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up to and including 28 May 2017

Mad About Surrealism

Dalí, Ernst, Magritte, Miró... From the Collections of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch

From 11 February to 28 May 2017, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is proud to have presented Mad About Surrealism, an unprecedented survey of the Surrealist movement with masterpieces from four famous European collections. The majority of the works had rarely or never been exhibited publicly and disappeared behind closed doors again at the end of May 2017.

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s spring 2017 exhibition explored the magical world of Surrealism. In partnership with renowned museums in Edinburgh and Hamburg, the museum showed how artists such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Joan Miró used their passion and imagination to subvert everyday reality.

The more than 300 works in the exhibition were from four superb private collections, which have been brought together for the first time.

This internationally travelling exhibition was developed in close collaboration with two renowned international art museums: the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Artists in the exhibition

Acme Newspictures, Inc., Eileen Agar, Jean (Hans) Arp, Cecil Beaton, Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, André Breton, Edward Carrick, Leonora Carringon, Giorgio de Chirico, Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Marcel Duchamp, Nusch Éluard, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Plutarco Gastélum Esquer, D. Gascoyne, Alberto Giacometti, Stanley William Hayter, Maurice Henry, Hannah Höch, Valentine Hugo, Georges Hugnet, Edward James, Marcel Jean, Jaqueline Lamba, René Magritte, André Masson, Vincent Mentzel, E.L.T. Mesens, Claude Michaelides, Lee Miller, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, P. Naville, Wolfgang Paalen, Eduardo Paolozzi, Norman Parkinson, H. Pastoureau, Roland Penrose, Valentine Penrose, B. Péret, Francis Picabia, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, H. Read, Mark Rothko, Henri Rousseau, Eric Schaal, N. Simon, A. Stieglitz, H. Sykes Davies, Yves Tanguy, Dorothea Tanning, Eileen Tweedy & Tristan Tzara.

The collectors

The surrealists were passionate and their collectors were no less so. Three were assembled by eccentric British patrons: Edward James (1907-1984) Gabrielle Keiller (1908-1996) and Roland Penrose (1900-1984). The fourth collection belongs to the German couple Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, who have collected art for decades and began to focus on the Surrealists in the 1970s.

Surrealism in Rotterdam

It should come as no surprise that this exhibition is being shown in Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has an extensive collection of Surrealist art. Indeed Surrealism is one of the pillars of the museum’s collection. The exhibition’s focus on the central role played by private collectors also fits perfectly within a museum that owes its existence to the initiative of a private collector, namely Frans Jacob Otto Boijmans.

Highlights from the collection
Among the masterpieces in the museum’s collection that were once in the collection of Edward James are Magritte’s painting ‘Not to Be Reproduced’ (1937) and Dalí’s 'White Aphrodisiac Telephone' (1936).

René Magritte (1898-1967) was fascinated by the mystery of the everyday. The strange quality in his work often resides in the unexpected combination of familiar elements. The man portrayed in Magritte’s painting ‘Not to Be Reproduced’ (1937) is the eccentric, wealthy Englishman Edward James. He was a friend of the artist and bought many of his works. Magritte based the painting on a photo he took of James looking at the painting ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’. 

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) created Surrealist objects by combining two items that normally have nothing to do with each other. According to Dalí, the resulting objects reflect repressed impulses and desires. For example, lobsters and telephones had strong sexual connotations for Dalí. Edward James commissioned the artist to design the 'White Aphrodisiac Telephone' for his house in 1936. 


Reproduced Nonetheless

Reproduced Nonetheless

This mysterious photograph shows Edward James standing in front of René Magritte's painting 'On the Threshold of Liberty’ (1930). The Belgian artist used the ‘portrait’ of James as the basis of his work ‘Not to Be Reproduced’. Both works are in the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Edward James in front of ‘On the Threshold of Liberty’, 1937, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2017.

The abovementioned works come from the former collection of Edward James. Born into a wealthy family, he inherited a vast fortune at the age of five when his father died in 1912. He later decided to use this money to buy art and to support Surrealist artists, including René Magritte and Salvador Dalí.

James did not wish to be seen as a collector and patron bur rather as a poet and someone who actively collaborated with artists. Because he was so closely involved with many of the Surrealist artists, he nonetheless amassed an impressive collection. He later sold several important masterpieces by Dalí and Magritte to fund his Surrealist garden 'Las Pozas' (The Pools) and his school West Dean College.

Las Pozas

Close to Xilitla, a mountain town north of Mexico City , is a complex of plant-like concrete pillars, bridges, artworks and spiral staircases that lead to nowhere.
Close to Xilitla, a mountain town north of Mexico City , is a complex of plant-like concrete pillars, bridges, artworks and spiral staircases that lead to nowhere.
Las Pozas or The Pools is a vast garden artwork in the dense Mexican jungle. Covering some fourteen hectares, it might be the largest Surrealist artwork ever.
Las Pozas or The Pools is a vast garden artwork in the dense Mexican jungle. Covering some fourteen hectares, it might be the largest Surrealist artwork ever.

In 1970-1971 Edward James loaned no fewer than 32 works to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen for the Dalí retrospective exhibition. The contact between James and the museum’s senior curator of modern art, Renilde Hammacher, resulted in a long-term loan in 1972. This formed the basis for the spectacular purchases from James’s collection that the museum made in 1977 and 1979.

Polygoon (newsreel) Dalí exhibition 1970-1971

Renilde Hammacher

The museum’s acquisition of important works from the collection of Edward James was spearheaded by Renilde Hammacher (1913-2014). In 1963 she became the museum’s first senior curator of modern art and chose a new direction for the collection: Surrealism. This was a clever decision in putting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen on the map: no other Dutch museum was focusing on Surrealism.

One of her greatest achievements was undoubtedly the acquisition of fourteen masterpieces from the enormous collection of Edward James. Hammacher and her husband, Bram Hammacher (former director of the Kröller-Müller Museum), established a close relationship with James and were regular guests at his estate, West Dean in Sussex. The most important purchases were made in 1977 and 1979: the museum acquired fourteen works by Dalí and Magritte from his collection, thus laying the basis for the Surrealist collection.

Renilde Hammacher
Salvador Dalí and Renilde Hammacher during the opening of the Dalí exhibition in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 1970. Photograph by Hennie Maliangkay.
Renilde Hammacher on Dalí

Surrealist themes

In addition to focusing on the collectors, the exhibition Mad About Surrealism also examines several themes central to the Surrealist movement, a few of which are briefly elucidated here.

Visual poetry
Surrealism began as a literary movement but during the course of the 1920s the visual arts began to play a greater role. Like literature and poetry, visual art proved capable of giving form to the dream imagery of the subconscious mind. Painters such as Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) strove to create a visual form of poetry: a stream of free association on the canvas. Although Delvaux did not consider himself a Surrealist, his work is often associated with the movement. He referred to his work as ‘poetic realism’: an unwritten poem whose exact meaning is unclear.

A dash of chance…

Les chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont (pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse) contains a sentence that was especially appealing to the Surrealists: ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.’ It was a source of inspiration for many of their works, in which chance and contrasting elements played a central role. By combining coincidental elements, the Surrealists undermined logical thought. They employed various techniques and games in order to allow chance to determine the outcome. One of these games is the cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) in which a chance sentence or image is created. You don’t have to be an artist to play this game!

... and a touch of automatism

In addition to chance, automatism was an important theme in Surrealism. Automatism is the spontaneous expression of thoughts unfiltered by the conscious mind. Inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists employed techniques to bring the subconscious to the surface. These included automatic writing, automatic drawing and free association. Dreams often played a role in this. The Surrealists believed that the creativity that arises from the subconscious is more valid than ideas generated by the conscious mind. Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy are among the well-known artists who used (semi-)automatic techniques to make their works.

... and a touch of automatism
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who inspired the Surrealists.
The strangeness of everyday things

The strangeness of everyday things

Although the Surrealists often seemed to undermine reality, they also found inspiration in the everyday. René Magritte, for example, made use of everyday reality to create extraordinary situations. His paintings depict realistic situations, but with a strange twist. The titles of his works amplify their strangeness: to avoid explaining the works, he usually allowed artist friends to supply the titles. René Magritte, Le Poison (The Poison), 1939, gouache on paper, purchase 1977, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2017.

Objects of desire

Inspired by the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists were convinced that people have numerous unconscious desires. And they believed that these urges - many of them erotic - had to be liberated. By making objects based on the principle of ‘the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’ they expressed these subconscious desires. Dalí was a master at making these sorts of ‘objects of desire’: just look at his 'Objet scatologique à fonctionnement symbolique' (1931).

Objects of desire
Salvador Dalí, Objet scatologique à fonctionnement symbolique (Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically), 1931 (1973), wood, leather, candlewax, textile, cardboard, hair, marble, brass, lead, thread, plaster and gelatin silver print, loan from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation 2001, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2017.

Destino - Walt Disney & Salvador Dalí

That we are no longer astonished by a sofa in the form of lips - the Mae West Lips Sofa was seen as very shocking in the 1930s - does not mean that Surrealism has disappeared from our lives. More so than ever, our everyday world is saturated by surreal images. Just think of the advertisements, films, fashion and pop videos that appropriate the visual language of Surrealism. New digital technologies have made it easier to create alienating imagery. Take a look at this collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney. Although only fifteen seconds of it were actually made by Dalí in 1946, Disney completed the project in 2003 based on the original ideas and Dalí’s original sketches.



Bij de tentoonstelling is een bijzonder vormgegeven catalogus verschenen voorzien van een cassette. Deze bevat zowel essays van de samenstellers van de tentoonstelling als andere experts en een aantal omvangrijke beeldkaternen. De catalogus is verkrijgbaar in de betere boekhandel, de museumwinkel en via de webshop.

€ 44,95 Webshop