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"Today, it's above all the visual art of the red man that lets us accede to a new system of knowledge and relations." André Breton, 1946

Giorgio de Chirico's 1914 painting The Child's Brain was an influential pre-Surrealist masterpiece, its large, naked mustachioed man dominant and vulnerable all at once. The founder of Surrealism, André Breton, first spotted the painting in the window of a Paris gallery from a bus. He immediately got off to look more closely, and eventually, in 1919, managed to buy the work.

For more than 40 years, the painting hung in his Paris apartment. When Breton sold it to Stockholm's Moderna Museet in 1964, he used part of the proceeds to acquire a new favourite: a Kwakwaka'wakw headdress from British Columbia made of maple, abalone, ermine and sea-lion whiskers. Carved in the late 1800s, the ceremonial frontlet held court at the centre of Breton's desk until his death two years later. He is said to have spent hours staring at it.

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The two pieces - European painting and first-nations headdress - are now installed side by side at the Vancouver Art Gallery for The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art, which opened last weekend. Billed as the most comprehensive exhibition of Surrealist works in Canada's history, it's also the first major show to delve into the Surrealists' fascination with art of the Pacific Northwest.

"They would search for it. They would spend days and days scouring galleries," says curator Dawn Ades. When approached by the VAG several years ago, Ades, based in London and one of the world's leading scholars on Surrealism, felt immediately that it should highlight the little-explored connection to the art of the Pacific Northwest.

"I think this link to the Northwest Coast was really very, very important," says Ades, co-director of the Manchester-based Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies and a professor at the University of Essex. Disenchanted with their own society, the Surrealists, says Ades, idealized indigenous cultures, whose works, they believed, retained a potency lost by Western art. "They really felt these were tremendously powerful things because they had a dimension beyond that of just being visually fascinating. But they did find them visually fascinating. They found them very, very attractive."

The Surrealists knew the art intimately, hungrily collecting it.

In 1941, major Surrealist figure Max Ernst, then living in New York, visited a gallery belonging to a fellow European refugee, Julius Carlebach. He noticed what was described as an "Eskimo spoon" (it was in fact Haida) and bought it for five dollars. After Ernst's discovery, the gallery became a regular haunt for the Surrealists, who spent what little money they had - sometimes pooling it - on these works.

"We threw ourselves into the poetic atmosphere of the Eskimo masks," wrote sculptor Isabelle Waldberg in 1943. "We breathe in Alaska, we dream Tlingit, we make love in Haida totem poles. Carlebach's on Third Avenue has become the place of our desires."

In a little sketchbook, art historian Robert Lebel documented the masks the Surrealists purchased. His inventory is now at the VAG, turned to a drawing of a late-19th-century Yup'ik mask that belonged to Surrealist Enrico Donati, and installed next to the mask itself. Two of the Yup'ik masks in the exhibition made international headlines last January when they sold for a record-breaking $4.6-million (U.S.) at auction in New York (one was purchased by Toronto collector David Thomson for $2.5-million).

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But the Northwest Coast art that so enraptured the Surrealists was literally seen in context by only two of them: Kurt Seligmann and Wolfgang Paalen (and their travelling companions). In 1938, Seligmann travelled with his wife to British Columbia, taking hundreds of photographs and amassing a collection, including the great totem pole now in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Inspired by Seligmann's trip, Paalen travelled to northwestern B.C. and Alaska with his wife, painter Alice Rahon, and their companion, photographer Eva Sulzer. They also met Emily Carr in Victoria.

"I believe I am attaining a new perspective on this art - an art certainly greater than all the assumptions that are made about it in Europe," Paalen wrote to Breton from Vancouver, after the trip.

In Prince Rupert, B.C., they purchased 8-mm film stock and began documenting their journey. The footage is extremely rare and important, but not, alas, part of this show, due to copyright issues.

Ades spent some three years travelling the world securing art for this exhibition, which features more than 350 works, including seminal pieces such as Salvador Dali's and Edward James's Lobster Telephone and Joan Miro's Photo: This Is the Colour of My Dreams.

For the Kwakwaka'wakw headdress so prized by Breton, she arranged a loan from the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, B.C. The headdress is one of many pieces that were confiscated from the community after an infamous 1921 raid on a local potlatch (the ceremonies were then illegal in Canada). Through various sales, it made its way to New York, and into Breton's collection.

In 2003, his daughter, Aube Elléouët-Breton, travelled to Alert Bay to return the headdress - and make a $40,000 donation. She was greeted with a joyous celebration at the Big House.

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"The Breton family is our poster child for positive repatriation," says Sarah Elizabeth Holland, executive director of the U'mista Cultural Society.

In Ades's hands, the striking headdress from northern Vancouver Island has become an unlikely highlight of her groundbreaking show about Surrealism. "What I'm thrilled about is its being lent by the people who originally made it," says Ades. "It's kind of an ambassador for this extraordinary story."

The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept. 25.

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