Following the mystical path we have traveled from Ukiyo-e and the Impressionists through Art Nouveau and the Dadaists, we find ourselves in Paris. The year is 1924. A Dadaist weirdo named Andre Breton has just written The Surrealist Manifesto and birthed a new artistic movement that produced works that continue to mesmerize and haunt the patrons of world class museums to this day. Some of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Surrealism.
Surrealism followed the same commitment to arbitrary strangeness that Dada had. Many of the early Surrealists had been Dadaists. But the thing that set Surrealism apart was its exploration and focus on the work of Sigmund Freud and the human subconscious. Particularly dream states. This is where things actually begin to get psychedelic. Surrealists took the biomorphic elements of Art Neaveau, the absurdist elements from Dadaism, and the color and uncanny spacial relationships from the Impressionists and balled it up in one beautifully weird package. From works that are stunning to look at like Swans Reflecting Elephants by Dali to Magritte’s epic commentary on the nature of objectivity in The Treachery Of Images, Surrealism was a broad movement. It was expressed in literature, painting, film, photography, theatre and music.
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Gloves
While the idealistic elements of Surrealism are firmly rooted in two influences; the fascination with human subconscious and the absurdist approach of Dada, the visual influence can be traced to the works of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. Mainly his 1915 piece The Song Of Love.
In the piece we find a surreal scene set in an empty, dusk lit piazza. While a train rolls by in the background, we focus our eye on a seemingly gigantic pink glove. A relatively normal human object that looks unsettling when presented limp and hanging from a tac on a wall. Next to it is the plaster head of a Roman statue which further symbolizes the uncanny feeling of human yet not human within the piece. Then we have a rubber ball in the bottom left creating a strange juxtaposition with the other elements. The piece feels naggingly strange. The way that a spell of deja vu or being wide awake at 4am for no reason makes me feel. An assemblage of normal objects and places and lighting. But when presented all together they feel dreamlike and abnormal.
When Rene Magritte saw The Song Of Love for the first time he said tears were streaming down his face. Later in life when asked about seeing the piece he said, “to actually see thought” was one of the most emotionally powerful moments of his life. At one point he named a painting of his own The Song of Love. While it has different elements in the piece the general feel and subject matter are very similar. But you know what they say, Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Journeys Into The Mind
In their pursuit of accessing the subconscious the Surrealists experimented with hypnotism, automatism, bulletism, entopo graphomania, and all kinds of weird ways of tuning out the ego and engaging the subconscious mind. Salvador Dali used a process he invented called Paranoiac Critical Method. He described it as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical-interpretative association of the phenomena of delirium’ which is a fancy way of describing the same thing we do when we look at clouds and interpret them as animals or physical objects. It’s looking at the world and trying to see something otherworldly in its images. Pretty weird!
The most iconic Surrealist piece is probably The Persistence Of Memory by Salvador Dali. Or as most people refer to it, “the melting clocks.”
The piece is immediately reminiscent of the earlier influential work of Giorgio de Chirico. The desolate desert scene draped in an eerie light is similar to his scenes of abandoned piazzas. The focal elements are these limp melting clocks. They are all set to slightly different times furthering the feelings of the scene having a dreamlike quality.
These slipping and sliding clocks symbolize our subconscious knowledge of the pressure and illusiveness of time. Due to the eminent nature of death, we are always beholden to the clock wile simultaneously knowing that the moments of our lives are fleeting and intangible. They can never be fully grasped. Only felt and experienced before they slip past. Covering the pocket watch in the lower left are a small army of ants. Something Dali used often in his paintings. Here they symbolize the decay that is one of the inevitable outcomes of time. Finally on the ground we see a self portrait of the mustachioed master himself. Draped in one of the elusive clocks.
The Threads Of Subconscious Expression Continue To Be Sewn
While Surrealism reached its peak in popularity in the 1930s the movement remains active today all over the world. The films of Alejandro Jodorowsky are incredible works of surrealist fantasy. David Lynch incorporates a lot of surrealist elements in his films as well. Especially the dream sequences in Twin Peaks. These 10 up and coming artists are actively creating surrealist pieces. So while all the movements we have discussed previously have faded out of popularity, Surrealism continues on in the imaginations of artists today.
As we continue onward down the road from Surrealism our next stop is the Americana drenched fantasyland of American Pop Art. A genre caked in sarcasm as well as all the influences we have discussed from Ukiyo-e to Surrealism. Stay tuned!