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The softer side of Surrealism

NEWTON -- Julien Levy opened his Manhattan gallery in 1931, in the middle of the Depression, and closed it in 1949, just as New York was replacing Paris as the capital of modern art.

While his gallery was relatively short-lived, Levy played a significant role in the story of modern art, one that an exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College tells eloquently.

After Cubism and other early 20th-century ''isms" but before Abstract Expressionism, which would temporarily eclipse them all, came Surrealism. Levy was one of its great champions. Under the guidance of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, he started by selling Surrealist photography. Realizing that he couldn't make a living at it, he added painting. He gave the first New York gallery shows to a who's who of Surrealism: Salvador Dali, Dorothea Tanning, Roberto Matta, and others.

As gallerists tend to do, Levy turned into a collector. The show at BC is from the collection he left upon his death in 1981, and it stretches conventional definitions of Surrealism. It goes back to Jacques Callot's early 17th-century Commedia dell'Arte etchings of grotesques to contemporary artist Tom Wesselman's embossed white-on-white drawing of a languid nude woman. Her pallor conveys the mystery that was one of Surrealism's requisites and is utterly absent in Wesselman's more vivid nudes, where the women resemble shiny hood ornaments.

Except for a selection of Surrealist films -- by Levy as well as others -- the BC exhibition is all works on paper, and all on a small scale. It shows the intimate side of a movement that has in the past decade come back into vogue, valued for the melding of reality and dreams that made anything possible -- at least on paper or canvas.

Harvard-educated, Levy was at the university when its young graduates were founding such organizations as the Museum of Modern Art and the precursors of the New York City Ballet. Levy sent shows to MoMA and patronized artists who designed sets and costumes for theater.

Among the points the 115 works in the show make is the role of women in Surrealism: They were possibly more important than in any previous movement in art. Among them was Mina Loy, Levy's artistic godmother and real-life mother-in-law. After Levy's marriage to her daughter Joella broke up, he and Loy stayed close.

Her ''Surreal Scene" is a collage on a peach background that lends the work a happier air than most examples of Surrealism have. Loy's cheery group of visual non sequiturs includes people missing parts of their anatomy, a chair that looks like a buxom female, a harp that comes with its own hands, and a female protagonist, larger than the other figures. She's clothed with garlands of lilies, sheaves of wheat, and a chalice filled with what could be interpreted, in the context of these other religious symbols, as Communion wine.

Along with Marcel Duchamp, the best-known artist in the exhibition is Dali. His gouache and watercolor ''Las Meninas" is a wry revision of the eponymous masterpiece by Velazquez, a work Spanish artists seem never to get out of their systems. Among its many themes is court hierarchy, which Dali conveys by turning each figure into a number that corresponds to that particular person's rank. The Infanta Margarita, the central character in the scene, scores the highest: She's turned into an 8.

So zealous was Levy about the movement he loved, and so resentful of the competition, that he denied Arshile Gorky's involvement and identification with Abstract Expressionism. To Levy, Gorky was a Surrealist. The complicated relationship of artist and dealer ended with Gorky's death in 1948. He committed suicide after injuries suffered in a car crash with Levy at the wheel.

Levy was probably too zealous in categorizing Gorky. From a 21st-century perspective, Gorky's gestural drawings do come across as a bridge from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism.

Photography was an important player in Surrealism, which used the medium to create visual tricks rather than to report the ''truth," which Surrealists didn't believe in anyway. The photography in the show uses the movement's signature tricks: The backstage perspective from which the photographer Brassai took an image of a chorus line at the Folies Bergere makes the bare-breasted chorines resemble a waterfall cascading down to the stage.

Near the entrance of the McMullen show is Aline Fruhauf's 1933 caricature of Levy, part of a series on art world glitterati she made for the journal Creative Art. It's a revealing image. The dealer, portrayed in profile, is exceedingly angular. His nose is beaky; his raised eyebrow looks about to take off; his hair resembles patent leather cut into chic scallops. The shoulder pads in his jacket jut out sideways, as if to support his massive head. From there down, his body tapers: It was Levy's mind that mattered; the rest existed to get him from one gallery or museum to the next.

That fertile mind made many contributions to the art world of Levy's day -- and to the present. Not the least was his introduction of the cocktail party as the way to open an exhibition, a model that's been followed ever since.

Christine Temin's Perspectives column appears on Wednesdays.

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