Dictionary of Art and Artists







MODERN ART


Impressionism to Post-Modernism




 

 

 

 

Contents:

1 Impressionism

2 Symbolism and Art Nouveau

3 Fauvism and Expressionism

4 Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism

5 Dada and Surrealism

6 Abstract Expressionism

7 Pop

8 Pluralism since 1960

 

 

 

 


5. Dada and Surrealism

(DAWN ADES)

 


Surrealism and Painting

The definition of
Surrealism given in the First Manifesto of 1924 was intended to be conclusive.

'SURREALISM, noun. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

'Encycl. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.'

This certainly makes the scope of
Surrealism clear. Although Breton was later to describe it as fundamentally an attack on language in the interests of poetry, this was on the natural understanding that language is fundamental to our knowledge of the world, and that poetry is not just the printed word on the page but keeping oneself permanently open, available to all new experience. Jacques Baron, a schoolboy at the time, remembered the overwhelming experience of walking the Paris streets with Aragon or Breton, and the intense relationships between the Surrealists which he called poesie-amilie.

Painting was mentioned in the Manifesto only in a footnote, and in spite of one or two close friendships between poets and painters, notably between Breton and
Masson, and Eluard and Ernst, the painters kept themselves a little apart from the group. This was to maintain their independence, for Breton had an intense desire to control everything that went on around him, and although he wrote many articles which try to define the Surrealist nature of the paintings, they seldom fit neatly into his rather rigid definition, and to describe them in terms of Surrealism is often inadequate. Significantly, the title of the most important series of articles was 'Surrealism and Painting' (1927), not 'Surrealist Painting'. Painting had a tangential relationship with the core of Surrealist activity. However, in Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism, Breton does define two major routes open to the Surrealist artist: firstly automatism, and secondly 'the trompe-l'ail fixation of dream images'. This serves to establish broad categories for the paintings, although individual painters, and even individual paintings, by no means stick rigidly to one or the other.

In the winter of 1922-23 Joan Miro and
Andre Masson met at a party and discovered that they had adjoining studios in an old building on the rue Blomet (where Arp later came to join them). They immediately became close friends, and a little later Miro asked Masson whether he should go to see Picabia or Breton. 'Picabia is already the past,' Masson replied; 'Breton is the future.' The atmosphere of excitement and constant ferment of new ideas generated by the Surrealists were much more stimulating to them than the various groups of painters in Paris who still seemed to be locked in an increasingly unprofitable relationship with Cubism. 'I'll smash their guitar,' Miro once said. By 1924 Joan Miro, Andre Masson and the young writers who had gathered round Masson including Michel Leiris, Antonin Artaud and Georges Limbour, had become part of the Surrealist movement, part of a 'moral community', as Leiris describes it.

At first, although in different ways, it was the ideas behind the principle of automatism that attracted
Miro and Masson. In the First Manifesto Breton describes his first attempts, as early as 1919 and influenced by Freud, to write down 'a monologue delivered as rapidly as possible, on which the critical mind of the subject should make no judgment, which should not, consequently, be hampered by any reticence, and which should be as nearly as possible spoken thought'. He and Philippe Soupault, who joined in the experiment, were astonished at the result, 'a considerable choice of images of a quality such that we would have been incapable of producing a single one in the normal way of writing'. These pages were published in 1919 under the titles Les Champs magneliques, Magnetic Fields.

In 1924
Masson began to make automatic drawings. Using a pen and Indian ink he let his hand travel rapidly over the paper, forming a web of lines from which images began to emerge, which Masson then either develops or leaves in a suggestive stage. In the best of these drawings there is an extraordinary coherence, a textural unity, which in for instance the horse's head suggests water, pebbles, seaweed, fishes, behind the dominant image of the horse. Others have suggestions of obsessive sexual imagery, twined bodies and clasped hands. Masson was interested in the moment of metamorphosis, when a line was in the process of  becoming something else. The effect of these drawings on his paintings, hitherto sombre, rather inflexible and heavily influenced by Cubism, was an immediate loosening-up; but working in oil paint he could never achieve the same fluidity. Connected with the automatic drawings were a series of sand paintings he began in 1927. Roughly spreading a canvas with glue, he then sprinkled or threw handfuls of sand on it, tipping the canvas to retain sand only on the glued bits. He then added a few lines or patches of colour, which, as in the drawings, would evoke the image he found there. One of his most radical acts was in the ironically named Painting, 1927, where the thick coloured lines have been applied direct from the tube of paint. An exchange between Masson and Matisse in 1932 exemplifies the fundamental difference between Surrealism and other modernist traditions.

Masson explained: 'I begin without an image or plan in mind, but just draw or paint rapidly according to my impulses. Gradually, in the marks I make, I see suggestions of figures or objects. I encourage these to emerge, trying to bring out their implications even as I now consciously try to give order to the composition.'
'That's curious,' Matisse replied. 'With me it's just the reverse. I always start with something — a chair, a table - but as the work progresses I become less conscious of it. By the end, I am hardly aware of the subject with which I started.'


Andre Masson
Dreamed Embrace


Andre Masson
Painting

 

Whatever the influence certain Surrealist techniques (such as Masson's use of paint direct from the tube) may have had on subsequent abstract artists, such as the Action Painters, the end result for Masson, as for Ernst in his frottages, was fundamentally different, the move being, in Breton's phrase, 'towards the object'.
Max Erns made his first frottage in 1921, but did not develop the idea any further until 1925, when he took it up as a direct answer to the poets' automatic writing.

'The procedure of frottage, resting thus upon nothing more than the intensification of the irritability of the mind's faculties by appropriate technical means, excluding all conscious mental guidance (of reason, taste, morals), reducing to the extreme the active part of that one whom we have called up to now the "author" of the work, this procedure is revealed to be the exact equivalent of that which is already known by the term automatic writing.' Becoming obsessed by the cracks in some floorboards, he decided 'to examine the symbolism of this obsession and, to assist my meditative and hallucinatory powers, 'I obtained from the floor-boards a series of drawings by dropping on them at random pieces of paper I then rubbed with black lead.' So far the technique is not new, but in Ernst's hands the 'drawings steadily lose, thanks to a series of suggestions and transmutations occurring to one spontaneously... the character of the material being studied - wood - and assume the aspect of unbelievably clear images of a nature probably able to reveal the first cause of the obsession'.
Erns began to include other materials, sacking, leaves, thread, and other things, and their transformation in the final frottage, worked now into a harmonious and balanced picture, sometimes makes the original material unrecognizable.

Ernst adapted this technique to oil painting, by scraping a canvas, previously spread with pigments, when it was placed on an uneven surface, enabling, in his words, 'painting to travel with seven-league boots a long way from Renoir's three apples, Manet's four sticks of asparagus, Derain's little chocolate women, and the Cubist's tobacco packet, and to open up for it a field of vision limited only by the "irritability" capacity of the mind's powers. Needless to say this has been a great blow to art critics who are terrified to see the importance of the "author" being reduced to a minimum and the conception of "talent" abolished.' Ernst's Forest and Dove of 1927 uses this grattage technique to build up an evocative image of the forests that had haunted him since his childhood at Bruhl, near Cologne, when he used to accompany his father into the forest to paint.


Max Erns
Head


Max Erns
Forest and Dove

 

Miro, although he too used automatic procedures to a certain extent, treated them more cavalierly than Ernst or Masson, focusing far more intently on the work itself and less on any theoretical overtones such procedures might have. But there is no doubt that the Surrealists were responsible for the flowering of a fantastic imagination in the Tilled Field (1923-24). Basically the same subject as The Farm, painted a year earlier, his family's farm in Catalonia, in place of the delicate and precise illusionism, with every detail of the tufts of grass on the farm wall painted in almost like a Douanier Rousseau, the landscape is suddenly filled with extraordinary creatures (some with an ancestry going back to Bosch), and the man-and-plough on the right reappears grotesquely as a bull-man with all its sexual connotations (Minotaur?) on the left. The technique, although flatter, is still fairly illusionistic, but in 1925 he began to cover his canvases freely with great waves of colour, sometimes with a brush, sometimes rubbing with a rag. On this background, now floating in a space which has nothing to do with perspectival space and the horizon line, he places forms and lines from his developing language of signs (The Birth of the World). It was of paintings like these that Miro wrote: 'I begin painting, and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself, under my brush. The form becomes a sign for a woman or a bird as I work. The first stage is free, unconscious.' But, he added, 'the second stage is carefully calculated.'


Joan Miro
The Farm


Joan Miro
Tilled Field

 

Breton expressed reservations about these paintings in Le Surrealisme el la peinlure: 'Of the thousands of problems which preoccupy him to no degree at all, even though they are the ones which trouble the human spirit, there is only one perhaps towards which Miro has any inclination: to abandon himself to painting, and only to painting (which is to restrict himself to the one domain in which we may be sure he has the means), to give himself over to pure automatism to which, for my part, I have never ceased to appeal, but of which I fear that Miro has come too summarily to the proof of its worth and its deep rationale. Perhaps, it is true, for that reason, that he will pass for the most "Surrealist" of us all. But how far we are in his work from that "chemistry of the intellect" of which we had been speaking!'

This 'chemistry of the intellect' which Breton praised was Masson's work. Aragon was to criticize
Miro in the same spirit when he talked of his 'imbecile harmonies'. Criticism like this does little but rebound upon the critic; however it does demonstrate the kind of demand Surrealism made of painting: that its interest should not lie in the sensuous pleasure of the paint surface, but in the enigmatic, hallucinatory or revelatory power of the image. 'Only the marvellous is beautiful,' wrote Breton in the First Manifesto, and in Le Surre'alisme el la peinture he says: 'It is impossible for me to consider a painting in any other way than as a window, and my first concern is to know what it looks out on to.'

After 1924
Miro's painting became intricately linked in various ways with the poetry of the Surrealists and of those poets they admired, like Rimbaud and Saint-Pol-Roux. Portrait of a Dancer is a monosyllabic evocation; Smile of my Blonde is an emblem of Miro's beloved, her hair bearing symbols, sexual attributes, in a way similar to Rimbaud's poem 'Voyelles', where each vowel is associated with a colour and a series of esoteric metaphors for parts of the female body:

A, black corset hairy with glittering flies
that buzz around cruel smells
Gulfs of darkness ...

The 'trompe-l'ail fixation of dream images' which Breton defines as the other route open to Surrealist painters, is perhaps a misleading term. The illusionistic 'hand-painted dream picture' is not necessarily dealing specifically with symbolic dream images, and one should be careful of treating it as an entity open, as dreams may be, for analysis. It may be using dream images; it may use images culled from different dreams; it may merely remind us of certain general characteristics of dreams. It is illusionistic painting, but not of the external world — the model is an interior world.


Joan Miro
The Birth of the World


Joan Miro
Smile of my Blonde

 

Tanguy's visionary paintings are based on a deep space in which strange objects float or stand, casting black shadows. In a general way they are like dreams, or the state of mind immediately before sleep which gives an internal sensation of endless space. Tanguy was one of the few self-taught Surrealist painters. He was fascinated by Giorgio de Chirico, and in Mama, Papa is Wounded (a title apparently taken from a psychiatric case history) the diagrammatic lines leading back to the enigmatic structure in the background perhaps refer to de Chirico's metaphysical paintings which contain blackboards covered with diagrams and equations, or to Ernst's Of This Men Shall Know Nothing. A Large Painting which is a Landscape of 1927 also has echoes of de Chirico, but the disorientation of the spectator is peculiar to Tanguy. An endless desert stretches out to the horizon, but is covered with wisps that suggest seaweed and the bottom of the sea. The spiky sculpture in Infinite Divisibility casts a deep shadow back into pure space, into what appears to be sky, and little shells, or bowls of water reflect the sky but are placed where the sky itself should be. Tanguy's later paintings become increasingly crowded with rock-like shapes that bear an affinity to the rocky beaches of his native Brittany.


Max Erns
Of This Men Shall Know Nothing


Yves Tanguy
Infinite Divisibility

 

Ernst, Tanguy and Magritte were all deeply influenced by de Chirico. It was the sight of one of his paintings in a gallery window that persuaded Tanguy to become a painter. But de Chirico himself was never a Surrealist. After 1917 his paintings reverted to academicism and held no more interest for the Surrealists - they felt he had betrayed himself. But from about 1910 to 1917 his enigmatic paintings of arcaded Italian squares, statues, railway stations, towers have a hallucinatory and dream¬like intensity, filled with a potent and unconscious sexual imagery. Unseen objects cast menacing shadows, and the clock in the Conquest of the Philosopher suggests the anguish of departure - the train is perhaps a memory of his engineer father, building railways in Greece where de Chirico spent his childhood. De Chirico might be celebrating the end of the domination of the ideal of classical beauty - an ideal being violently challenged in 1910 in Italy, where de Chirico was living, by the Futurists. But while they sought to substitute the beauty of the modern mechanical world of speed and power, de Chirico painted forgotton Greek statues, empty, bleached towns. He remembers sitting in a square in an Italian town staring at a statue, very weak after a long illness, and suddenly seeing the whole scene in an extraordinarily clear, hallucinatory light, with an enigmatic intensity which he wanted to reproduce in his paintings. Sometimes objects appear, disconnected, as though surfacing from a dream. In The Song of Love the green ball, red glove and classical mask are coupled, like an Ernst collage. The paintings are almost always empty of human beings, but after a while manikins enter to inhabit the increasingly stage-like settings.


Giorgio de Chirico
Conquest of the Philosopher


Giorgio de Chirico
The Song of Love

 

In 1921-24 Max Erns did a series of paintings, including Elephant Celebes, Oedipus Rex and Pieta or Revolution by Night, which are strongly influenced by de Chirico in their structure and cool intense light as well as in their actual imagery. They remain very obscure in meaning; if they are dream images, it is necessary to remember Freud's warning, when he was asked to contribute to a Surrealist anthology of dreams: 'a mere collection of dreams, without the dreamer's associations, without knowledge of the circumstances in which they occurred, tells me nothing, and I can hardly imagine what it would tell anyone.'

Wary of psychoanalysis in the absence of the conditions required by Freud, we may still suggest, in Oedipus Rex, bearing in mind Ernst's frequent and ambiguous references to his father, that the Oedipus legend as interpreted by Freud, whom Ernst had read, bore a personal significance for him. Oedipus blinded himself, and the references to eyes in the painting are disturbingly underlined by the balloon behind, a quotation from Odilon Redon's The Eye like a Strange Balloon.

Ernst shared the Surrealists' taste for exotic and primitive art. In Elephant Celebes the elephant itself is based on a photograph of an African corn bin transformed in Ernst's imagination into this grotesque animal, and a bull's head, reminiscent of an African mask, is suspended on the end of its pipe-trunk. One of his most striking paintings is The Robing of the Bride, where the figure of the bride is clothed only in a magnificent cloak inspired by Breton's description of a 'splendid and convulsive mantle made of the infinite repetition of the unique little red feathers of a rare bird, which is worn by Hawaiian chieftains'. Driven out by this overpowering and youthful primitive figure is a little cowering creature, a grotesque parody of the old hermaphrodite Tiresias of Greek legend. Ernst also made a number of sculptures, above all while he lived in Arizona after the Second World War, often directly inspired by African and Oceanic art. Breton himself owned a superb collection of primitive sculpture, objects and masks. Wifredo Lam, the Cuban painter who joined the Surrealists in 1938, painted a number of pictures which are poetic evocations of the voodoo masks and totemic objects with which he was familiar. It was in objects such as these that the Surrealists found directness of vision, an escape from the rational and the stereotyped hierarchies of Western thought, and above all that element of the marvellous that alone for them constituted beauty.

Among the most disturbing of all Surrealist works are the series of collage novels Ernst made, La Femme 100 tetes (1929) and Une Semaine de bonte (1934). Constructed almost entirely of old engravings, they consist of disorienting scenes in which often the scale is completely disrupted. In one scene from Une Semaine de bonte a man with a bird's head is seated in a railway carriage, and looking through the window is what at first appears to be the gigantic head of the Sphinx of Gizeh. There is a kind of delayed action in the effect of these collages; often after the immediate shock one becomes aware of more disturbing details, ambiguous textures, double images. Paul Eluard wrote about Ernst in Beyond Painting: 'It is not far -through the bird - from the cloud to the man; it is not far — through the images — from man to his visions, from the nature of real things to the nature of imagined things. Their value is equal. Matter, movement, need, desire, are inseparable. Think yourself a flower, a fruit or the heart of a tree, since they wear your colours, since they are necessary signs of your presence, since your privilege is in believing that everything is transmutable into something else.'


Max Erns
The Robing of the Bride


Max Erns
Une Semaine de bonte


Wifredo Lam
Composicion

 

Of the other makers of the 'hand-painted dream picture', the former Dadaist Man Ray produced perhaps the most spectacular images, such as Observatory Time - The Lovers.

 


Man Ray
Observatory Time - The Lovers

 

Victor Brauner's paintings, such as The Philosopher's Stone, are metamorphoses, evoking magical icons. In the work of Pierre Roy, and above all in that of Rene Magritte, the image is fixed in a flat, dead paint surface.


Victor Brauner
The Surrealist


Pierre Roy
Daylight Saving Time

 

Some Magritte paintings may really be memories of dreams. The Lovers, with their heads swathed in cloth, could be a dream transformation of his terrible memories of his mother's death, when he was a child; she was found drowned with her white gown wrapped round her head. It is impossible to know. But most of his paintings take the form of a dialogue with the world, a questioning of the reality of real phenomena, and their relation with their painted image (The Human Condition). Sometimes by disruption of the scale of objects he can turn something harmless into something menacing (like the monstrous Alice-through-the-looking-glass apple in The Listening Room) or puzzling (Personal Values). Often, although the image exists - there it is in the painting - it is impossible to grasp it because it is beyond our logical understanding: in The Field-Glass an open window reveals blackness beyond. Clouds are reflected in the shut casement, but the other casement is open, revealing an empty frame. On the Threshold of Liberty is a room panelled with motifs from Magritte's own paintings, with a cannon threatening violence or rape. His cover for a Surrealist magazine is perhaps his frankest expression of the violence underlying Surrealist imagery.


Rene Magritte
The Human Condition


Rene Magritte
Personal Values


Rene Magritte
On the Threshold of Liberty

 

In 1949 Magritte wrote a manifesto, Le Vrai Art de la peinture (which incidentally contains an attack on the 'magnetic fields of chance', an allusion to Breton and Soupault's early work), to explain his idea of the true function of painting, as opposed to its real rival, the cinema. 'The art of painting is an art of thinking, whose existence underlines the importance of the role held in life by the eyes of the human body.' He goes on to state something that is in fundamental opposition to our conception of a kind of immortality granted to art: 'The perfect painting produces an intense effect only for a very short time, and emotions resembling the first emotion felt are to a greater or lesser extent soiled by habit. . . . The true art of painting is to conceive and realize paintings capable of giving the spectator a pure visual perception of the external world.' It is not beyond the technical powers of a moderately skilful artist to evoke on canvas a blue sky - 'but this poses a psychological problem . . . what do you do with the sky?' Magritte's process is to make us aware, by contradiction ('in full obscurity', he says), of the appearance of a sky, a pipe, a woman, a tree. 'This is not a pipe', he writes underneath a perfectly banal painting of a pipe.

Magritte belonged to the Belgian Surrealist group, together with Paul Nouge and E. L. T. Mesens. They kept their distance from the Paris Surrealists. Paul Delvaux, also a Belgian, participated in Surrealist exhibitions while, like Magritte, keeping a certain distance between himself and the 'arbiter' of Surrealism, Andre Breton. Delvaux's often large canvases are of silent cities, sometimes entered by a train from a De Chirico painting, and peopled with sleep-walking nudes. Dream-like (it is usually night), they seem really to be the dreams of the figures themselves (Sleeping Venus), therefore curiously self-contained.

 


Paul Delvaux
Sleeping Venus

 

Salvador Dali, who met and immediately joined the Surrealist movement in 1928, provokes the most difficult questions about the possible realization of dreams on canvas, and hence about the symbolic function of the imagery.

First, one must remember that the dream for Freud, and also for Breton, was a direct path to the unconscious; the way in which a dream deals with its subject, condensing, distorting, allowing contradictory facts or impressions to exist side by side without any conflict - what Freud calls dream-work - is characteristic of the processes of the unconscious. The manifest content of the dream, what we remember when we wake up, probably masks latent, hidden meanings, which may be revealed by the dreamer's associations, achieved through analysis. For most of the Surrealists dreams were valuable simply for their poetic content, as documents from a marvellous world, whose hidden sexual symbolism none the less filled them with delight. The first number of the Surrealist periodical La Revolution surrialiste contained simple accounts of dreams by Breton, De Chirico, Renee Gauthier; 'Only the dream leaves man with all his rights to liberty.'
Dali, on the other hand, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s, presents dream images whose content is made manifest. Freud, who met Dali, and found him infinitely more interesting than the other Surrealists, immediately understood what Dali was doing. 'It is not the unconscious I seek in your pictures, but the conscious. While in the pictures of the masters - Leonardo or Ingres - that which interests me, that which seems mysterious and troubling to me, is precisely the search for unconscious ideas, of an enigmatic order, hidden in the picture. Your mystery is manifested outright. The picture is but a mechanism to reveal itself.' Dali had read Freud, as well as Krafft-Ebing on the psychopathology of sex, and his 'vice of self-interpretation, not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me, however accidental it might seem at first glance', is clear not only in his paintings but in books like Le Mythe tragique de I'Angelus de Millet, in which the hidden content of Millet's painting, and hence the cause of Dali's obsession with it, reveals itself to him through a series of associations, coincidences and dreams.

The Dismal Sport (Le Jeu lugubre), a painting which made the Surrealists hesitate before admitting
Dali to their group, fearing it revealed coprophiliac tendencies in Dali, swarms (as does Illumined Pleasures) with examples of symbols straight from the pages of text-books of psycho¬analysis. It is impossible to tell what may be a dream image, and what Dali's analysis of it. Certainly the images make perfectly clear Dali's fear of sex, guilt about masturbatory fantasies, and consequent castration fears. In another series of paintings Dali interprets the legend of William Tell as a kind of reversed Oedipal myth about castration. Like The Dismal Sport, the Giraffe in Flames bunches its matter into concentrated areas of canvas, a deliberate analogy with Freud's description of dream-work.


Salvador Dali
The Dismal Sport


Salvador Dali
Giraffe in Flames

 

'The only difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad,' Dali once said. He turned his willed paranoia into a system that he called 'paranoiac critical activity', defined as 'a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based upon the interpretive-critical association of delirious phenomena'. 'Paranoiac-critical activity discovers new and objective significances in the irrational; it makes the world of delirium pass tangibly on to the plane of reality.' Paranoiac phenomena are 'common images having a double figuration'. In other words one object can be read as itself and as another quite different object, and so on; in theory the ability to continue to see double or treble figuration depended, like Ernst's frottage technique, on the spectator's powers of voluntary hallucination. Impressions of Africa (1938) has a whole train of double images, becoming increasingly minute, in the top left-hand corner, starting from Gala's eyes, which are also the arcades in the building behind. On the right, curious rock formations, inspired by the volcanic rocks near his home at Port Lligat, in Catalonia, turn into human figures. In fact Dali is fixing and making visible for us his own double images, rather than inviting us to read into it what we will.

 


Salvador Dali
Impressions of Africa

 

Dali deliberately used an ultra-illusionistic technique, a 'return to Meissonier' (a much-abused nineteenth-century academic painter), as a kind of anti-art. 'The illusionism of the most abjectly arriviste and irresistible imitative art, the usual paralysing tricks of Irompe-l'ail, the most analytically narrative and discredited academicism, can all become sublime hierarchies of thought and the means of approach to new exactitudes of concrete irrationality.' He describes works like Six Apparitions of Lenin ... as 'instantaneous and hand-done colour photography'.

In 1928
Dali collaborated with Luis Bunuel on the film Un Chien andalou, and in 1930 they made L'Age d'or, whose more openly sacrilegious and political themes in fact are predominantly the work of Bunuel. A manifesto written by the Surrealists was included in the programme of L'Age d'or, together with drawings by Dali, Miro, Ernst, Man Ray and Tanguy. It included the following passage:

'All those who are not yet alarmed by what the censorship allows them to read in the newspapers must go and see L'Age d'or. It complements the present stock exchange crisis perfectly, and its impact is all the more direct just because it is Surrealistic . . . just as in everyday life, accidents occur in bourgeois society while that society pays no attention whatsoever. But such accidents (and it must be noted that in Bunuel's film they remain uncorrupted by plausibility) further debilitate an already rotting society that tries to prolong its existence artificially by the use of priests and policemen. The final pessimism born within that society as its optimism begins to wane, becomes a powerful virus that hastens the process of disintegration. That pessimism takes on the value of negation and is immediately translated into anti-clericalism; it thus becomes revolutionary, since the fight against religion is also the fight against the world as it is.'

 


Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali
Still from
L'Age d'or

 

But is is love [l'amour, or desire] which brings about the transition from pessimism to action; Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family and honour. And the failure of love within the social framework leads to Revolt.'

In the work of some artists
Surrealism avowed a perverse kinship (as in Erns and Lam) to religion. Picasso's most Surrealist work is a violent Crucifixion.

 


Pablo Picasso
Crucifixion

 


The Surrealist Object


At the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris in 1938, the emphasis was not so much on paintings as on objects and the creation of a whole environment. Duchamp conjured up the installation of the exhibition. The main hall had a thousand sacks of coal hanging from the ceiling, with leaves and twigs littering the ground, a grass-bordered pool, and a large double bed in one corner. The corridor leading to the hall was bordered with manikins or dummies, embellished in various ways — Masson's wore a G-string covered with glass eyes, had its head in a cage and was gagged with a black band, with a pansy where the mouth should have been. In the courtyard at the entrance stood
Dali's Rainy Taxi, dripping with water, with live snails crawling all over it and a hysterical blonde passenger.

Surrealist objects are essentially found objects transformed, or mechanical objects 'functioning symbolically'.
Dali's Aphrodisiac Jacket is a dinner jacket hung all over with glasses; Oscar Dominguez metamorphosed an Art Nouveau statuette into the indescribable Arrival of the Belle Epoque.

Alberto Giacometti's sculptures in the early 1930s, when he was very close to the Surrealists, sometimes take on a symbolic function - in Suspended Ball for instance. He explained the genesis of the fragile Palace at 4 a.m. in the palaces built of matches that he used to construct at night with the woman he once lived with. The skeletal bird and the spinal column refer to incidents connected with her. The woman in The Invisible Object of 1934, with her hands slightly apart as if holding something, remained incomplete until one day walking with Breton in the Paris Flea-market he saw an old-fashioned gas-mask which he then incorporated as the head.

In an essay published in What is Surrealism? under the title of 'The Communicating Vessels', Breton discusses
Dali's proposition to make movable and erotic objects which would procure a particular sexual emotion by indirect means. These would, he thinks, be much less effective than objects 'less systematically determined'. When the latent content is deliberately contrived, as it is in Dali's account of his method, the shock effect is destroyed for the spectator. Such objects would lack 'the astonishing power of suggestion of the gold leaf electroscope' (two sheets of gold foil which spring apart when a metal rod approaches them). In another essay, 'Beauty will be convulsive', its title taken from the last words of his extraordinary novel Nadja, 'La beaute sera CONVULSIVE OU ne sera pas', he discusses more precisely the nature of that which he finds beautiful. He remains, he says, profoundly insensible to natural spectacles and works of art that do not 'immediately produce in me a state of physical disturbance characterized by the sensation of a wind brushing across my forehead and capable of causing me really to shiver. . . . I have never been able to help relating this sensation to erotic pleasure and can discover between them only differences of degree.' By 'convulsive', Breton understands not movement but 'expiration of movement' (a locomotive abandoned to virgin forest, the red feathers of the Hawaiian chieftain's cloak). He compares the work of art to a crystal, both as regards appearance, 'same hardness, rigidity, regularity and lustre on all its surfaces, both inside and out, as the crystal', and the spontaneous method of its creation. It is impossible to create this beauty by logical means. Clearly it is a matter of indifference whether the object that produces this sensation is made or found. Hans Bellmer's explicitly erotic objects, such as Ball Joint, of 1936, aim to disturb in the way Breton urged. What matters is the spectator's power to 'recognize the marvellous precipitate of desire'.


Oscar Dominguez
Arrival of the Belle Epoque


Alberto Giacometti
Suspended Ball


Hans Bellmer
Ball Joint

 


Postscript

I have severely limited this essay in several directions. Firstly, rather than directly discuss the relationship between
Dada and Surrealism, I have by implication stressed the differences rather than the similarities. They were of course sufficiently alike for many former Dadaists like Ernst, Man Ray, Arp, to join the Surrealists without making any radical changes in their work. As Arp said, 'I exhibited with the Surrealists because their rebellious attitude towards "art" and their direct attitude to life were wise, like Dada.' Surrealism inherited the same political enemies. But, clearly, it was a less anarchic, generous movement than Dada, erecting rigid rules and principles based on carefully formulated theories.

Secondly, painting is only one, and even a rather ancillary Surrealist activity. Much more of its energy was spent in the fields of poetry, philosophy, and politics. But for rather crucial reasons Surrealism became best known through its plastic works, because they proved to be the most direct way of imposing Surrealist vision.
Because the discussion has been confined more or less to the 1920s and 1930s it has been necessary to omit painters like
Matta, who, joining the movement in 1937, was the last new recruit to have a powerful effect on the visual expression of Surrealism.

Roberto Matta Echaurren, a Chilean who began his career studying architecture in Le Corbusier's office, joined the Surrealists in 1937 and began painting in 1938. He and Arshile Gorky, an Armenian-American, were really the last painters to offer new paths towards the visual expression of Surrealist thought. Paintings by Matta like Inscape (Psychological Morphology No. 104), 1939, and The Earth is a Man, 1942, are like metaphors for an inner landscape, with small, brightly lit cells appearing in places, giving a sensation of superimposed layers of matter which can peel away to reveal other worlds inside; these works were a strong influence on Gorky.
The presence of many of the Surrealists in America during the War, including
Breton, Ernst, Matta, and Dali, confirmed several young painters in one of the directions indicated by Surrealism - that of spontaneous automatic execution. As Jackson Pollock said in 1944: 'I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious. The idea interests me more than the specific painters do, for the two artists I admire most, Picasso and Miro, are still abroad.


Matta
Inscape (Psychological Morphology No. 104)


Matta
The Earth is a Man

 

Gorky, a painter whom Breton admired, had also served an apprenticeship to Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky. In paintings like How my Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in my Life (1944) and The Leaf of the Artichoke is an Owl (1944), paint is allowed to drip and run freely on the canvas. Gorky opened up new possibilities for expressing spontaneous and simultaneous impressions and perceptions.

 


Arshile Gorky
The Leaf of the Artichoke is an Owl

 

Breton wrote of him in Le Surrealisme et la peinture: 'By hybrid I mean the results produced by the contemplation of a natural spectacle in compounding itself with the flux of childhood memories that the extreme concentration before this spectacle provokes in an observer who possesses in the highest degree the gift of emotion. It is important to underline that Gorky is, of all Surrealist artists, the only one who keeps in direct contact with nature, in placing himself to paint in front of it. It is no longer a question, however, with him, of taking the expression of that nature for an end, but rather of summoning up from it feelings that can act as a springboard towards the deepening, in knowledge as much as in pleasure, of certain states of mind.'
Finally, I have not discussed in any detail the various techniques invented by the Surrealists to explore automatism further, like decalcomania, which involved spreading a sheet of paper with gouache or oil, laying another sheet of paper, on top, and peeling this off when the paint was nearly dry to reveal strange cavernous landscapes in the resulting configurations; or to invoke chance, like Cadavre Exquis, the child's game of head, body and legs. They were, as Breton said, only techniques, 'lamentable expedients', in the Surrealists' fight to conquer the imagination.


Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Valentihe Hugo
Cadavre Exquis

Surrealism was not a style of painting.
As
Andre Breton said of poetry in 1923,

'It is not where you think it is. It exists outside words, style etc....
I cannot acknowledge any value in any means of expression.'

The Surrealist painters illustrated here are those who, by their relationship with the core of Surrealist thought, demonstrate most clearly the vision the Surrealists wanted to impose on the world.

'Surrealism has suppressed the word "like"....

'He who fails to see a horse galloping on a tomato is a fool.
A tomato is also a child's balloon.'

 

 

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