The Surrealists' Sexy Side

A long time ago--say about 1924, when the surrealists formally organized in Paris--sex was still considered a mysterious and powerful undercurrent in polite society. Oh, sure, there were flappers rolling down their hose and grainy stag films whose flickering chiaroscuro could easily be mistaken for newsreels of the Wright brothers. But there was nothing like today's glistening, nearly naked pop stars, paternity-test results revealed on television right in front of tearful, straying spouses, and race cars festooned with Viagra logos. The surrealist artists and poets of that bygone era could hardly be blamed for thinking that by suddenly releasing their uncensored sexual unconsciousnesses upon the canvas and page, they were really on to something. Of course, Freud's "Three Essays on Sexuality" weren't available in French to Andre Breton's little circle of avant-gardists until 20 years after their original publication in German. So the surrealists spent what art historians call their "first phase" devoted mostly to dreams in general, and (ineffectively) political revolution.

When sex fully reared its revelatory head, however, they could hardly contain themselves, conducting polls within the Paris group with such questions as: "Do you have secret desires that could be thought of as sinful, immoral, base, or that you personally find squalid, vile, filthy? If so, what do you do?" What they did was paint and draw and write and take photographs like crazy. A generous sampling of the surrealists' fevered efforts makes for an intriguing, if at times puerile, exhibition of some 300 objects called "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," which is up at the usually staid Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It's a somewhat truncated version of a show originated by the Tate in London; who would have thought that the British would get more sex than we Americans?

The art on view ranges from Roland Penrose's romantic, butterfly-embellished 1938 portrait of his wife, Valentine, to the 1933 XXX-rated "Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream" collages of the Czech artist Jindrich Styrsky. (They're small and tucked away in a glass case, where uptown matrons could easily miss them.) In between are a lot of masterful, unnerving paintings by the likes of Giorgio de Chirico and Rene Magritte; semi-pornographic, semi-abstract drawings by Andre Masson and Yves Tanguy that look like unusually graceful restroom graffiti, and such discoveries as the eerily poignant self-portrait photographs by the lesbian rebel Claude Cahun. For some reason, "Desire Unbound" also includes a telephone with a lobster for a receiver, made by Salvador Dali. Phone sex, anyone?

If there's one artist in the show who might cause champions of free expression to retreat a bit, it's Hans Bellmer, who made big, mutable papier-mache female dolls in the early 1930s and took photographs of them in variously skewed configurations. Suffice it to say that the dolls (which some claim represent a protest against his stern father, or Hitler, or both) are long on sexual explicitness, short on humanity and genuinely perverse. If Bellmer (1902-1975) were alive today, he probably wouldn't be allowed to live within 1,000 feet of a school.

Except for Cahun and an occasional photograph of the male surrealists' girlfriends and spouses erotically lolling about with one another, this is a man's show--as in television's "The Man Show." The exhibition almost makes you think that surrealism was less of an art movement and more of a way for some bohemian guys in Paris, Brussels and Prague to get women to have sex in the name of art and revolution. Think of Breton (who was called surrealism's pope and actually "excommunicated" apostate artists) as Hugh Hefner's more poetic precursor. For all his declaiming about free and open love (Breton ditched his wife not because she had an affair but because she didn't let him in on it), Breton probably thought, deep down, that sex was more excitingly forbidden than Hef thought it was. And the Playboy mogul probably thinks sex is racier than the producers of "The Man Show" do. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost something--perhaps a feeling that sex is just a little bit naughty. But for the next few months, you might rediscover that guilty tingle at the Met.