Surrealism: Imagining A New World

Carine Harmand

Why did Surrealism appeal to artists all over the world?

Curator Carine Harmand traces how the Surrealist movement was taken up by artists in Egypt, Mexico, and by African American artists in the US, as a way to challenge authority and imagine a new world.

Traditional stories of Surrealism have focused on Paris in the 1920s, but here Harmand explores how artists across the globe have been inspired and united by Surrealism as part of an international network.


Filmed on the occasion of:
Surrealism Beyond Borders
Tate Modern
24 February – 29 August 2021

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What we’re showing here is the ways in which Surrealism was actually an international network.

I think Surrealism is a movement in the true sense. A literary, artistic and philosophical movement that really wanted to explore the working of the mind, champion the irrational, champion the dream, the poetic, but also the revolutionary.

So, Surrealism really was a movement about the liberation of social conventions, of political oppression, but also of social norms. And that really spoke to artists all over the world.

And in Cairo, at the eve of the Second World War, a group of artists and writers came together in 1938 and wrote a manifesto called Long Live Degenerate Art and called their group Art and Liberty. And what they were promoting was an art that was liberated from state interference. It was an art that was as the Surrealists were exploring elsewhere in Europe, that was tapping into the unconscious, tapping into the dream, but also that was clearly against authoritarianism. That was clearly anti-fascist. And so this is how of Surrealism was taken up in Egypt. And you have works by really important artists like Ramses Younan, like Samir Rafi, but also maybe a bit less well-known female artists, but who were as important as the others, like Amy Nimr or Inji Efflatoun.

Anatomical Corpse by Amy Nimr is a gouache on paper, and is very soft in the way in which it looks on the surface. And what you have depicted is this very beautiful, abstracted figure in pink and fleshy tones, on a backdrop of blue. It’s inspired by a poem by Georges Henein, who talks about a corpse decomposing at the bottom of the sea. So, there’s something very beautiful about it, but also kind of macabre. And that’s something a lot of the artists from the Art and Liberty group in Cairo were doing at the time. It was commenting on the difficulty, the social and political oppression that Egypt was in, in the 1940s, by using images of distorted bodies, of bodies in suffering, of phantasmagorical landscapes as well. And this is really what comes through in Amy Nimr’s work here.

So, in Mexico, many artists converged in Mexico City in the forties, artists who were in general fleeing Europe because of the war. So, people like Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Peret, Remedios Varo, all gathered in Mexico City and then met other Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Maria Izquierdo. An International Surrealist exhibition was organised in Mexico in 1941, and all these artists came together and showed their work there. And we are here kind of focusing on a group of women artists who were all friends, and all interacted together. And some of them — like Kati Horna, Remedios Varo — were interested in the indigenous culture, and the indigenous past of Mexico, but also, they were interested in mysticism, in the occult, and they were putting all of this in their work.

A really important work made in Mexico that we’re featuring in this exhibition is a triptych by Remedios Varo. She emigrated from Spain to Mexico during the Second World War. She was brought up in a very conventional, strict Catholic family. She went to a nun’s school. And what she’s depicting here in this triptych — which she made actually at the end of her life in 1961 — is a tale, an autobiographical tale, of a woman’s emancipation. So, in the first painting of this triptych called To the Tower, we can see a group of students from apparently a nun school coming out of the tower, which was probably this Catholic school in which Remedios Varo was. Only one of the characters is looking towards us, and this character is probably Remedios Varo herself.  And in the next painting, what we can see is these students embroidering a world mantle. And the character that we saw before, so Remedios Varo herself, is again depicted here with a very cheeky look in her eye. And she has embroidered a small depiction of her kissing her lover, which we can see just there on the corner. So, we can see here this kind of willingness to escape and to kind of go against the the conventions. And the last part of the triptych is called La Huída (The Flight), fleeing with her lover. So, I think in a sense, it’s also a triptych about emancipation through art. And this is probably what Remedios Varo found in Surrealism. It was a way out of that very kind of conventional and restrictive world in which she grew up.

Ted Jones for me is one of the fantastic surprises or discoveries working on this exhibition. He was an African American an artist. He was a visual artist, but also a poet, a musician, a performer. So, his work really takes a lot of different aspects. And for Ted Jones, Surrealism and Black Power or the Civil Rights movement were really linked together. He really kind of agreed and aligned with the idea of Surrealism as a political liberatory movement.

And a really amazing work that we’re showing here is a very long, 10m long, paper work that looks like a very long accordion, that he made with more than 130 other artists traveling around the world over about 30 years. And this is a really very surrealist work. It’s a collective work which the Surrealists called Exquisite Corpse, which consisted in bringing together drawings by different artists without them knowing what was made before. And so, it’s really kind of exploring chance, and chance encounters in creativity, and coming together to make art.

I think the reason why Surrealism was taken on around the world, the reason why he was so relevant for so many different contexts, was because it was a movement about personal, social and political, liberation. And this is exactly why it is still so relevant today. So, so many of the causes these artists were talking about or creating about — being against authoritarianism, working towards urgent causes and supporting urgent causes of the time —which are still the same today, like anti-racism movement, like equality movements. And these are kind of the two tenets of Surrealism, I would say: revolutionary politics and the exploration of the unconscious, the exploration of the irrational.

Filmed on the occasion of

Surrealism Beyond Borders
Tate Modern
24 February – 29 August 2021


With thanks to

Tate Modern



Remedios Varo Hacia la torre (To the Tower) 1961. Acervo Museo de Arte Moderno.INBAL/Secretaría de Cultura © 2022 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid


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


Remedios Varo La huída (The Flight) 1961. Private collection (Mexico City) © 2022 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid


Ted Joans Long Distance (1976-2005). Private collection. © Ted Joans estate, courtesy of Laura Corsiglia


Exhibition view: Salvador Dalí Lobster Telephone 1938 Tate Purchased 1981 © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2022


Exhibition installation views © Tate (Sonal Bakrania), Marcel Jean Armoire surréaliste (Surrealist Wardrobe) 1941. Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris, gift of the artist 1994


Exhibition installation views © Tate (Sonal Bakrania)


Exhibition installation views © Tate (Sonal Bakrania), Abdel Kader El-Janabi Visa sans planète (Visa without a Planet) 1983-90. Collection of Abdel Kader El Janabi. Courtesy of the Artist


Mayo (Antoine Malliarakis) Coups de bâtons 1937. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022. Photo: Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf


Installation view: Georges Henein Yahya al-fann al-munhatt / Vive l’art dégénéré (Long Live Degenerate Art), December 22, 1938


Ramses Younan Untitled 1939. Sheikh Hassan M.A. Al-Thani Collection © Estate of Ramses Younan


Samir Rafi Nus (Nudes) 1945. Sheikh Hassan M.A. Al-Thani Collection.


Amy Nimr Untitled (Anatomical Corpse) 1940. Sheikh Hassan M. A. Al Thani © Estate of Amy Nimr


Inji Efflatoun La jeune fille et le monstre (The Young Girl and the Monster) 1924. Marthaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha


Fouad Kamel Untitled 1940. Marthaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha


Kamel El-Telmisany Blessure (Wound) 1940. Collection of the El-Telmisany Family, Cairo


Exhibition installation views (c) Tate (Sonal Bakrania), Leonora Carrington Self-portrait c.1937–38. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection, 2002 © 2022 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Gunther Gerzso Los días de la calle Gabino Barreda (The Days of Gabino Barreda Street) 1944. Private Collection


Mária Izquierdo Calabazas con pan de muerto (Squash with pan de muerto) 1947. Private collection


Mária Izquierdo Alegoría del trabajo (Allegory of work) 1936. Collection of Andres Blaisten


Kati Horna Untitled from Woman with Masks (Series) Mexico 1962. Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2022 © Kati Horna Estate. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery


Kati Horna Untitled from Ode to Necrophilia, Mexico City 1962 (Leonora Carrington) 1962. Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2022 © Kati Horna Estate. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery


Paris – Aime Cesaire, Ted Joans, Mutuality Room, 1968. Philippe Gras / Alamy Stock Photo


Details of: Ted Joans Long Distance 1976-2005. Private collection. © Ted Joans estate, courtesy of Laura Corsiglia


Exhibition installation view of: the “skins” of Ted Joans Long Distance. Private collection


Exhibition installation views © Tate (Sonal Bakrania)


Exhibition installation views © Tate (Sonal Bakrania)


Exhibition installation views © Tate (Sonal Bakrania)




Through The Wormhole

Dilating Times, 2022

(CC BY 4.0)


really beautiful my mambo

Jean Toba, 2022

(CC BY-SA 4.0)


Backed Vibes Clean

Kevin MacLeod, 2011

(CC BY 3.0)


Surrealism Beyond Borders, Tate Modern, 24 February – 29 August 2021

Surrealism, but Not as You Know It’, Dawn Ades, Tate Etc.

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