26 February 2013

Surrealism and a Rabbit

Francis Picabia "Olga" 1930

The Morgan Library consistently has some of the most interesting exhibits in the city on all matter of subjects. This was never more evident than on a recent visit when I saw two exhibits that couldn’t have been more different from each other.

First up was “Drawing Surrealism,” a collection of more than 160 graphic works by the leading artists of the Surrealist movement including examples of all sorts of drawings from sand paintings and automatic writing to collage and the always-entertaining exquisite corpse (sort of like the old game in which each participant adds to what the prior person has written). There were some favourites on view like Joan Miró and Apollinaire, and a fine piece by Roland Penrose. I particularly enjoyed some pieces by Georges Hugnet like his collage “Frileuse.” Being a fan of the Lost Generation, I am familiar with the movement and many of its artists. Yet nearing the end of the exhibition I came to the realization that Surrealism is not exactly my cup of tea. Perhaps it’s because of the misogyny that runs throughout so much of the work (Lee Miller, who I adore, seems to have been one of the rare examples of a woman being allowed to play with the boys). Or maybe it's because of the pieces done intentionally for shock value. Whatever the reason, while I do appreciate the work and like some of it in small doses, I don’t think you’ll find me saying that I love Surrealism.

Upstairs though was a completely different story. “Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters” was an exhibit that I fell in love with the minute I walked through the doors. The room was filled with books, drawings, photographs, toys, and most importantly, letters. Potter would often write letters to children of family friends in which she would tell them stories accompanied by drawings (hence “picture letters”). Out of these letters sprang the tales of some of her most beloved characters including one letter to Noel Moore, the son of Potter’s former governess, that began “My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter.” The 22 picture letters, composed on brown paper and covered in Potter’s fine writing and detailed illustrations, were fascinating to look at and read. 

Also on display were items Potter created that were meant for gifts like doilies hand-painted with scenes from Jeremy Fisher's Dinner Party that appropriately resembled lily pads. There was also merchandise based on her characters, much of which Potter countered with her own versions that she helped design like a Jemima Puddle-Duck doll (she had many a fight with copyright infringement, most particularly with a toy manufacturer in Germany). But perhaps my favourite thing of all was a series of miniature letters written by the likes of Peter Rabbit and other characters that were delivered to fans via equally small mailboxes. Adorable.

“Drawing Surrealism” is at the Morgan through April 21, 2013. For more information, visit here. Sadly, Beatrix Potter has closed but there is a nice online exhibit where you can read her picture letters here.

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