) the chief instigator of surrealism. Breton saw the grisly results of World War I while working in a hospital; he decided the solution to this crisis of Western rationalism was to relegate the conscious mind to the status of "a modest recording device." Dreaming, Breton proposed, should be the SOP of life. He wrote the surrealist manifestoes and set himself up to admit candidates to the movement and excommunicate others (his authority earned him the epithet of "pope")

Since Breton was really the ringmaster of the surrealist circus instead of one of its visual trapeze acts (like Miro, Dali or Tanguy), he didn't create many art works.

There are just a few word-and-object assemblages like "Poeme-objet" (1941). What fills his retrospective are memorabilia manuscripts, snapshots, books, correspondence, even a butterfly collection and walls covered with the paintings and Oceanian masks he collected, as well as art by other surrealists. It looks like an intellectual yard sale, but this celebrity tribute is not about things, it's about influence-as much direct influence as a poet has ever had on art. And the Pompidou audience seems to appreciate it, dutifully peering through the glass at the draft of a surrealist manifesto as if it were The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The exhibition allows us to rummage through the mind of a man who thought that minds are mainly for rummaging through.

Not that there aren't visual delights in that big art machine on the Rue Beaubourg (which is looking very shabby these days; this sort of architecture doesn't take too well to soot). Breton influenced everybody from Picabia to Picasso, Matta to Masson, and they're all represented here. There are even a couple of exhilarating surprises, like Meret Oppenheim's "Ma Gouvernante" (1936)-a white pair of women's shoes turned over on a silver platter, with paper drumstick garnishes on the high heels.

One of Breton's main talents was, in fact, as a talent scout. Among his first draft choices was Max Ernst (1891-1976). While a philosophy student, Ernst was overwhelmed by seeing Cezanne and van Gogh. At the outbreak of World War I, he was living as an artist in Paris but chose to return to German conscription rather than be interned in France. He liked to say he died on Aug. 1, 1914, and was reborn on Nov. 11, 1918 (actually his only war wounds came from a rifle's recoil and a mule's kick). In 1921, Breton and a few pals received some collages from this Cologne unknown, who was looking for a Paris show. Ernst's art, said Breton, "moved us in a way we never experienced again."

The slender, handsome Ernst wasn't a naturally terrific painter (of all the surrealists, only Dali could concoct convincing illusions), though he did produce a few great canvases-among them the comic, ominous "Celebes" (1921). He tried to make up for his shortcomings with exotic techniques. Pressing a sheet of glass to a canvas of wet oil paint and pulling it away to leave suggestions of weird stone and plant forms was one of them. Some of these paintings turned out to depict-predict is more accurate-a kind of Arizona of the mind, as Ernst discovered when he moved to Sedona with the American surrealist Dorthea Tanner in the mid-'40s.

But at heart, Ernst was a collage maker. He grew to consider it the perfect visual equivalent of surrealism's "automatic writing," or trance-induced expression. He reinvented the medium with old wood-engraving blocks: he would use them to print strange combinations, creating Victorian nightmare images. He compiled many of these into wordless "novels" with punny titles like "La femme 100 tetes" (spoken, it sounds like both "the woman with a hundred heads" and "the headless woman").

For all its apparent license, surrealism was a tightly organized movement, with an official platform. Predictably, political rifts killed it off. Breton came to believe surrealism ought to contribute to real revolution; in 1927, along with several other surrealists, he joined the Communist Party. Two years later Breton proclaimed: "The simplest surrealist act consists of going out into the street, revolver in hand, and firing at random into the crowd as often as possible."

Ernst steered clear of polities and remained a dyed-in-the-Freud surrealist artist for his whole life. If his work is uneven, the mind behind it has the power to surprise. In this exhibition, and in the Breton show, surrealism is an art of serendipity, not one of morbid preoccupation, as some revisionist critics have seen it. And these two upbeat retrospectives point to one way out for contemporary artists stuck in a cul-de-sac. Already there are signs of neosurrealism creeping into the art world. Several young painters are making pictures with starkly shadowed, not-quite abstract forms floating in space. Some sculptors are using assemblage with wit and enough restraint to retain an essential of Ernst's art-coherence. So far, the new style has been a little timid. But don't be surprised if, with a little boost from the end-of-the-century Zeitgeist, surrealism makes a serious comeback.