Art Term Tuesday: Surrealism

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

Is that art? Through delving into the subconscious mind, Surrealists didn’t just push the boundaries of what we call art, they purposefully created outside previously held aesthetic ideals, often combining multiple styles and materials in a single work. These works focused on illustrating their deepest thoughts as they surfaced by exploring the juxtaposition of recognizable shapes alongside fluid, organic forms and imagery.

A close look at Miró’s fantastical creatures. Joan Miró, Spanish, 1893-1983. For The Prints of Joan Miró. Engraving and etching on paper, 1947. Loan from Dolan/Maxwell. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. Copyright belongs to  Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, which is why images are not shown in full.

Coined by poet Guilliame Apollinaire when referencing the idea of an independent reality existing beneath our conscious reality, the Surrealist movement took shape when, in 1924, French Poet Andre Breton penned his “Manifesto of Surrealism” influenced by the teachings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Building on the foundational Dada movement, which was also a reaction to the disillusionment following Word War I, Surrealists’ goal was to make objects “surreal” by what he called dépayesment, or estrangement. Experimenting with unorthodox materials and removing objects them from their intended context, think Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades”, both sought a playfulness and spontaneity, though Surrealists restrained from anything meant only to shock. The first exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, in 1925 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris set the visual tone for the movement. World War II pushed many Surrealists from Europe to the States, establishing the movement there and influencing subsequent artists and styles throughout the 20th century.

How, though, to access this subconscious plane of thought? With Freud’s work on dream analysis and free association, the Surrealists developed methods to liberate the imagination and reject the idea of “madness”. They formed techniques that forced them to work without thought to perfection or reason and embrace chance. One of these, automatic drawing/automatism, persists today. Heard of Exquisite Corpses? This timed drawing activity invites participants into a collaborative drawing whose end result is a mystery until the paper unfolds. With no time to plan, the exercise frees the mind to think outside its normal constraints. Today, TikTok creators are taking it a step further, stitching videos together to make collaborative and incongruous characters that are both delightful and humorous.

A close look at illustrations for a poem. Many visual Surrealists were inspired by various writings. Joan Miró, Spanish, 1893-1983. Poem by Ruthven Todd. Etching on paper, 1947. Loan from Dolan/Maxwell. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. Copyright belongs to  Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, which is why images are not shown in full.

You’ve opened your mind and accessed this other plane of thought. Now, how to capture these illusory dreams floating around in your unconscious mind? Surrealist imagery is simultaneously recognizable and undefinable, as each artist’s motif results from their own subconscious, juxtaposing recognized forms with the fantastic set against barren landscapes or simplified backgrounds. While there is overlap in their fascination with nature (Max Ernst looked to birds while Dalí looked to ants and eggs), the imagery is perplexing and outlandish, leaving the viewer to piece together how the recognizable joins the undefinable to create a naturalistic dreamscape. There is no medium attached to Surrealism, in the way acrylics on canvas define Impressionism, nor a dimension. While initially approached as a literary movement, artists quickly proved themselves capable of setting aside their labor-intensive practices and studied precision for spontaneity and chance. The visual artists who first approached Surrealism were Max Ernst, André Masson, Man Ray, and Joan Miró, the latter of whose work is now on view at FWMoA.

On display in Miró in New York, 1947: Miró, Hayter, and Atelier 17, Miró’s fantastical spaces rely on biomorphic, organic shapes presented in a myriad of acts across the canvas. His twisted lines make it difficult to identify specific things; instead, the viewer is left to make sense of the all-over arrangement that echoes a visual symphony. Despite never referring to himself as a Surrealist, his canvases are evidence of their influence, and this early foray led to further abstraction. Miró often used automatism to begin his canvases, starting with a doodle to capture the simultaneous chaos and lightheartedness of his interior scenes that are callbacks to 17th century Dutch genre paintings.

What shapes are familiar? What shapes are not? Joan Miró, Spanish, 1893-1983. Petite Fille Sautant a la Corde, Femmes, Oiseaux (Little Girl Jumping Rope, Women, Birds). Etching, printed in relief on paper, 1947. Loan from Dolan/Maxwell. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. Copyright belongs to  Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, which is why images are not shown in full.

Many Surrealists, like the Abstract Expressionists who followed them in the 1940s, focused on visualizing their emotions. In the wake of WWI & WWII, grief and anxiety, two emotions that we find difficult to share in words, blanketed the canvases. Others looked to muses like love or experimental conditions, like substances or forced lack of sleep, to see how the mind reacted. What these artists could not bear, or dare, to speak of, they found expressed in drawing and/or painting. Meret Oppenheim leaned into the more playful aspects of Surrealism; one of the few women to exhibit with the Surrealists, her fur teacup and spoon (Luncheon in Fur) accessed natural aversions to provoke an emotional reaction (but not shock!). Capturing form in fantasy, the Surrealists eschewed the rational for the bizarre by purposefully mixing hyperrealism with abstractness, the commonplace with the dreamscape. If, when viewing a Surrealist work, you are left wondering, disturbed, baffled, and/or amused, then the artist considers themselves successful.

Catch Miró in New York, 1947: Miró, Hayter, and Atelier 17 this week before it closes June 25th!

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