Monstrous Minds BMA Exhibit Highlights War Through a Surrealist Lens

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Headless figures, distorted bodies and half-man, half-beasts … these are just a few of the shocking yet thought-provoking artistic scenes that await you at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930’s and 1940’s.”

This riveting exhibit showcases nearly 90 Surrealist works that reflect the communal darkness and anguish felt throughout Europe when “fascism was growing and increasing nationalism and threat of war was constantly part of the background,” says Oliver Shell, BMA associate curator of European painting and sculpture. The collection includes works from some of the most well-known Surrealist artists including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and André Masson.

Surrealism, which formed in 1923 by poet Andre Breton with his “Manifesto of Surrealism,” focused on exploring the unconscious mind as reality. Surrealist artists portrayed this in their works with the use of dreamlike, existentialist imagery that blend with touches of reality, which in turn often produced uncomfortable and unnerving depictions.

And in the context of war, this unnerving imagery is intensified. The use of dark and grotesque subjects became a common theme for these Surrealist artists in the ‘30s and ‘40s, which really shines through in this collection.

“As the world became more monstrous in real life, there was a sort of response from the artists in terms of creating imaginary monsters. They were exploring where that propensity for violence worked in people,” Shell says.

To showcase this exploration in grand form, the exhibit begins with Dali’s “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of a Civil War),” painted in 1936 right before the start of the Spanish Civil War. In a nightmarish setting, the painting displays a grey, gravely figure with monstrous hands trying to tear its own body apart. Two sides of the “monster” are disfigured, and there’s a feeling of both internal and external struggle. It depicts the act of self-destruction, which is a metaphor for the looming civil war. Dali is trying to express how the country is tearing itself apart.

Other notable works in the collection are Picasso’s “Minotauromachy,” Ernst’s “The Barbarians” and Masson’s “There is No Finished World,” which all capture their own version of the casualties of war.

Museum goers will also notice at least 10 Masson artworks on display, provided by BMA donor, Saidie Adler May who gave Masson $900 in 1941 to escape from the Nazi-occupied France and move safely to Baltimore with his family. Adler purchased many of Masson’s paintings during his five-year stay, allowing the BMA to house a bulk of Masson’s greatest works.

With so many influential Surrealists artists showcased in one cohesive collection, “Monsters and Myths” is not only impressive, but also eye-opening. It’s a great reflection of the human portrayal of war and its devastating effects, which even in today’s world, can be understood by all.

“Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930’s and 1940’s” runs through May 26 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Tickets are $5-$15. Check out artbma.org for more information. 

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