The remains of a remarkable collection go on view
ON PAPER: Herbert Bayer’s “Studio Beach” (1928) exemplifies the freedom of surrealism.
by Heather Joyner Spica
There was a man who had a cause, and Levy was his name. “O cities memories of cities / cities draped with our desires”—this, from Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whose Paris found future art collector Julien Levy realizing his raison d’être in 1927. Éluard’s poem “Absence” followed in the wake of Arthur Rimbaud’s drunken boat, and both Éluard and Levy came of age during an eye-opening era after the Great War, when Surrealism was born. Whereas Éluard eventually turned to Communism, Levy discovered an obsession that would become his livelihood.
The title “Accommodations of Desire: Surrealist Works on Paper Collected by Julien Levy,” describing a new show at the Knoxville Museum of Art, refers to Salvador Dalí’s 1929 painting of a mudscape with orbs hatching insects and lions’ heads. But it’s telling that the exhibition lacks that particular painting. True, selections from Levy’s personal holdings are limited to approximately 100 drawings, photographs, collages and watercolors on paper and consequently do not include certain Surrealist “staples” viewers might hope to see. But the show is not the paean to Levy it aspires to be. Levy himself (who died in 1981) would likely find numerous omissions disappointing.
Levy never lost faith in Surrealism. Ah, the rush that it unleashed! A movement begun by writers in the early 1920s with André Breton at the helm, Surrealism might now seem like a lark. Yet it was another kind of bird, tearing from the forest where Tsar Nicholas II and family were executed, into the reddish light of revolution. Surrealism (a term meaning “above” reality, first used by Apollinaire) had to do with chance, memory, desire and coincidence merging. And according to art critic Robert Hughes, the resulting “new” reality was driven by the subconscious. In The Shock of the New , he writes, “The dream was the instrument for this...the gate to art. In dreams, the id spoke; the dreaming mind was unlegislated truth, and so was neurosis...in this, Breton and his circle were part of the great movement of thought whose motor was the work of Sigmund Freud.”
After leaving Harvard and traveling to France, Levy became enamored of Surrealist art, photography, and film—a phase in modern art that dominated the 1930s and ‘40s. As proprietor of a New York gallery between 1931 and 1949, he is considered one of Surrealism’s great advocates. Levy befriended artists and documented them at work, compiled a Surrealist history, and amassed an impressive personal collection. That said, it’s clear (as curator Ingrid Schaffner notes) that for Levy, Surrealism was more than art objects themselves; it represented a non-elitist attitude toward society and an existence in which one’s environment becomes a living collage-of-sorts.
Another well-known art dealer was photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and both men sought to establish photography’s viability as an art form. But Stieglitz responded more to pictorial photography than to images of a “psychological” nature. The movement that Levy asserted was “essentially anti-definitive and anti-explanatory” and “about improvisation rather than calculation” had more in common with Dadaism preceding it and the Abstract Expressionism it inspired than it did with Stieglitz’ sensibilities, thus Levy’s trust in Marcel Duchamp’s perspective. Unfortunately, the Duchamp work in the KMA show is somewhat forgettable.
“Accommodations of Desire” admits that it is “based on” Levy’s collection, and text in the exhibition’s companion book reads, “Everything shown...appears susceptible to Surrealism.” In other words, some of what’s at the museum is not only a stretch in terms of being considered Surrealism, it’s not even from Levy’s collection. The inclusion of works eluding most definitions of Surrealism results from Levy’s broad notion of the movement; that aspect of the show would presumably not bother him. But the fact that all photographs on display—albeit by such famed individuals as Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget, Brasaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and Man Ray—are “stand-ins” for images in Levy’s original collection is simply a shame.
Non-photographs on view were indeed acquired by Levy, but they tend to be lesser examples of Surrealism, if surrealist at all. Which is fine, if viewers don’t expect adherence to accepted definitions of the movement. Problem is, most of Levy’s pieces were sold long ago (for instance, in 1969, MoMA snatched up Levy’s Atget photographs, and the Art Institute of Chicago acquired his “vintage photographs” seven years later. Upon Levy’s death, significant paintings and sculptures were sold, and in 2001, the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased Levy’s remaining photos). Adding insult to injury, works in the KMA’s too-pared-down visiting show will be auctioned off after exhibition at their final destination.
What we can admire is that Levy appreciated work like George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” comic strip (and was among the first to present Walt Disney drawings as fine art; a 1938 animation cel from Pinocchio is in the show). Furthermore, Levy was what curator Schaffner has called “strong on women, both as artists...and as subjects,” and he championed Leonora Carrington, Leonora Fini, Mina Loy and Dorothea Tanning, among others. What’s left of the original Levy collection offers viewers such gems by Isamu Noguchi and Jean Arp, and there are numerous pieces by Dalí and Max Ernst. And “Accommodations of Desire” reminds us of the difference the vision of a single art advocate can make. As Éluard wrote in his poem “The Curve Of Your Eyes,” “The whole world depends on your pure eyes / And all my blood flows under their sight.” Levy must have liked that idea.
What: Accommodations of Desire: Surrealist Works on Paper Collected by Julien Levy