Surrealism Beyond Borders at Tate Modern

Lee Miller Portrait of Space, Al Bulyaweb, Near Siwa, Egypt 1937 printed 1999. Tate. Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2021 and Elizabeth and William Kahane (Tate Americas Foundation) 2021 © Lee Miller archives

The point of this exhibition, as the title suggests, is to look beyond metropolitan France at the wider diaspora of the movement launched by André Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme in 1924. Perhaps the first truly international art movement, Surrealism seems to have cropped up almost everywhere over the next half century, in locations as varied as Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, most of South America, China, Japan and the Philippines. 

Coming to London from the Met in New York, this is rather a small show by Tate Modern standards, just eleven rooms tucked away on the third floor; Tate shows these days routinely run to 17 or 18 rooms. A word of warning from the start: if you come expecting to see iconic masterpieces, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, there’s Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’, and Magritte’s ‘Time Transfixed’ (the one with the train coming out of the fireplace), but probably not a lot more that will be instantly recognisable. On the plus side, women in the movement are well represented. Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington are familiar names, but it’s good to see works by lesser lights, the spooky feminist allegories of the Spanish painter Remedios Varo being particular favourites of mine.

Remedios Varo Bordando el manto Terrestre (Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle) 1961. Private collection (Chicago) © 2022 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid. Image courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco

That aside, there are two major problems with ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’, it seems to me. For a start, it’s rather too text-driven, which isn’t altogether surprising when you consider that Surrealism began as a literary movement. You’ll see lots of artists’ manifestoes here, lots of ephemera displayed in glass cases. Much of this is quite interesting, and examples of the parlour game known as ‘Exquisite Corpse’ are always fun: one here is over thirty feet long! But I always feel a bit disconcerted when I spend more time in an art gallery looking down rather than up.

My other reservation is more fundamental. Much of the stuff here – and no amount of curatorial flim-flam is going to convince me otherwise – actually isn’t very good. As the movement took off globally, a lot of fairly minor talent seems to have jumped on the bandwagon. And if many of the artists represented here aren’t exactly household names, it’s for a good reason. 

Press Photography of Surrealism Beyond Borders, Tate Modern, 2022, ©Tate

Which brings me to the problem that I have with Surrealism. As I understand it, the whole point was to unlock the creative urge by encouraging artists to reach into their subconscious, typically by accessing their dreams. So why does everything here look so… alike? For a movement that was meant to be so artistically liberating, it seems, in practice, to have had the opposite effect. I felt this going round a very similar show dealing with another Surrealist backwater – Great Britain – at Dulwich a couple of years ago.

On the whole this show has been well-received by the critics, words like ‘tremendous’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘visionary’ and ‘glorious’ leaping from every page and screen. It’s certainly a must-see if you’re at all interested in Surrealist art. But although it engages the head, it seldom lifts the heart.

What all reviewers agree on, if they mention it, is how good the accompanying catalogue is, which it certainly is. Splendidly produced and comprehensive, I found it more immersive than the show itself, and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your living room to enjoy it.


Surrealism Beyond Borders at Tate Modern until 22 August 2022

Press Photography of Surrealism Beyond Borders, Tate Modern, 2022, ©Tate

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