FROM a cafe on Place Beaubourg, I can see – perched just behind Didier Ottinger’s head – what looks like a sprawling network of pipes and railings, as if some poor Parisian building has twisted itself inside out.
The rest of the landscape is uniform – weathered brownstone buildings, one after another, heavy with history. But this building is different. It looks unfinished, or maybe it is finished but they left the scaffolding up by accident. One thing is clear: it looks very out of place.
‘‘It was very controversial at the time of the building,’’ says Ottinger of the Centre Pompidou, France’s principal home of modern art, of which he is the deputy director. This building, sitting on the edge of the old Jewish district of the Marais, was an affront to the established order. ‘‘Many controversies, many ironical articles saying it’s not a museum it’s a place to (transfer gas),’’ Ottinger says.
The bombastic, backwards nature of this gallery, which is also a hive of primary colours in a city of brown brick, works like surrealism itself. Not only was it designed from the depths of the imagination, but it represents a reaction to all that came before it. Established order? Never. The order is there to be broken.
Thirty years ago, Parisians were shocked and insulted. But this city has a way of embracing aspects of art and culture that at first seem illogical, strange, even dangerous.
Surrealism was all of those things, and its influence, touching not just art but politics and popular culture, will now be celebrated, thousands of kilometres from this little cafe, on the banks of the river in Brisbane, Australia.
Surrealism took form in the haze of post-war Paris. Artists such as the Frenchman Andre Breton and German Max Ernst, and French poet Paul Eluard found influence in dadaism, a cultural movement that thrived during the war years as an attack on the staid culture of European art and uselessness of battle.
‘‘You can’t imagine surrealism without dadaism,’’ Ottinger says. ‘‘There is something that is given to surrealism by dadaism and it is a deep and permanent suspicion about the work of art.’’
From the poor area of Montmartre, overlooking Paris, Breton published his surrealist manifesto in 1924, which outlined the principles of the movement: to ‘‘express . . . the actual functioning of thought’’ and to do away with reason and ‘‘moral concern’’.
Montmartre, in the early years of surrealism, was not the cultural centre of Paris. It was an area of poor artists, prostitutes and the working class. Breton lived here, not far from the Moulin Rouge, and he organised his movement around his studio on the hill. It was here that the inner life became paramount for Breton and his colleagues. Imagination was a direct inspiration. Realism was to be rejected.
Breton would satirise the idea of poetry, weaving together sentences that seemed to have no relation to one another. It was collage, the practice of which became key to the surrealists across film, painting and poetry.
‘‘It was for (Breton) the basis of his reflection of what could be a surrealist work,’’ Ottinger says. ‘‘The idea was that collage is anonymous, in a way; it is the opposite of the expression of the singular genius of the artist expressing himself from nothing on a blank canvas.’’
Spanish artist Salvador Dali joined the movement in the late 1920s. Through his development of a method called paranoiac-critical, Dali would become the movement’s popular figurehead. ‘‘It means the idea of a very powerful interaction between the inner life and the real,’’ Ottinger says of the method.
Dali’s works, including Partial hallucination: six images of Lenin on the piano, which will feature in Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition, are some of the best-known in the movement’s history. His work represented a new dawn for surrealism, one that dealt as much with the real as with the unconscious life. This was critical because in 1929 the movement began its association with the Communist Party.
‘‘It was a very difficult fight for (the surrealists), because the communists say: You are an idealist, you don’t deal with the real,’’ Ottinger explains. ‘‘And of course the real, the material, is . . . the reflection and the fury of Marxism. So what to do with the real? Dali had the solution.’’
As the spectre of Nazism threatened Paris years later, many surrealists left for the US. Here, they became hugely influential on artists such as Jackson Pollock, whose work will also feature in GoMA’s exhibition. ‘‘What is surrealism? It is different from one period to another,’’ Ottinger says. ‘‘This is a movement which has a very long life, from 1924 to, let’s say, 1966. But I think the public is fascinated because there is this relationship with free inspiration. It is not a dogma. You can be surrealist if you develop your own fantasy.’’
After we spoke, I took a trip up to Montmartre. Today, Montmartre is drastically different – a bustling tourist trap where art has become commerce: you can get your portrait done by one of dozens of amateur artists or pay 10 euro for entry into a disappointingly small Dali-themed gallery.
The feeling that something special happened here – something creatively groundbreaking and influential – has largely been lost.
In a cavernous room in the GoMA in South Brisbane, Ottinger is, for the first time, surprisingly unsure.
‘‘I don’t know,’’ he says, raising his shoulders. He couldn’t pick a favourite piece to be photographed in front of, he says. ‘‘That’s too hard.’’
Walking through the exhibition sees you twist and turn through the gallery. It’s a labyrinth. Projected on to walls, flickering in your peripheral vision, are scenes from key surrealist films such as L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age), a collaboration between Dali and filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
Here, Ottinger has found something.
‘‘There are some interesting images in this film,’’ Ottinger says. That deep laugh fills the room. On the screen, a woman is sucking the toe of a stone foot.
It’s a piece that really sums up the desire Ottinger had when he agreed, one year ago, to bring this collection to Brisbane. He breaks into a broad smile. The photo is taken.
‘‘We’ve tried to make a real experience – not something flat, something interesting,’’ he says. ‘‘We wanted to (create) a real challenge. We hope (the audience) will go from surprise to surprise, from shock to shock.’’
Beyond Brisbane, the exhibition will be packed up and sent back to the Centre Pompidou. It can’t afford to travel anywhere else, to be away from Paris, its spiritual home.
‘‘There is a big frustration at the Pompidou,’’ Ottinger says of the gallery’s endless stream of international visitors. ‘‘Because there is no surrealism to see.
‘‘We just say: go to Brisbane. This is the place to be.’’
Published in U Magazine, Brisbane, Sunday June 12, 2011.