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.