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Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted modernity – Dreams, desire and total delirium at the Barberini

A new show at the Barberini reveals the influence of the occult on the Surrealists, with a special focus on the magical, dreamlike world of Mexican artist Leonora Carrington.

Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, Leonora Carrington, 1975, oil on canvas. Photo: Barberini

The Nazi’s invasion of France in 1940 could have spelled the end for Surrealism. But as the artists scattered around the world, chased out of their Parisian ateliers and into exile in North America and Mexico, the movement expanded and diversified. New landscapes and cultures charged their paintings with fresh, revolutionary magic. In Mexico, émigré artists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo incorporated pre-Hispanic history and traditions of witchcraft into their work. Fused with their subversive political agenda, these new influences were a crucial step in the movement’s rejection of a mundane worldview in favour of dreams, desire and total delirium.

“Magic was a state that completely dissolved the boundaries that existed between the real and imaginary,” says Daniel Zamani, the curator of the exhibition Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, now on at the Barberini Museum. “They wanted to inspire a spiritual reawakening and magic became the perfect metaphor for that rejuvenation.” Formed in the gloomy aftermath of World War I, the Surrealists believed that the prison house of logic led Western societies on an inevitable path to war. Only by embracing the unconscious could they free themselves from the chains of civilisation and ultimately transform the world.

Surrealists believed that the prison house of logic led Western societies on an inevitable path to war

The large-scale exhibition is the first to ever focus on the Surrealists’ link with magic. Made in collaboration with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, it brings together more than 90 paintings from as many as 50 different countries, upending the view that it was purely a French movement of the 1920s and 1930s by demonstrating its extraordinary transnational scope. As well as featuring works by well-known Surrealists like Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, who both escaped to the US, the exhibition puts an emphasis on women artists such as Dorothy Tanning and the now hugely-popular Leonora Carrington. The entire end room of the exhibition is dedicated to the paintings of the British-born Mexican artist, who inspired this year’s Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams.

It includes the monumental canvas ‘Sueño (Nephesh as the Soul in a State of Sleep)’, a swirling, mystical universe populated with goddesses, phantoms and otherworldly creatures. Carrington’s unsettling, dreamlike worlds of mutability and transformation contrast with the machismo of most Surrealism. Asserting her own femininity and sexuality, she placed nightmarish creatures into kitchens, drawing rooms and other familiar domestic scenes. “Occultism and alchemy were key themes running through her entire oeuvre, from her early work to her death in the 21st century, as the very last of the Surrealists,” Zamani explains.

The Necromancer Carrington, Leonora Carrington, 1950, oil on canvas. Photo: Barberini

As Europe finds itself once again in the midst of conflict, the Surrealist artists are experiencing another renaissance, with international events and a rising number of exhibitions. Zamani sees this point reflected in the current vogue for fantasy adventure: “Their work is populated with fantastic beings that put you in mind of a proto-Harry Potter World or Game of Thrones,” he says. “Surrealism speaks to us today because magic is about wish fulfilment, a power that lets us explore the unconscious.”

Although many of the paintings evoke a sense of threat – Kurt Seligmann’s ‘The Unwelcome Guests’, from 1943, is a clear critique of Nazi expansionism – the Surrealists were unwavering in their belief in regeneration. They revelled in a visionary prospect for the re-enchantment of the world and the liberation of the human spirit. “They wanted to make people in a capitalist society aware of the importance of their inner lives,” says Zamani. “That’s as relevant as ever in today’s world.”

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