Published: 09:24, February 24, 2024 | Updated: 09:24, February 24, 2024
Surreal century
By Zhang Kun

Scottish museum's collection of iconic works from the dreamlike genre shows perfect timing as the art movement celebrates its 100th anniversary, Zhang Kun reports.

Primitive Seating by Dorothea Tanning grabs the attention of visitors to the Pudong exhibition. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

From Salvador Dali's celebrated Lobster Telephone to an antique python-skin print chair redesigned by Dorothea Tanning, the ongoing Fantastic Visions: 100 Years of Surrealism exhibition that the National Galleries of Scotland is presenting in Shanghai showcases the wild imaginings and infinite possibilities of everyday objects.

The show that opened at the Museum of Art Pudong on Feb 2 and runs until the end of August is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of surrealism ever in China, says the Shanghai museum's chairperson Li Minkun.

It showcases more than 120 artworks by 50 leading surrealist artists and writers, including some of the most iconic works by the likes of Dali, Tanning, Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, Joan Miro and Leonora Carrington.

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Director of modern and contemporary art at the Scottish national galleries Simon Groom says it's fitting that the show is being staged this year — the movement's centenary, as marked by the publication of French poet Andre Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924.

Exploding Raphaelesque Head (oil on canvas, 1951) by Salvador Dali. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The name surrealism literally means "beyond realism". The genre takes inspiration from dreams, the irrational, the unconscious and the world of imagination, Groom says.

"It allows us to dream, to imagine worlds that do not yet exist or alternative realities — to this end, it is profoundly human, which is why I think surrealism — of all the avant-garde movements of the 20th century — is the one that has had the most influence not just on artists but on society and culture in general, from film and fashion to literature and advertising."

One of the most iconic exhibits is Lobster Telephone by Dali, who made 11 "lobster receivers" to fit the telephones at the house of Edward James, his friend and patron whose home he decorated.

"It's said that they were having dinner when a lobster shell accidentally fell on the telephone, and that inspired Dali to create the piece," Groom says, while guiding a tour at the preview of the exhibition on Feb 1.

"Personally, I don't believe it was true. But the idea of the story is that chance determines the work."

National Galleries of Scotland's director of modern and contemporary art Simon Groom presents the Fantastic Visions exhibition at the Museum of Art Pudong in Shanghai on Feb 1, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

He explains how surrealists "put two things together and create a new reality".

Groom says that thanks to the acquisition of part of the Roland Penrose collection and archive, and the Gabrielle Keiller bequest of 1995, the Scottish galleries not only accumulated a fine collection of iconic surrealist artworks but also collections of rare illustrated books, catalogs, manuscripts and journals by these artists.

One of the first important surrealist's works to join the collection since the founding of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1960 was Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti's bronze statue, A Woman With Her Throat Cut, purchased in 1970. The piece shows a dying creature whose shape resembles a mantrap or a praying mantis.

"We hope you enjoy this surrealist journey that transcends time and space, exploring the whimsical ideas of the surrealist masters and generating resonance with Fantastic Visions," says Li, chairperson of the Pudong museum.

"We also anticipate that this exhibition will further enhance the active role the museum plays in promoting cultural exchanges between China and the West, opening up new prospects for cooperation and development through culture."

Threatening Weather (oil on canvas, 1929) by Rene Magritte. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

A visitor appreciates, The Message of the Forest, by Toyen. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The exhibition, which marks the first collaboration between the National Galleries of Scotland and the Pudong museum, isn't scheduled to tour other parts of China.

Groom visited the Shanghai museum's construction site in 2019.

"To say I was staggered by the size, scale and speed of the endeavor would be an understatement," he recalls.

"How remarkable the project was became apparent during 2020, as I watched from home, via Zoom, in complete admiration and awe, as the building work continued when the rest of the world appeared to be frozen in motion. And then it opened on time in 2021."

These surrealist artworks have been displayed by major museums around the world, but Shanghai marks the first time this collection has toured in its entirety, Groom says.

"We hope that the Chinese audiences to the exhibition will find the works from this movement as powerful, charged, mysterious and relevant as when they were first shown 100 years ago."

The Lobster Telephone (1938), which Salvador Dali created for his patron Edward James, is a prime example of surrealist art. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Pudong museum now has a full house of four exhibitions for the spring season — all accessible with one ticket.

Aside from the surrealist show on the fourth floor, Xu Bing: Gravitational Arena is running in the Exhibition Hall X, featuring a colossal vortex of characters that's over 30 meters high.

On the second floor, Caravaggio: Wonders of the Italian Baroque is running until April 12. Said to be China's first exhibition with this theme, it presents six original Caravaggio paintings alongside 54 other paintings by more than 40 Baroque artists.

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Also ongoing is Zeng Fanzhi: Old and New, consisting of more than 60 paintings the Chinese artist created from 1988 to 2023, which continues through March 8.

If you go

Fantastic Visions: 100 Years of Surrealism From the National Galleries of Scotland

Feb 2-Aug 31, Mon-Sun, 10 am-9 pm.

2F, Museum of Art Pudong, 2777 Binjiang Avenue, Pudong New Area, Shanghai.


Contact the writer at zhangkun@chinadaily.com.cn