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Surrealism, Art and Ideas, From the Archives and Library

Pictures for Dreaming: Surrealism in the Dream Monuments Archive

Fig. 1: René Magritte, The Annunciation (L'Annonciation), 1930. Oil on canvas, 44 6/8 x 57 ½ in. (113.7 x 145.9 cm). The Tate, Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986. © C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Menil Drawing Institute’s 2021 exhibition Dream Monuments: Drawing in the 1960s and 1970s took inspiration from an unrealized exhibition that the museum’s founders Dominique and John de Menil began planning in the late 1960s, originally slated for presentation at Rice University’s Institute for the Arts. Given that the de Menil exhibition never happened, what remains of the show is an archive that points to a rich and enigmatic concept. In a series of handwritten notes from around 1968, Dominique de Menil listed a range of historical movements, artworks, and figures and traced international, transhistorical networks around the theme of “Dream Monuments.”(1) Impressively ambitious in scope, the list includes built ruins and funerary monuments; examples of visionary architecture on paper by Étienne-Louis Boullée, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and Jean-Jacques Lequeu; the entrance portal to the 1900 world’s fair; monuments to corn and tobacco; work depicting ruins by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Hubert Robert, and Giovanni Paolo Panini; projects by architects Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, and Frank Lloyd Wright; and Surrealist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, and Max Ernst, among others. The astonishing eclecticism of ideas inspires the question: what exactly is a “dream monument?” The de Menils’ close association with Surrealist artists on this list and their deep, rigorous study of Surrealist literature and art provides insight into Dominique de Menil’s thinking and allows us to tease out one possible definition.

In the 1940s, the de Menils began to collect Surrealist art in earnest under the guidance of gallerist Alexandre Iolas; works by Magritte, Ernst, and Victor Brauner form the core of the Menil Collection’s vast holdings.(2) Invested in the broad study and appreciation of these and other artists’ work, Dominique de Menil brought Surrealists into the art history curricula at University of St. Thomas and Rice University.(3) The Menil Foundation later initiated and funded the Magritte and Ernst catalogues raisonnés, significantly advancing the scholarship on both artists.

Dominique de Menil noted Magritte’s large-scale painting The Annunciation, 1930 (fig. 1), for possible inclusion in Dream Monuments.(4) Set among an ominous landscape that lacks reference to a particular location are two bilboquets—child’s toys made out of wood that are frequently represented in Magritte’s work—and un papier decoupé, or a sheet of cut paper represented here in paint.(5) Behind these objects is a gleaming, seemingly metallic curtain embellished with sleigh bells. An aural sense of noise and play, and, conversely, silence and stillness abound in the landscape; its near perfection further highlights its dream-like quality. You can almost hear the bells ringing in the wind and the sounds of children playing, and yet the picture-perfect clouds and manicured landscape are motionless. While it remains unclear what exactly the picture announces, as its title suggests it does, one’s gaze remains fixed on the objects at center, the clear focal point.

In the Magritte catalogue raisonné, the authors contend that The Annunciation is an homage to Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 Isle of the Dead (fig. 2),(6) the first of five works Böcklin made depicting the subject. The islet, set within a patch of dark waters, features rocky cliffs tightly surrounding a scene into which Böcklin inserted a web of Italian funerary references such as the cypress trees, shrouded figure and tomb. Magritte’s rendering, in contrast, seems to remove the picture from an island context, bringing the viewer onto land. He trades the boat, figure, coffin, and forest for several familiar objects that tend to populate his pictures in a de- or re-contextualized manner. That is, he represents in paint objects that are familiar to him and present in the broader body of his work, such as bilboquets, cut paper, and sleigh bells, and inscribes in them new meaning. The second picture in Böcklin’s series (fig. 3), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, was commissioned by a young widow who requested a “Bild zum Träumen” or a “picture for dreaming.”(7) Magritte’s title—The Annunciation—also refers to the event celebrated by Christians in which archangel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Christ, an event sometimes described as coming to her in a vision. Indeed, Magritte described the objects central to this painting as coming to him in an “apparition,” which speaks to his productive use of the dream and its counterparts.(8) Moreover, by paying homage to Isle of the Dead, Magritte demonstrated his shared interest in creating “pictures for dreaming.” In an essay from 1964, André Breton, a leader of the Surrealist movement, contended:

What was needed was this half-closed, half-open eye—[Magritte’s] eye—which, functioning at peak sharpness, hunts and then focuses on the instant when dream vision teeters on the brink of wakefulness, when waking perception, too, stumbles at the gates of sleep. Those objects—the most familiar—are we not overlooking them, absentminded, when we confine them strictly to their utilitarian role? Yet if we pass on to another frame of reference, it is certain (and psychoanalysis gives ample evidence of this) that most of these familiar objects contribute to the symbolic elaboration which furnishes the stuff of dreams.(9)

Here, Breton speaks to the fundamentality of the dream as impetus for creative practice within the Surrealist movement, identifying Magritte and his artistic output as central to this project, and of the import of looking beyond the functional roles of objects.

Dominique de Menil was interested in these questions of vision, dream, and contemplation and their respective places in the creation and viewership of art; during the development of her unrealized show, she turned to Marcel Proust’s posthumously published essay collection of literary and artistic criticism Contre Sainte-Beuve (Against Saint-Beuve), which appeared in 1954. She wrote out a passage from Proust’s essay “La contemplation artistique” (“Artistic Contemplation”) by hand on a sheet archived in the Dream Monuments files. Labeling the sheet “monuments,” she associated the passage with issues of commemoration and also with Max Ernst, whose name she scrawled next to the handwritten passage that reads as follows:

And after having believed that a statue would spoil a field, we wanted so much to immerse ourselves in the true countryside, we feel, we desire the beauty of the land, of art where statues stand out from the cliffs (as in Moreau’s Sappho)…(10)

While statues and monuments are not necessarily one and the same, Dominique de Menil clearly associated this passage with questions central to her project. The quotation articulates an interrogation of the role and place of statues—or, for our purposes and the de Menils’, monuments—and doubles down on a shared feeling that we need innovative frameworks to achieve their purpose. Proust even looked to artists for such a framework, citing Gustave Moreau’s Sappho, an 1853 painting that depicts the lyric poet stepping off the side of a cliff and meeting her untimely death, which adds a commemorative aspect to the piece.(11)

Dominique de Menil also listed Ernst on her handwritten notes under artists associated with Surrealism; his Monument aux oiseaux (Bird Monument) (fig. 4) from 1927 was of particular interest.(12) Birds frequently figured in Ernst’s work, and here he decided to elevate the creature to the status of monument.(13) That the title is translated as “Bird Monument,” rather than “Monument to Birds,” anthropomorphizes the monument and highlights its agency. The painting depicts an abstract assemblage of birds flying in a perfectly blue sky. There is a suggestion of land at the bottom of the picture from which the bird monument emerges, evocative of the type of statues for which Proust advocates in the above quotation, ones that stand out from cliffs like Moreau’s Sappho.

Another artist de Menil listed was de Chirico. Next to his name, she wrote “piazza with dreamy monument.” That description could fit a number of de Chirico’s works, including those from the Piazza d’Italia series from the 1910s that he revisited in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. The note may refer to the Ariadne picture in their collection: Melancholia (fig. 5).(14) Moody swathes of green sky fade into a warmer, golden terrain, in the midst of which is a statue of Ariadne. She assumes her traditional pose, reclining with one arm lazed over her head suggesting a state of deep slumber, perhaps, dreaming. Almost bathed in shadows, the statue sits between two arcaded buildings that recede into the distance, evoking a Renaissance perspective that points toward a remote and animated landscape populated by flags, trees, a train, a factory tower, and two figures. The space occupied by the goddess, and perhaps also that occupied by the viewer, is devoid of human presence and removed from the fast pace of modern life. That is, the viewer may replicate the image of the painting by getting lost in their own active viewing. De Chirico painted Melancholia’s subject numerous times under the same title and, of one version, Magritte commented in a 1938 lecture that “Here we have a new vision in which the spectator rediscovers his isolation and hears the silence of the world.”(15) From Magritte, this was high praise, indeed. The Melancholia pictures depict the contemplative state that they, and perhaps “dream monuments” themselves, deal in.

A photocopy of the frontispiece to the second edition of Marcel Jean’s The History of Surrealist Painting (1967), which used a line from de Chirico’s story Le Fils de l’ingénieur (The Engineer’s Son) as its epigraph, was among the exhibition files. It reads: “He lived there in two rooms which he had covered from ceiling to floor with most strange and troubling designs that made certain distinguished critics repeat for the thousandth time: IT IS NOTHING BUT LITERATURE.”(16) The drawing that illustrates the epigraph, Le Rêve Mystérieux (The Mysterious Dream), is a rare de Chirico pen-and-ink drawing of a scene similar to that seen in Melancholia. When paired with the above quotation, it demonstrates, first, that the dream is a fecund source of artistic knowledge production. That the engineer’s son lived in two rooms indicates that he ate, slept, and created there. Perhaps his so-called strange and troubling designs represent the product of his dreams. That output, then, would be categorically and conceptually misunderstood by the critics in de Chirico’s story. They see fiction where the story’s protagonist sees something pure and truthful. In de Chirico’s example offered by way of his protagonist, the engineer’s son demonstrates the action of putting dreams to paper with the intent that they stand the test of time. Critics see it as literature, but the protagonist (and perhaps, by extension, de Chirico) sees it as a monumental project meant to stand the test of time.

We can only speculate why particular works were listed in Dominique de Menil’s notes, but, fortunately, she left a substantial and instructive archive of the unrealized exhibition. When individual items from this archive are pieced together, we begin to see that the concept of “dream monuments” contained several avenues of thought. Many of the works the de Menils requested for the show were models, drawings, photographs, or paintings, for or of monuments. Many are proposals for monuments. Many were not necessarily proper monuments as they were known to be in midcentury—sculptures or architecture in civic, public spaces often to a historical figure or event—but, instead, were often described using the framework of monumentality and were dedicated to ideas and concepts outside of the ambit of normative monuments. Dream monuments, then, were rethought commemorative forms and used dreaming and its related endeavors towards that end. The particular tone that the Surrealists brought to de Menils’ project was their use of the dream as a prolific source in their work across media. Given the de Menils’ close association with several Surrealist artists and their profound engagement with the group’s literature and artwork, the Surrealist’s use of the dream as an impetus for artistic production must have been formative, at least in part, for the de Menils in their speculations on “dream monuments.”

  1. For their partnership in thought and guidance on the material presented here, and their encouragement during the research and writing process, I offer my thanks to Kelly Montana and Erica DiBenedetto, and to Lisa Barkley, Natalie Dupêcher, Seneca Garcia, Edouard Kopp, James McCabe, Donna McClendon, Margaret McKee, Joseph N. Newland, and Nancy O’Connor.
  2. For an overview of the Menil Collection’s Surrealist holdings and a brief history of the de Menils’ personal history with the movement, see the museum website’s Collection page, viewable here. For a history of the de Menils’ relationship with the dealer Alexander Iolas, see Eva Fotiadi, “Alexander Iolas, the Collectors John and Dominique de Menil, and the Promotion of Surrealism in the United States,” in Networking Surrealism in the USA: Agents, Artists and the Market (arthistoricum.net: 2020), 119–34. For a history of the de Menils’ relationship with René Magritte, see Clare Elliot, “Magritte at the Rodeo: René Magritte in the Menil Collection,” in Networking Surrealism, 135–50.
  3. Fotiadi, “Alexander Iolas,” 133–34.
  4. The Annunciation was included in a 1965 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where John de Menil was a board member at the time. While The Annunciation was listed in Dominique de Menil’s notes, there are records of other Magritte works considered for Dream Monuments in the research files, including La Magie Noire, 1934; L’Au-Dela, 1938; and Les Verres Fumés, 1951. Menil Family Papers – John and Dominique de Menil – Future Exhibitions, Monuments and Dream Monuments, Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston.
  5. “René Magritte à Paul Nougé” in Marcel-Edouard Mariën, Lettres Surréalistes, 1924–1940 (Bruxelles: Les Lèvres nues, 1973), 97.
  6. The work was a touchstone for numerous artists, including Giorgio de Chirico and the Surrealists, and prints of it were hung in homes across Europe in the early 20th century.
  7. Kunstmuseum Basel catalogue entry, accessed here.
  8. Tate catalogue entry, accessed here.
  9. André Breton, “The Breadth of Rene Magritte” in Magritte: An Exhibition Prepared by the Art Department of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas (Houston: Art Department of the University of St. Thomas, 1964), n.p.; reprinted in Secret Affinities: Words and Images (Houston: Institute for the Arts, Rice University, 1976), 29–31.
  10. Marcel Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 350. Emphasis is Dominique de Menil’s. Quotation translated from French by the author: “Et après avoir cru qu'une statue gâterait un champ, tant on voulait se plonger dans la vraie campagne, on sent, on désire la beauté d'une terre d'art où les statues se profilent sur les falaises (comme dans la Sapho de Moreau)…
  11. The citation of Moreau also brings in a Symbolist vision for monuments, one that looks to metaphors to express absolute truth. Symbolism as an artistic movement was an important antecedent to Surrealism and its use of the dream.
  12. According to other records in the exhibition files, Dominique de Menil also considered Ernst’s The Elephant Celebes, 1921, which, in addition to the Surrealist category, would have fit nicely with the category of zoomorphic monuments also in her notes, as would Monument aux oisseux, the former fitting especially with those zoomorphic monuments depicting elephants, a category broken out by de Menil in her notes.
  13. Loplop, Ernst’s childhood bird, was, according to the Musée Cantini who owns the piece, a personal phantom of Ernst’s who populated his work and whose spirit he believed in his adolescence to have inhabited his sister Loni, who was born on the same night that his beloved bird died.
  14. The picture is the artist’s self-quotation of his early Ariadne series, first called such by curator James T. Soby in his germinal 1955 publication on the artist. See Michael R. Taylor, “Between Modernism and Mythology: Giorgio de Chirico and the Ariadne Series,” in Giorgio De Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne (London: Merrell in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002), 15. The de Menils knew Soby from their involvement at the Museum of Modern Art, where John de Menil was a trustee from 1962 until his death and served as Vice President of the museum’s International Council beginning in 1957. See: Special to The New York Times, “John de Menil, 69, A Patron of Art,” The New York Times, June 2, 1973. See also: Museum of Modern Art, “John de Menil elected a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art,” press release, July 1, 1962, accessible here. The de Menils had doubted this date of 1916 that is inscribed on the canvas by the artist. In 1959, John de Menil wrote to Soby calling him “‘the’ man who knows about Chirico,” providing information about the couple’s holdings of de Chirico works if useful for Soby’s further publishing activities on the artist. In that letter, de Menil asserted the couple’s belief that the painting was likely painted eight to ten years later than the year indicated by the inscription. To Soby, John de Menil had written: “In a way, it is a copy of Chirico by Chirico, yet it has a good deal of the magic and charm of the earlier ones and we like it very much.” John de Menil to James T. Soby, October 2, 1959, Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. In his letter back, Soby stated that he still believed it to be a later copy by de Chirico of his own work but agreed it had considerable charm. James T. Soby to John de Menil, November 4, 1959, Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. In Soby’s 1955 publication, Soby asserted his belief that there were few de Chiricos from the early period left to be discovered, speaking to the issue of antedating in the artist’s work. See James T. Soby, Giorgio de Chirico (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955).
  15. René Magritte, La ligne de vie, cited in Secret Affinities, 4.
  16. Marcel Jean with the collaboration of Mezei Árpád and translation from French by Simon Watson Taylor, The History of Surrealist Painting (New York: Grove Press, 1960), n.p. In Menil Family Papers, Monuments and Dream Monuments, Menil Archives.

Related exhibitions

May 21 – Sep 19, 2021
Menil Drawing Institute
Dream Monuments: Drawing in the 1960s and 1970s