August 30 – December 21, 2014
In the Gold, Moak, Class of 1953, and Schaenen Galleries, Johnson Museum of Art

January 26–April 5, 2015
Boca Raton Museum of Art

The fight is between Poetry and Non-Poetry.
In the end, the human race will grow poetical, leading to a new Golden Age.

—Novalis (German, 1772–1801)

Prepare to be initiated into the magical secrets of surrealism! With its genesis in the occult library of artist Kurt Seligmann, the acknowledged magic expert of the surrealist group, this exhibition examines the surrealists’ interests in magic, the supernatural, and indigenous spirituality as expressed in their art and writings. By illuminating this less-studied aspect of their practice, Surrealism and Magic considers how both historical sources and world events drove surrealist artists to seek a magical presence in their lives.

Surrealism was, first and foremost, a revolt driven by moral indignation and disgust in the aftermath of World War I—the first industrial massacre on such a massive scale. Like their hero, the poet Novalis, the surrealists saw magic as a poetic force with the power to re-enchant the world, restoring a society long dominated by social conventions, economic exploitation, and nationalism. Magic and surrealism became intrinsically linked, and dreams, mirrors, and tarot cards became portals to the spirit world. The belief that magic was “the flesh and blood of poetry,” as Benjamin Péret wrote in 1943, gave birth to beautiful and inspiring art. Privileging the warm and intuitive embrace of magic over the cold and systematic approach of academics, they became more discerning over time, rejecting the easy folklore of séances, witchcraft, and vodou. Instead, they believed, in the words of Russian occultist Peter Ouspensky in 1912, that “the artist must be a clairvoyant: he must see that which others do not see; he must be a magician.”

Along with rare books on magic and witchcraft from Seligmann’s library on the occult (added to Cornell’s unrivaled Witchcraft Collection in 1962), the exhibition includes works of art by Seligmann, other surrealists, and artists in their circle. Books, pamphlets, correspondence, ephemera, and film contextualize the concept of magic, trace surrealism’s changing presence both in Paris and the Americas, and reveal the surrealists’ interest in the American landscape, Native North American art, Haitian vodou, and Cuban santería. We invite you to accompany the surrealists in their exploration of these new worlds, and their purposeful blurring of the boundary between the real and the imaginary, whether in the covered passages of Paris, the slums of Port-au-Prince, the art galleries of New York, or the red desert of Arizona.

This exhibition was curated by Andrew Weislogel, the Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 Curator, Earlier European and American Art, at the Johnson Museum, and Laurent Ferri, curator of pre-1800 collections, Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, and supported in part by Cornell’s French Studies Program. We are grateful for the cooperation and support of the Seligmann Center at the Orange County Citizens Foundation in Sugar Loaf, New York, and for the generosity of Ira Drukier ’66 and Gale Drukier.

Lenders to the exhibition:

Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
The Seligmann Center at the Orange County Citizens Foundation
Ira Drukier ’66 and Gale Drukier
Timothy Baum
Stephen Robeson Miller
The Art Institute of Chicago
The Baltimore Museum of Art
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
The Sidney Cox Library of Music and Dance, Cornell University Library
The Mayor Gallery, London
The Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco.

View the online exhibition