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Surreal: art’s weirdest worldview bounces back a century after its birth | Art

A century ago in the ateliers of Montparnasse in Paris, surrealism was born from the gloom of the first world war that had engulfed and devastated Europe.

The cultural movement led by the French writer and poet André Breton would give rise to internationally renowned artists including Max Ernst, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí.

There were women surrealists too, many of them dismissed as muses and too often remembered only in terms of their romantic relationships with the famous men but now recognized in their own right – among them Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim and Frida Kahlo.

Today, under the shadow of a new European conflict, the literary and artistic movement is enjoying another golden age with international events and exhibitions including the first-ever auction dedicated to surrealist works in the city of its birth.

The main attraction of the Sotheby’s sale Surrealism and its Legacy will be a rare work by Cuban-born surrealist Francis Picabia from his Nu de dos series never before seen at auction and considered the Pulp Fiction of painting”, according to Sotheby’s expert Thomas Bompard, and Pavonia from Picabia’s Transparency series estimated at €8m (£6.5m).

Bompard, vice-president of Sotheby’s France, said the artist is one of the underrated stars of surrealism.

Magritte’s painting Le paysage fantôme (the Phantom Landscape), 1928. Photograph: Sotheby’s

“I am meeting more and more people wanting us to source great works by Picabia and those showing the greatest interest are contemporary artists like [Jeff] Koons, [John] Baldessari, who inherited his legacy and who are grateful that Picabia paved the way for them.”

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He added: “Surrealism is almost 100 years old but to me it has never seemed so young. The creativity, the beauty, the artistry and artistic technique… the surrealists were looking for beauty, poetry, mystery and going into uncharted waters.”

The term “surrealism” was coined around 1919 but the official start of the movement is considered to be Breton’s The Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924.

Surrealism was not a style of painting, but, a state of mind, its followers argued. It was flexible and had no rules, making it hard to pin down. Each surrealist artist chose their own form of expression, making the genre too diverse to be strictly categorized.

The Paris sale, preceded by an exhibition of the works by Picabia as well as Magritte, Man Ray, Tanning and others, will feature a special section devoted to the work of female surrealists whose work, Bompard said, showed a “self-awareness and intuition” lacking in work by the male contemporaries who overshadowed and sidelined them.

“Most had romantic relationships with the surrealist artists and they were regarded as muses or part of the artistic scene only as partners of male artists. Now they are correctly generating interest in their own right,” Bompard added.

The surrealism event also includes the selling of a private collection owned by Andre Mourgues – the partner of celebrated avant garde Paris gallery owner and former ballet dancer Alexander Iolas – including works by Ernst, Claude Lalanne, Magritte, Pablo Picasso and Dali and valued at more than €5m.

Andy Warhol created this screen print of the Macedonian general for the Searching for Alexander exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983.
Andy Warhol created this screen print of the Macedonian general for the Searching for Alexander exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983. Photograph: Sotheby’s

Mourgues, now 83, spent 25 years with Iolas and met many of the artists whose paintings he is selling.

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“The surrealists were wonderful people, cultivated, polite, gentle… I was just 25 and had finished my military service when I met Iolas and it was the start of one long party of the spirit” Mourgues told the Guardian.

“The paintings have now gone from my walls now but have left their marks. They had an extraordinary presence and I will miss them.

“It’s difficult to let them go, but they need to be properly looked after and preserved and I no longer have the energy to do this.

“I am an old man without children who is turning a page and hoping the works will bring pleasure to someone else now.”

Surrealism is currently enjoying a modern renaissance; last week Magritte’s l’Empire des Lumières sold for £59.4m with bidding from 46 countries to become the most valuable painting ever sold at auction in Europe.

the surreal calendar this year holds exhibitions across the world, among them Surrealism Beyond Borders – now at the Tate Modern after its transfer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Auctioneers bonhams will also hold a surrealist sale, The Mind’s Eye in London next week featuring work by Ernst, Bréton, Dalí and Grace Pailthorpe.

Bompard said he had scoured private collections for the Sotheby’s auction. “I’m very excited about this sale. We are very proud of the quality of the works we have sourced and I’m really impatient to see how the market will react. I hope it will generate a great deal of enthusiasm,” he said.

“It’s impossible not to take into consideration the difficult time Europe is going through. Surrealism was born out of the ashes of an ancient world, destroyed after the first world war.

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“If there had been no war, there would have been no surrealism. Artists realized the world as they knew it was gone and had a desire to invent something radically different.

“The context of surrealism has always been a very political movement. The Surrealists really believed art could and should change life.

“In today’s world more and more complex, contradictory, multipolar, surrealism resonates more because it embraces all the contradictions instead of resolving them.”

  • Pre-sale exhibition: Surrealism and Its Legacy, Galerie Charpentier, 76 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris from 11-15 March. Auction: March 16, 6pm CET.

  • Pre-sale exhibition: André Mourgues Collection, Galerie Charpentier, from 11-16 March. Auction: March 17, 3pm CET.

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