LONDON — Philippine art featured in international exhibitions always brings a sense of pride, just like when we came across an H.R. Ocampo at the ongoing Tate Modern exhibit, “Surrealism Beyond Borders.” The Tate, one of the world’s most important contemporary art galleries and one of the top 10 most-visited museums, has of course featured Filipino artists before. A few years ago, we saw David Medalla’s 1961 “Cloud Canyons No. 3: An Ensemble of Bubble Machines,” a kinetic sculpture that produced varying shapes of cloud-like clusters of foam “that reflected the artist’s interest in the random shapes formed by the earth’s natural processes.” This groundbreaking work of “auto-creative art” inspired Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture entitled “Medallic Object” that took the form of a medal bursting with bubble-shaped forms. Another Medalla piece, “Sand Machine Bahag-Hari Trance #1,” was also acquired by the museum, aside from three recent acquisitions of embroidered tapestries by Ivatan artist Pacita Abad.
Joining Surrealist works of leading artists like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Pablo Picasso, Ocampo’s “Glooming,” an oil on canvas board from 1939, is included in the section “The Work of Dreams.” From the collection of Paulino and Hetty Que, the painting was chosen by representatives of the Tate and the MET when they came for a visit in 2016-2017.
Dreams play an important role in Surrealism’s attempt to subvert consciousness and control because they can reveal the workings of the unconscious mind. This is why Sigmund Freud’s 1900 book, Interpretation of Dreams, influenced many artists who found inspiration in dreams to break from limitations imposed by custom or to bring their work beyond waking reality. Ocampo, however, believed that his work did not contain “a conscious intention of producing Freudian symbols,” as he once told the art critic Emmanuel Torres. “Glooming” is nevertheless described by the museum as a “dreamlike landscape” where the artist “sets body parts in the shadow cast by a giant crucifix.” A woman’s head — with two faces, front and profile juxtaposed in one — juts out of the ground, as does her arm, clenched in a fist. Waves of agitation emanate from her skin as buildings loom in the horizon under an ominous red sky.
The curators note how the artist merged his interest in Surrealism with Catholic imagery and “while rejected by Paris surrealists, such religious imagery served as a tool of political resistance in the Philippines and was a way to explore the anxieties caused by the colonial influence of the US.” A self-taught painter, Ocampo, who was a member of the Thirteen Moderns, always did his own thing, creating his version of abstraction that was independent of Paris. Observing the wide economic gap in society, his painting was a social commentary, part of his proletarian period that reflected the debate between “proletarian art” and “art for art’s sake” in the ’30s, which was also an issue during the Depression in the US.
Ocampo’s work fits right in with the exhibit’s thrust of portraying surrealism as a revolutionary cultural movement that had a wide interconnected impact around the world, interrogating political and social systems, conventions and dominant ideologies. It’s a shift from the usual Paris-centered viewpoint, with over 150 works, from painting and photography to sculpture and film, spanning 50 countries from 1920 to 1970.
A chaotic jumble of pastel-colored forms conveys social tumult, political extremism and violence.
In a similar vein, The Egyptian Surrealists had concerns about colonialism, the oppression of women and bourgeois aesthetics. Mayo, in his work “Baton Blows” (1937), revisits the police brutality he witnessed in a Cairo street protest over class divisions and the lingering influence of colonial Britain despite Egypt’s official independence. A chaotic jumble of pastel-colored forms conveys social tumult, political extremism and violence.
Eugenio Granell, a Spanish Republican artist, also expressed political beliefs against oppressive regimes and had to escape to the Dominican Republic in 1939 and later to Guatemala and Puerto Rico in 1946. He believed in the emancipatory possibilities of Surrealism, which one can glean from “The Pi Bird’s Night Flight,” a celebration of freedom in the natural world.
The oppression could also come from repression and exclusion dictated by prevailing social conventions such as the way women are objectified and limited by the male gaze, trapping them in a box that is explored in Alberto Giacometti’s “The Cage.”
If Ocampo has Catholic references, the Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite, a third-generation Vodou priest or houngan, mixed Catholic and Vodou symbolism: playing cards, a sacred heart, knives and axes, and a figure wielding a sword. In Mexico, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who studied indigenous cultures and archeological sites, were influenced by alchemy and the occult, infusing Surrealism with feminism, magic and natural forces. Varo transcends her strict Catholic upbringing with the power to create a new reality in a triptych from 1961.
Wilhelm Freddie, on the other hand, had to transcend his traumatic experience under Nazi-occupied Denmark. To undermine rationality, Wilhelm Freddie used a detailed style seen in the masked, winged creature in “My Wife Looks at the Petrol Engine, The Dog Looks at Me” (1940), a work he completed after escaping from the Nazi authorities. He believed that the subconscious was “the only way to express the mystery of our existence and the enigma and strangeness of our surroundings.” In a world of chaos and uncertainty, surrealism, and art, for that matter, can help process our experiences and make sense of our lives.
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