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Art: Surrealism from Art Museum's collection

Surrealism and cubism were the two most innovative and influential art movements of the last century. Aesthetically and intellectually, they were diametric opposites.

Salvador Dalí's "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)," oil on canvas, 1936.
Salvador Dalí's "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)," oil on canvas, 1936.Read more

Surrealism and cubism were the two most innovative and influential art movements of the last century. Aesthetically and intellectually, they were diametric opposites.

Cubism is essentially object-based; it's rooted in concrete reality, even if that reality, be it a landscape or a vase of flowers, is sometimes barely recognizable.

Surrealist art is phantasmagoric, derived from dreams, hallucinations, and imagination. It's immaterial, enigmatic, and personal in terms of sources, which makes it difficult to interpret.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns one of America's most comprehensive public collections of surrealism. Ordinarily, only a small portion is on view, but for the next 21/2 months, visitors have a chance to savor substantially more of its breadth and depth.

A selection of more than 80 paintings, sculptures, works on paper, photographs, and various documentary items such as books and periodicals from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s has been installed chronologically in the Perelman Building.

Atypically, the show isn't driven by a theme or a narrative thread, it's simply the museum's version of Surrealism 101. Most of the major players, from Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró to Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, are represented with important works.

(Several major paintings weren't available to the show's curators, Matthew Affron and John Vick, because they're on loan. They are René Magritte's The Six Elements, in a Magritte exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 12; The Storm (Black Landscape) by Yves Tanguy, and Dark Green Painting by Arshile Gorky.)

The exhibition's four sections cover the three decades, from the 1920s through the 1940s, when surrealism was most popular. Within that framework, Vick said he and Affron tried to select the most important and interesting works and also to include things not ordinarily on view.

"We wanted visitors to have the opportunity to see our collection on a larger scale," he said, "and in a better context."

Though not a comprehensive survey, the exhibition serves as an instructive primer for visitors who aren't familiar with the movement or who haven't looked at surrealist ideas beyond Dalí's limp watches.

At least initially, surrealism was primarily a European phenomenon, with artists such as Chirico, Miró, Ernst, and Dalí leading the parade.

But America also produced some noteworthy talents, beginning with Philadelphia-born expatriate Man Ray (seven works in the show) and including Dorothea Tanning and Leon Kelly, another Philadelphian.

Tanning's delightful sculpture Rainy Day Canapé establishes the tone of the show right at the entrance. It's a small sofa on which two abstracted figures entangle in a suggestively erotic encounter - and with the couch itself.

Surrealism's moods range from playful, as in Tanning's sculpture and Miró's Dog Barking at the Moon, to mysterious and metaphysical, as in Chirico's The Poet and His Muse, to ominous, as in Dalí's monumental Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War).

The common thread is pliability; unlike cubism, which reconfigures what nature has established, surrealism manipulates human emotions and imagination. Anything is plausible in surrealism, so whatever you think it's saying to you is probably correct.

Life-affirming textiles. Six days to the winter solstice, and we could use an antidote to maximum darkness. Fortunately, one is close at hand, in a small exhibition of printed textiles and furniture at the American Swedish Historical Museum.

The objects on view were designed by Josef Frank, a Viennese Jew who fled to Sweden in 1933 to escape the Nazis, and who lived in New York during World War II.

Although Frank, born in 1885, began his career as a modernist architect, he became disenchanted with that often-austere aesthetic. As he once wrote:

"The richness of decoration cannot be fathomed so quickly, in contrast to the monochromatic surface, which doesn't invite any further interest, and therefore one is immediately finished with it."

Several small cabinets in the exhibition express the ideals of what came to be called Scandinavian modern. They're lean, elegant, logically proportioned, and unadorned.

The printed linen textiles represent a different mind-set. Frank designed most of these during 1943-44, when he was living in Manhattan. Many of these explosively colorful patterns were inspired by ordinary field guides to trees, plants, birds, and insects. Some evolved from things he had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For example, Rox and Fix references a Ming Dynasty scroll painting in soft blue, black, gray, and white. It's perhaps the most-restrained design of the lot. By contrast, the flowers and fruits of Vegetable Tree, the colorful parrots and flowers in Himalaya, and the sublimely complex Three Islands in the Black Sea light up the room with their tropical exuberance.

It's difficult to reconcile such lush sensuousness with northern Stockholm, where the textiles are still produced, with the strictures of modernism, or with wartime privations. Perhaps Frank, twice exiled, was rebelling against all of these.

Art: Irrational Exuberance

"The Surrealists: Works from the Collection" continues in the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through March 2. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Perelman admission is $10 general, $8 for visitors 65 and older, and $7 for students with I.D. and visitors 13 through 18. 215-763-8100 or

"The Enduring Designs of Josef Frank" continues at the American Swedish Historical Museum, 1900 Pattison Ave., through Feb. 23. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 4 Saturdays. Admission is $8 general, $6 for seniors and students, and $4 for visitors ages 5 through 11. 215-389-1776 or www.americanswedish.orgEndText