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Mexican Surrealism on the Upper East Side

In 1938, André Breton described Mexico as “the Surrealist place par excellence.” Many of his contemporaries, seeking refuge from World War II and bolstered by the country’s generous immigration policies, would come to agree, and so a movement born in the cafes of Europe found new life amid mountains and volcanoes. “Surrealism in Mexico,” which will open next week at Di Donna Galleries on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, looks at this lesser-known chapter of the movement, presenting works by Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Gordon Onslow Ford, Remedios Varo, Bridget Bate Tichenor and others. There are also four paintings by Frida Kahlo, who resisted the Surrealist label but whose Casa Azul became a frequent gathering place for the group.

Describing an aesthetic split in the featured works, the gallery founder, Emmanuel Di Donna, says, “On the one hand, you have Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen and Matta, who made more abstract images concerned with nature and the cosmos, and on the other you have Varo and Carrington, who were more about myth and legend.” Yet traces of the artists’ adopted home — as well as those of their abandoned one and the disorienting sense of existing somewhere in between — appear throughout. The vibrant, blocky brush strokes in Paalen’s painting “Tropical Night” nod to a pre-Columbian mosaic mask; Gunther Gerzso’s “Paricutín” — named after the Michoacán volcano that erupted, along with so many bombs, in 1943 — shows a field of jagged plants enmeshed in lava; and Varo’s “Hallazgo” depicts travelers aboard a whimsical ship making its way to a levitating pearl that might symbolize safety or self-actualization. “It was experimental ground for them,” says Di Donna. “They brought some of their baggage, but they left with something else.” A few of the émigrés, Varo among them, never left at all, enjoying a freedom they hadn’t known in Europe and making work that attests to the importance of fostering creative havens for our own surreal times. Through June 28 at Di Donna Galleries, 744 Madison Avenue, New York, — KATE GUADAGNINO

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