Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s

Features work by Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Dorothea Tanning, and others.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (May 16, 2019)—The Frist Art Museum presents Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s, an exhibition that explores the powerful and unsettling images created in response to the threat of war and fascist rule. Featuring works by Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Dorothea Tanning, and others, the exhibition will be on display in the Frist’s Upper-Level Galleries from June 21 through September 29, 2019.

Through 78 objects, including paintings, drawings, film, and sculptures drawn primarily from the collections of The Baltimore Museum of Art and The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Monsters & Myths highlights the brilliance and fertility of this period, which arose in response to Hitler’s rise to power, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II—events that profoundly challenged the revolutionary hopes that had guided most Surrealist artists in the 1920s. “In this exhibition, Surrealists’ portrayals of monsters, fragmented bodies, and other depictions of the grotesque are explored as metaphors for the threat of violence and fears and fantasies of unbridled power,” says Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala.

Since 1924, artists and writers associated with the Surrealist movement had aimed to deconstruct the social order, particularly through targeting oppressive traditions by embracing the irrational and the marvelous in pursuit of psychic liberation. “Seeking access to hidden truths, the artists in this show used their darkest imaginings to confront trauma,” says Scala. “They employed the language of dreams, free association, and Freudian psychoanalytic theory to help transform both themselves and a society that seemed inescapably bound for fascism and war.”

Through each artist, the psychological power of monstrosities appears in different guises in the exhibition. The first section, titled “The Emergence of Monsters,” focuses on the symbolism of deformation, fragmentation, and hybridity to reflect the inhumanity of war as well as individual psychological torment. In this section, Picasso reintroduces the myth of the Minotaur, a symbol of the repressed forces of the unconscious. Hans Bellmer and André Masson merge violence and malevolent sexuality in images of dismemberment and mutilation. Headless bodies in works by Alberto Giacometti and Magritte symbolize the loss of reason.

The exhibition continues with the section titled “The Spanish Civil War,” which includes paintings and prints by Dalí, Miró, and Picasso, among others, capturing their despair at the brutality of the fascists in their war with the republican government. Immediately following “The Spanish Civil War,” the section “World War II” features works that portend the coming disasters and capture the emotional upheavals experienced by artists during the early years of the war. While these responses are marked by anxiety and distress, a surprising beauty can be seen in even the most horrific works, such as Wolfgang Paalen’s painting of colorful bird-like demons in The Battle of Saturnian Princes III (1939).

The section “Dislocation and Survival” features extraordinary paintings by Surrealists, including Dalí, Ernst, Masson, and Roberto Matta who fled the war, mostly for the United States. Ernst’s painting Europe After the Rain II (1940–42) spans the mutating structures and human wraiths of a post-apocalyptic Europe with the crystalline outcroppings of a desert landscape, inspired by Ernst’s experience as an exile visiting Arizona. Like the other works in this section, Europe After the Rain II underscores transitions between past and present, reality and dream, and reason and irrationality that were acutely felt by these expatriate artists.

The exhibition concludes with “Surrealism in the Americas,” showing the influence of exiled European artists like Masson and Ernst on Americans such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Tanning. Highlights include Tanning’s phantasmagorical painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Also included in the exhibition is the film Un Chien Andalou (1929) by Buñuel and Dalí, which contains a network of narratives relating to anticlericalism, unfulfilled desire, memory, and death.

Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Rizzoli Electra with essays by exhibition curators Oliver Shell, Baltimore Museum of Art associate curator of European Art, and Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Other contributors are Robin Adèle Greeley, associate professor of modern & contemporary Latin American art history at the University of Connecticut and the author of Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War, and Samantha Kavky, associate professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University–Berks and co-editor of the Journal of Surrealism and the Americas.

Exhibition Credit

This exhibition was organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art and The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

This exhibition and related programs have been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Public Programs

“I didn’t know I was a Surrealist”: Frida Kahlo and Women Surrealists in Mexico lecture presented by Lynda Klich, assistant professor of art and art history, Hunter College
Thursday, June 20 @ 6:30pm
Frist Art Museum Auditorium
Free; first come, first seated

Presented in conjunction with the exhibitions Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection and Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s, this lecture examines the relationship between Surrealism and Mexico, which André Breton, co-founder of the artistic movement, considered to be the “Surrealist country par excellence.” Special focus will be given to how engaging with the ideas of international Surrealism allowed Mexican women artists to develop an artistic voice that emphasized personal subjectivity and challenged the virile heroic nationalism of modern Mexican art, as exemplified by muralism.

Lynda Klich teaches Latin American art history at Hunter College, CUNY, and is the curator of the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Collection. She specializes in modern Mexican art. Her book The Noisemakers: Estridentismo, Vanguardism, and Social Action in Postrevolutionary Mexico (University of California Press, 2018) won the University of Maryland–Phillips Collection Book Prize. She co-edited Visual Typologies from the Early Modern to the Contemporary: Local Contexts and Global Practices (Routledge, 2018) and has collaborated on various postcard publications, including The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection (MFA Boston, 2012) and The Propaganda Front: Postcards from the Era of World Wars (MFA Boston, 2017).

Curator’s Tour: Monsters & Myths presented by Mark Scala, chief curator
Thursday, July 11 @ 12:00pm
Meet at the exhibition entrance
Free to members; admission required for not-yet-members

Join Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala on this one-hour tour of the exhibition to learn more about how these artists utilized the myth of the monster to comprehend the effects of war on society.

Gallery Talk: Surrealist Art Encounters Politics presented by Robin Adèle Greeley, associate professor of art history, University of Connecticut
Thursday, August 29 @ 6:30pm 
Meet at the exhibition entrance
Free to members; admission required for not-yet-members

Learn about the impact of the Spanish Civil War and political discord on Surrealist art during this gallery talk with Robin Adèle Greeley.

Robin Adèle Greeley specializes in modern and contemporary Latin American art and has published widely on the relationship between art and politics. A founding member of the Symbolic Reparations Research Project, she is currently engaged in analyzing policies and practices of aesthetic memorialization in symbolic reparations for victims of human rights violations in the Americas. Her most recent book is La interculturalidad y sus imaginarios: Conversaciones con Néstor García Canclini (Barcelona: Gedisa, 2018).

Sponsor Acknowledgment

The Frist Art Museum gratefully acknowledges the generosity of our Picasso Circle members.

The Frist Art Museum is supported in part by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Connect with us #FristSurrealism

About the Frist Art Museum

Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Frist Art Museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit art exhibition center dedicated to presenting and originating high-quality exhibitions with related educational programs and community outreach activities. Located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., the Frist Art Museum offers the finest visual art from local, regional, national, and international sources in exhibitions that inspire people through art to look at their world in new ways. The Frist Art Museum’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery features interactive stations relating to Frist Art Museum exhibitions. Information on accessibility can be found at Gallery admission is free for visitors 18 and younger and for members; $15 for adults; $10 for seniors and college students with ID; and $8 for military. College students are admitted free Thursday and Friday evenings (with the exception of Frist Fridays), 5:009:00 p.m. Groups of 10 or more can receive discounts with advance reservations by calling 615.744.3247. The galleries, café, and gift shop are open seven days a week: Mondays through Wednesdays, and Saturdays, 10:00 a.m.5:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 10:00 a.m.9:00 p.m.; and Sundays, 1:005:30 p.m., with the café opening at noon. For additional information, call 615.244.3340 or visit                  

Buddy Kite: 615.744.3351,
Ellen Jones Pryor: 615.243.1311,