Surrealism

Rene Magritte, The Portrait, 1935

Art is to do with sex and the unconscious. Iris Murdoch

Human beings are thinking creatures so its almost impossible for us to create meaningless art – even as a joke, or to make a point.  And, if we do manage to make a truly senseless work, we soon lose interest.  So after a brief run, the Dadaists turned to surrealism.  It was a natural development. If you eschew the conscious, rational world, then you’ve only the unconscious left.

You can find out more about surrealism – and art history – at this great site:   metmuseum.org/toah/hd/surr/hd_surr.htm

At first surrealists were a little suspicious of visual arts.  “Automatic Drawing” like this was OK because it was spontaneous:

Andre Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924

But finished paintings take planning and care.  These are rational qualities.  After awhile, though, they saw that painting was very much suited to surrealism.  How did they miss Odilon Redon?

I picked four surrealists to illustrate this point.  Surreal images come up spontaneously from the unconscious, but they can then be organized (somewhat) rationally in a painting.  Perhaps that is one of the main functions of art, to help us make sense of the strange world within us.

Giorgio de Chirico

1888 – 1978

What shall we love, if not the enigma?

To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.

  • Best known for work between 1909 – 1919.
  • Thought of world as an enormous museum of miracles.
  • Very influential:  Painters Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Philip Guston all acknowledge debt.  So did the poets John Ashbery and Sylvia Plath.
  • PlayStation 2 game Ico and Shadow of  Colossus based on his paintings.
  • 1919 became opponent of modern art (!)
  • Wrote influential books on metaphysics.
  • Later stuff didn’t sell so “back dated” work.
  • His loneliness is a bit like Edward Hopper.


Giorgio de Chirico, The Red Tower, 1913

Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913

Giorgio de Chirico, The Melancholy of Departure, 1914

Giorgio de Chirico, The Disquieting Muses, 1916

Max Ernst

1891 – 1976

Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation.

All good ideas arrive by chance.

  • Philosophy student; no formal art training.
  • Traumatized (like everyone) by service in WWI.
  • Hated his pious art teacher father.
  • Passed through Dada.
  • Obsessed with birds.
  • Many affairs, married 4 times.
  • Robert Hughes says his art is:  new, surprising, despicable.  He calls him not so much a talented artist as a brilliant maker of images.  Also described his work as unexploded land mines left on the old battlefield of modernism.
  • Worked in collage; made realities collide.
  • Jackson Pollock saw him rhythmically swing a can of paint with a hole in it over a canvas…


Max Ernst, Aquis Submersis, 1919

Max Ernst, Murdering Airplane, 1920

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921

Max Ernst, Ubu Imperator, 1923

Max Ernst, Two Children Threatened by a Nightengale, 1924

Max Ernst, The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and the Painter, 1926

Max Ernst, L'Ange de Foyeur, 1937

Rene Magritte

1898 – 1967

Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.

  • Belgian.  Mother drowned herself in 1912.  From Wikipedia:

This was not her first attempt; she had made many over a number of years, driving her husband Léopold to lock her into her bedroom. One day she escaped, and was missing for days. She was later discovered a mile or so down the nearby river, dead. According to a legend, 13 year old Magritte was present when her body was retrieved from the water, but recent research has discredited this story, which may have originated with the family nurse.[2] Supposedly, when his mother was found her dress was covering her face, an image that has been suggested as the source of several paintings Magritte painted in 1927–1928 of people with cloth obscuring their faces, including Les Amants.[3]

  • Worked designing wallpaper, posters, advertising, couldn’t sell his work.
  • Forged paintings and banknotes during lean wartime and post wartime years.
  • Known for putting ordinary objects into extraordinary settings.  Very influential for Pop Art (That’s where I first ran into him: Psychedelic Sixties)
  • Interested in blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928-9

Rene Magritte, The Rape, 1934

Rene Magritte, The Human Condition, 1935

Rene Magritte, Not to be Reproduced, 1937

Rene Magritte, Time Transfixed, 1938

Rene Magritte, The Empire of Light, 1954

Rene Magritte, Perspective: Madame Recamier, 1951

Jacques-Louis David, Madame Recamier, 1800

Rene Magritte, Personal Values, 1952

Salvador Dali

1902 -1989

Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí.

Dalí is immortal and will not die.

George Orwell: One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.

  • Dalí’s older brother, also named Salvador, died nine months before his birth.  Dali was told he was his brother’s reincarnation.  Dali believed that he was probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute.
  • Mother died when he was 16.  Terrible blow.  After her death his father married his wife’s sister.
  • Attended art school; known for talent and eccentricity, finally expelled.
  • Influenced by many different styles and artists.
  • Bullied and coddled by his girlfriend, then wife, Gala.
  • Eventually thrown out of surrealist group for his support of fascism.  His reply:  I myself am surrealism. Andre Breton (one of the founders of surrealism) called him “Avida Dollars”, an anagram for Salvador Dalí, and a phonetic rendering of the French avide à dollars, which may be translated as “eager for dollars.”
  • Runny Camembert cheese inspired the melting clocks.
  • Impotence frequent theme.
  • Irrational fear of grasshoppers; supposedly jumped out of a window upon seeing one.

And Robert Hughes believed that  almost all the works of art that make up his contribution to modernism, and on which his fame as a serious artist rests, were painted before his 35th birthday. In fact they were done in about seven years, from 1929 to 1936. Before, his work is all a pastiche of others. After 1937, it is mostly parody of himself.  Hughes also believed that his best work is little short of dream photography.

Salvador Dali, The Lugubrious Game, 1929

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Beans, 1936

Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937

Salvador Dali, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Waking, 1944

Salvador Dali, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, 1951

Salvador Dali, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, 1959

Salvador Dali, Tuna Fishing, 1966-67

How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

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