'Interiors and Exteriors' brings together rival schools of postwar Parisian avant-garde

Last year Jennifer Cohen and Marin Sarvé-Tarr, two UChicago students who had taken art history courses together, encountered each other doing dissertation research in a historical archive in Paris. They began trading stories about the subjects of their inquiries—the postwar avant-garde artists that Sarvé Tarr was studying and the surrealist revival led by André Breton that Cohen was researching.

The two artist groups were generally considered separate, even diametrically opposed.

Now the two PhD students have brought those divergent art histories together in the exhibition, “Interiors and Exteriors: Avant-Garde Itineraries in Postwar France,” on display at the Smart Museum of Art through March 16.

Avant-garde and surrealist artists “have always been treated very separately,” said Cohen, “but were actually living in the same city, occupying very similar social spaces and coexisting. So we wanted to exhibit these narratives side-by-side.”

Anne Leonard, curator and associate director of academic initiatives at the Smart Museum, noted that the exhibition draws primarily on Smart Museum collections, including many objects that rarely are displayed. “Jen and Marin have organized a splendid exhibition of postwar French avant-garde art, showcasing the distinct yet overlapping movements of Surrealism, Lettrism and Situationism,” she said.  

“Their project highlights the international nature of post-1945 artist networks, the intense political engagement of some of the leading figures, and the innovative, subversive nature, equal parts playful and angry, of their work in all media,” Leonard added.

The exhibition hinges on the notion that, as Cohen and Sarvé-Tarr put it, “altering everyday habits could spark broad social changes,” and that one’s interior life was therefore inextricably linked to one’s external, political and social life. A person could change the world by changing how he or she experienced and moved through the world.

This was a belief the surrealists shared with the avant-garde, though the groups conceived it very differently. The surrealists followed André Breton’s “interior model” of painting, plumbing their own dreams and imaginings for meaning, whereas the situationists operated on the idea of “psychogeography,” which Cohen describes as “a subjective experience of public space,” a more sociable configuration of the same basic premise under which the surrealists were operating.

Commonalities notwithstanding, the animus among postwar Parisian art movements was real and often vitriolic. “The surrealists didn’t necessarily agree that the street was the location of political relevancy,” Sarvé-Tarr explained, and the avant-garde artists saw the surrealists as hopelessly passive, “fatally inward.”

To the young avant-garde artist, said Cohen, surrealism was unforgivably old-fashioned, a relic of the years before the traumatic and transformative four years of Nazi occupation.

Interiors and Exteriors both explores and undermines this mutual ambivalence not only through the core exhibition, but also through a series of film screenings, performances, lectures and public events.

At the event titled “Get Lost,” participants braved the Polar Vortex―the second one, Sarvé-Tarr clarified―to walk from “a lecture on surrealist and situationist walking practices,” to “an interpretive reenactment of a 1959 surrealist feast by Meret Oppenheim,” with pastries served on a mannequin.

“Get Lost” provided participants with a taste of the post-war artists’ practice of wandering the city. “Surrealism, lettrism and situationism were all inspired by the 19th-century literary type of the flaneur, and wandering the city was a foundational aspect of all of their respective artistic practices,” Cohen explained. “For surrealists, it was more the idea of wandering the city or flea markets looking for ‘found objects’ or chance encounters; and situationists developed the idea of the dérive or drift through city space as a way to develop their subjective impressions of public spaces.”

At another event, “We did a screening of a 16mm print of Maurice Lemaitre’s film Has the film already started? and had students get involved as extras. They had noisemakers and shadow puppets, and they were supposed to re-enact the sprit of the Cine-Club, where people would engage in debates and interact with the film on screen.”

Upcoming events include a colloquium on Friday, Feb. 21, lectures on the work of Simon Hantaï and Isidore Isou, and a screening of Postwar Surrealist Film: The Wandering Eye. Audience participation isn’t scheduled for that screening, “though we wouldn’t mind if someone wanted to,” Cohen said, laughing.

More information about the exhibition at the Smart Museum and related events is available at: http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/interiors-and-exteriors-avant-garde-itineraries-in-postwar-france/.