Surrealism at the Hungarian National Gallery: a Movement Still in Motion


Peering at Salvador Dalí’s “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking”, one of the works on show at “The Surrealist Movement from Dalí to Magritte” exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery, I had a revelation. 

I’d been thinking how technically skilled Dalí was and also how kitsch his paintings were. Then it struck me how revolutionary this work must have been in 1944, when it was made. That title alone is an eye-opener.  

It’s important to remember that surrealism developed out of Dada, a response to the appalling violence of World War One. The central premise of Dada was that if reason, politics and science pressed into the service of bourgeois society could wreak such havoc, it was better to go looking for beauty in chaos, chance and the unconscious mind.

Surrealism’s aim, according to the first “Manifesto of Surrealism” published in 1924 by the poet André Breton, was “to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”. While the artists who defined themselves as surrealists were all stylistically very different, their work has a dreamlike quality.

This manifests itself in the use of juxtaposition, as in Dalí’s work, to create an unsettling effect that can be everything from silly to somewhat disturbing.

The subtitle to the exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery is “Crisis and Rebirth in 1929”. This was a year abounding in changes as well as personal and artistic conflicts for the surrealists.

More specifically, Catalan artist Salvador Dalí burst onto the Paris art scene in 1929 and collaborated with Luis Buñuel, another Spaniard, on the film “Un Chien Andalou” (“Andalusian Dog”), described as “the first masterpiece of surrealist cinema”. It was also the year of the first major split in an especially fractious group.

Diverse Approach

Reflecting the diversity of surrealist approaches to making art, the exhibition includes works by all the big names. Hungary is represented by André Kertész and the Hungarian-Armenian Brassai, born in Brassó, then part of the Hungarian kingdom.

Mercifully, because there’s a lot to take in, the exhibition is split into seven sections. The first focuses specifically on 1929, Paris and turmoil within surrealism. Dadaism and other precursors to surrealism are dealt with in the second section. Max Ernst and Joan Miró, two radically different artists who share certain characteristics are the mainstays of the third section.

Dalí, whose opportunism was at least the equal of his ability, is the hero of the fourth section. The activities of the Grand Jeu (Great Game) group which helped precipitate the crisis of 1929 are covered in the fifth section.

René Magritte is the focus for the sixth section, while the seventh section looks at the artists involved with the “Documents” periodical.

It’s worth setting aside an hour or two to do the entire exhibition justice. The Hungarian National Gallery is a fine space. It also offers a pleasant, cool sanctuary from the intense heat of a Budapest summer’s day.

Before World War II, surrealism didn’t get any kind of purchase in Hungary. This might have been because artists in this country looked to Austria and Germany and surrealism didn’t take hold in either of those countries either.

The remarkable István Farkas (1887-1944) is sometimes linked to surrealism because of the unsettling, dreamlike mood of his best work. But the truth is his art is pretty unclassifiable. His astonishing “Madman of Syracuse” from 1930 is unlike any other Hungarian art I’ve ever seen.

Fortunately, the Hungarian National Gallery will be mounting an exhibition of Farkas’ work before the year is out.

Exploring Surrealism

Hungarian artists began to explore surrealism after 1945. Under drab conformist communism with its championing of tedious socialist realism, surrealism offered a way for countries like Hungary to celebrate the inner worlds of the imagination and feel like they were maintaining a connection to the West.

The European School, established in Hungary in 1945, unabashedly saw surrealism as art liberated from rules and a sane response to the lunacy of war and totalitarianism. Perhaps this is why surrealism still resonates with us today.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most powerful art of recent years has been made by artists in the lineage of surrealism.

David Bowie used surrealist strategies all his life. He often used the cut-up method, partly derived from the surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse practice, to rearrange his lyrics and see what possibilities arose.

Bowie made his debt to surrealism even more explicit on his 1976 tour when he showed “Un Chien Andalou” before taking the stage as the Thin White Duke. The videos he made for some of the songs on his last ever album, “Blackstar”, had a disconcerting but beautiful flavor of surrealism.

The work of David Lynch – especially TV series “Twin Peaks” and his photography – is clearly in the surrealist tradition. In his book “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity”, he writes of the unconscious: “Ideas are like fish[…]. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.”

Because it’s drawn from the unconscious, the work on display at the Hungarian National Gallery can never date. For as long as it exists, audiences will find paintings by Dalí, Miró and the rest to be playful, beguiling and sometimes disturbing. But there’s a more immediate reason for surrealism’s continued impact.

We live in a world where supposed reason, science and politics cause chaos and catastrophe. While Europe may not be tearing itself apart through outright war, ours is a war-torn planet. Retreating into dreams and the imagination makes a strange kind of perfect sense.

“The Surrealist Movement from Dalí to Magritte” runs until 20 October 2019. You can learn more about the Hungarian National Gallery via its English-language website:, which includes a section dedicated to the surrealism exhibition, a behind-the-scenes video and a link to surrealism-themed gifts. You can also purchase tickets to the exhibition itself.

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