Rediscovering Dada and Surrealism at the Complesso del Vittoriano

Whilst the Dada and Surrealism show currently running at the Complesso del Vittoriano claims to be the most important overview of the two revolutionary art movements ever shown in Italy, the inclusion of over 500 works covering oil paintings, sculptures and collages unfortunately proves to be more exhausting than exhaustive. The exhibition space at the Complesso del Vittoriano, with its funnel like corridor at the beginning, is difficult to manage at the best of times, but this has to be one of the most maddening shows I've seen for quite a while! I suspect the higgledy-piggledy hanging of dozens of works crammed together is a deliberate attempt to emulate the art salons of the last century, but it makes for a frustrating visit. The show clearly aims to include as many minor artists as possible, but there are simply too many also-rans – at least a third of what's there could easily have been excluded to allow some of the more important work space to breathe and also give people the chance to properly rediscover a handful of lesser known, yet important, artists.

For reasons that are hard to understand, for example, the gallery dedicates a large screen and several rows of seating at the start of the exhibition for a brief introduction by the curator Arthur Schwarz, whereas the excellent selection of Dada and Surrealist films such as René Clair and Francis Picabia’s Entr’acte (1924) are relegated to small screens dotted throughout the exhibition - strategically positioned, it would seem, to block the passage of other visitors who don't wish to stand and watch the movies as they play on a loop. Schwartz was personally friends with many of the Surrealists and has written extensively about them, amassing  a huge collection of 700 pieces of Dada and Surrealist art over the years, which he then gave to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. An expert in his field, one gets the impression that he was given carte blanche with this show and that nobody else at the Vittoriano dared suggest trimming things down a little!

Be that as it may, there are still some wonderful items in the exhibition, hidden gems as it were, that thankfully make the visit well worthwhile. The small selection of collages by Kurt Schwitters is exquisite, in spite of minor irritations - the tiny Mz 293 is hung too high to see it properly, and Mz 253 is hung too low. I would personally have loved to have seen far more work by his fellow German Dada artist and pioneer of photo-montage Hannah Höch, although the inclusion of the haunting water colour Die Strassenjamer is an unexpected gift. British Surrealist Edith Rimmington makes a surprising appearance with a gorgeous London Transport poster for the London Aquarium – surprising because this particular work is barely Surrealist – whilst Magritte's masterpieces The Red Model (1934) and the later Castle in the Pyrenees (1959) rise above the masses as pure poetry.  

Rediscovering Dada and Surrealism continues at the Complesso del Vittoriano until 7th February, 2010. If you're a die hard fan of Dada or Surrealism you'd better hurry – it's finishing soon!

The Red Model by René Magritte © Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands – Web resolution, fair use.