Secreted inside the Surrealism galleries, Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision opened in 1999 under direction of anthropologist Edmund Carpenter (1922–2011) and then Menil Director Paul Winkler. This unique installation presents a culturally heterogeneous collection of more than 150 objects from the Menil’s permanent collection or on long-term loan from members of the de Menil family. Ritual and everyday objects, primarily from the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands and the Americas—which the Surrealists believed to be “witnesses” to the universality of their own visual and literary artistic practices—are exhibited with 19th-century European astrolabes, anamorphoscopes, and other devices that offer alternative ways to perceive and understand reality. Initially working with museum founder Dominique de Menil, Carpenter conceived of the permanent installation as a way to illustrate a “common intelligence” connecting the Surrealist artists to the peoples of Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas.
Stuffed with paintings, sculptures, masks, musical instruments, curios, and other things, the gallery emulates the interiors of Surrealists’ studios and homes as well as the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, in early natural history museums. During the first half of the 20th century, Surrealist artists and authors were avid purveyors of the “arts premiers,” arts of Indigenous people. Inspired by the writings of Sir James Frazier, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Henri Bergson on mythology, the subconscious, and so-called Primitives, they collected objects and natural ephemera that exhibited visual puns, raw sensuality, and conceptual dualisms such as silent music and static dance. A general lack of concern for an item’s original cultural use or history allowed the Surrealists to expropriate these objects to explore their interests in accessing the power of the unconscious, the legitimacy of dreams, and the universal significance of mythology. In Witnesses, this matrix of the Surrealists’ approaches to perceiving and representing the nature of humanity is put on exhibition.