Explore Surrealists works featured in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, taking place 12 November at 7:00 PM EDT, the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, taking place 13 November at 10:00 AM EDT and The Sleep of Reason Part II | A Private Collection of Surrealist Art Online, open from 29 October – 18 November.
S urrealism was born from the ashes of the First World War, when society at large – and artists in particular – were grappling with how to navigate a world that seemed utterly different from what it had been just a few years earlier. The armistice may have stopped the fighting, but it couldn't salve the growing alienation from and disillusionment with humanity. The only logical solution was to revolt, and writer and theorist André Breton led the charge. Turning to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Breton posited that artists should trade-in tradition and self-censorship for automatism, which would allow the subconscious mind to come to the forefront, either on the page or the canvas. By melding the subconscious with the conscious, artists could produce works that portrayed a more absolute reality.
Breton's Surrealist manifestos sparked an international movement, inspiring artists working across mediums to connect with their subconscious mind and express what they found in new, evocative ways. The greatest champions of the movement, including René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and others, created works that confront the viewer with his or her own deeper self.
Below, discover how these artists interpreted the ideals of Surrealism to create masterworks on canvas and paper.
T hough his works were (like his contemporaries’), enigmatic and deeply conceptual, Magritte’s precise execution and methodical reimagination of quotidian objects and settings put the artist at odds with his fellow Surrealists who privileged the automatic impulse above all else. “Magritte focused on familiar, yet idiosyncratic, subject matter, and honed a painting style that was decidedly readable. At the same time, his works questioned the logic of language and meaning, and exacerbated the puzzles of representation… Magritte never fully embraced the automatist techniques that were championed by Breton and practiced, to varying degrees by the artists surrounding him—including Arp, Ernst, André Masson, Miró, and Yvès Tanguy. Indeed, Magritte was suspicious of the 'so-called spontaneity' and the mediumistic aspect of such techniques” (J. Helfenstein & C. Elliott, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013, p. 72).
"Art, as I see it, resists psychoanalysis: it evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist – that is, mystery which is not to be confused with a sort of problem, however hard to solve. I am careful only to paint images which evoke the world's mystery."
René Magritte, Cosmogonie élémentaire, 1949
A triumphant exemplar of Magritte’s mature oeuvre after his return to Belgium, his 1949 painting Cosmogonie élémentaire combines myriad visual motifs accrued over the course of the artist’s career, rearranged to form an original composition in a process similar to that of his earlier word-paintings. This lyrical and provocative work draws from a previous, smaller composition on gouache painted just prior and encompasses the recurrent backgrounds of a cubed sky and mountain range, with a fire-breathing bilboquet at center with leaf and bell. Magritte’s visual lexicon stemmed from the Surrealist impetus and was predicated on the dreamlike decontextualization of familiar objects.
René Magritte, Le Cicérone, 1948
Painted in 1948, Le Cicérone is an enigmatic encapsulation of key themes Magritte had incorporated into his art during the decades prior. Ostensibly the titular Cicérone or guide, the anthropomorphic figure – which Magritte referred to as his bilboquet – seems to seek solace in the light of the moon, perhaps navigating the course of his travels like a crimson-caped legionnaire might have done in ancient Rome.
René Magritte, La Légende des siècles, 1950
La Légende des siècles establishes a dialogue between the monumental stone-age chair, presented as a natural phenomenon within a desolate landscape, and the tiny human-made version seated upon it. The present work is the third and most complex oil version on this theme that Magritte painted in 1950; the largest of the three versions is in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
René Magritte, La Saveur des larmes, circa 1951
Executed circa 1951, La Saveur des larmes combines Magritte’s hallmark themes in such a way as to engender several contradictions, juxtaposing the plant and animal world in one image, and presenting a setting that is at the same time an interior and a seascape, as seen in earlier works like Le Grand matin. By combining the idyllic setting of an island with a more sinister scene of consumption and decay, Magritte transports the viewer to a confounding and dreamlike realm which challenges the perception of recognizable objects.
René Magritte, La Recherche de la verité, 1962-63
Bearing a title likely derived from the philosopher Nicolas de Malebranche’s eponymous two-volume treatise, La Recherche de la verité presents a fantastical juxtaposition of exquisitely rendered forms. At right, a fish stands squarely on its fin as if hung by an imaginary hook. Though removed from its usual context, the image of the fish draws natural affinities with the seascape that lies just beyond the stony ledge. When removed from their ordinary context, Magritte’s objects challenge the viewer’s notion of perception, language and reality in an eminently Postmodern fashion.
"The painting develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses. It is this which gives me the sense of complete liberty, and for this reason I am incapable of forming a plan or making a sketch beforehand."
Yves Tanguy, Sans titre, 1936
Yves Tanguy, Sans titre, 1936
I n 1937, Óscar Domínguez entered a momentous transitional period in his art. The Spanish artist had relocated from the Canary Islands to Paris in 1932, determined to become a serious avant-garde painter. While Domínguez had followed Surrealist theories in his early works of the 1930’s, toward the end of the decade he began transitioning towards a more concentrated practice of automatic painting when attempting revelations of the subconscious.
Óscar Domínguez, Les Siphons surréalistes, 1937
In its dark, volcanic landscape and myriad motifs, Les Siphons surréalistes is a precursor to the artist’s période cosmique of the late 1930s, a time alluded to by Breton in his seminal text Des tendances les plus récentes de la peinture surréaliste—Breton described Domínguez as the painter who could, “with a movement of the arm as unstudied and quick as that of a window cleaner transport us into those realms of pure fascination that have remained unvisited since, as children, we contemplated color images of meteors in books” (Breton quoted in La Part du Jeu et du Rêve: Oscar Domínguez et le Surréalisme 1906-1957 (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 199).
A ndré Breton once described Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism," and encouraged and practiced automatic experiments in writing and drawing. Salvador Dalí, who'd personally met both Breton and famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, disavowed Breton's automatism in favor of a more intentional approach to art making. In the early 1930s he developed his “paranoiac-critical” method, essentially an induced state of paranoia that allowed for the deconstruction of identity that encouraged the subjective mind to conjure links between otherwise disparate or unlikely objects.
"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."
Salvador Dalí, Femme à la tête de roses, conceived in 1981, cast in 1987
Salvador Dalí, Cavalier, rose et nu, 1959
T he remarkable creativity evidenced in the work of Remedios Varo stands as some of the most significant contributions to the story of Surrealism. The complex matrix of influences that serve as the foundational architecture and iconography for her paintings—from medieval history and Greek mythology to scientific reason and alchemy, nature, and pagan practices—is uniquely her own. While Varo’s reality is abundant with fantasia, she presents her fantastic pictorial universe within the sobering realities of her past.
"I do not believe that in its essence it (Surrealism) can decline since it is a sentiment inherent to man...Surrealism has contributed to art in the same way that psychoanalysis has contributed to the exploration of the subconscious."
Remedios Varo, L’École buissonnière (haciendo novillos), 1962
Executed in 1962, L’École buissonnière (haciendo novillos) is an essential example of Varo’s complex visual lexicon. Grounding the extraordinary into the ordinary, she invites viewers into a world within the context of daily experience, filling her paintings with self-referential characters who are abstracted, metaphoric, ironic. L’École buissonnière (haciendo novillos) embodies Varo’s lifelong pursuit for freedom and ascension to a world of special, divine knowledge. Literally translating to “school in the bush”, and colloquially as “playing hooky”, Varo presents us with a youth who has snuck away to the forest in pursuit of accessing the secret connections between the human and otherworldly. Creating a scene of extraordinary subtlety, Varo utilizes elements of the natural world to harken cultural traditions of initiatory ceremonies to mark a child’s transition to adulthood.
O ne of the most renowned Cuban artists of the modern era, Wifredo Lam achieved an inventive synthesis of European modernism and Afro-Caribbean symbolism. His work during the 1930s was influenced by the Cubist, Surrealist and Fauvist movements, and was enthusiastically championed by Picasso, who made the introductions that led to his first exhibition in Paris. By the 1940s, Lam’s approach to painting, composition and imagery was one tasked with a renewed spirit and distinct direction. In re-encountering his native country's lush, natural landscape and reviving his interest in Santería practices, an unprecedented, inventive aesthetic style emerged.
"As I work, I do everything intuitively."
Wifredo Lam, Femme avec un oiseau, 1949
Femme avec un oiseau (1949) portrays the seductive figure of a femme cheval, the avatar of female power largely considered the cornerstone motif in Lam's work. (Lowery Stokes Sims, "Lam's Femme Cheval: Avatar of Beauty," in Lam in North America (exhibition catalogue), Milwaukee, Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art, 2007, p. 28.) As a formal archetype, the Femme cheval embodies the Africanized forms, modernist hybridization and anatomical disjuncture first consolidated in The Jungle (1943), Lam's preeminent masterpiece in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Wifredo Lam, Au Commencement de la Nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam), 1959
In Lam's Au Commencement de la Nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam), the artist depicts himself within the mythical and fantastic world of his imagery, stalking across the composition on horseback. He seems arrested in motion and turns bearded head towards the spectator, breaking the wall of the picture plane and inviting the viewer into a world beyond our own. Like its famous namesake La Rencontre, in which Gustave Courbet depicts himself meeting friend and collector Alfred Buyas and his valet, M. Calas, on the road, Au Commencement de la Nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam) is also a self-portrait. Painted in 1959, at the height of the artist’s mature period, it represents an exegesis of a critical moment from the artist’s early childhood in which he was awoken in the night by a bat darting through his room in a flash of light. Here, as flora, fauna and human forms arise entangled in the dark of night before the viewer, the artist heralds the integration of his intricate mystical iconography with symbols of deep personal significance.
B orn to a middle-class Catholic family near Cologne, Germany, Max Ernst (1891–1976) was prominent in both the Dada and the Surrealist movements, making his mark as a painter, sculptor and maker of enigmatic objects. Known for his interest in the unconscious, social commentary and experimentations with subjects and techniques, he was a witness to the evolution of the 20th century.
"Reader, when you cross the threshold of Max Ernst's world, abandon all hope of receiving held from the outside...you will have to walk alone."
Max Ernst, Remous, 1925
Remous is part of the La Mer series which Ernst painted around 1925 in the seaside town of Pornic in Brittany, which inspired the marine aesthetic of the series. It was here that Ernst developed his technique of frottage, one of the most consequential inventions of his career. This technique resulted in fantastical images through what Ernst called his “voyages of discovery,” and incorporated elements of chance and automatism, key concepts in Surrealist thought.
Max Ernst, Forêt, circa 1934-35
T he work of Chilean painter Matta functions as a bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and between the European avant-garde and its American counterpart in 20th century Modernism. As a young man, Matta met crucial artists and thinkers of the Surrealist movement, including René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and André Breton. As an artist, Matta experimented with the processes of automatism, and produced works of rich color and loose brushstrokes that laid biomorphic shapes over the architectonic forms, references to his architectural undergraduate education at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and as a student of Le Corbusier.
"Matta's first contribution to Surrealist painting, and the most important, was the discovery of regions of space until then unknown in the field of art."
Matta, Conduite interieure, 1969
Conduite interieure and other paintings from this series were inspired by the 1960s dining room of Matta's Parisian home. The walls and ceiling of which were painted throughout creating a box-like effect that transported the viewer into Matta's universe. Conduite interieure is closely related to Abrir el cubo y encontrar la vida (1969), a work in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile.
Matta, Horror is not truth, 1948
Following the Second World War, Matta became fascinated by the possibility of rebirth, of rebuilding a world devastated by conflict. After breaking from the Surrealists in 1948, he departed from meditation on the subconscious and sought to create work directly connected to the political moment. Matta believed that the role of painting was “shaking the spectators to enable them to get a better grip of reality, of a reality which is not represented because it is life itself.” The present painting, architectonic and linear yet bursting with organic forms and life-giving color, embodies this dynamic spirit.
Matta, Ans word, 1976
B orn in Vienna in 1905, Wolfgang Paalen began to study art in Paris at a young age, including under Fernand Léger and Hans Hofmann. He joined the Surrealist group in Paris in 1935, during which time he invented the technique of fumage, a method of artmaking in which smoke is used as a medium of composition on canvas or paper. Alongside many of the European Surrealists, Wolfgang Paalen and his wife Alice Rahon fled the continent at the dawn of World War II to find refuge in Mexico in 1939. While there he became fascinated with the art and cosmogony of Native Americans of the Northwest Coast and broke from the Surrealist group, dedicating himself (alongside longtime friends Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican) to an artistic praxis focused on the cosmic relationship between humankind and the natural world.
"Why should works of art be easy to understand in a world in which nothing is easy to understand?"
Wolfgang Paalen, L'Oméga, 1953
"Paintings, like dreams, have a life of their own and I have always painted very much the way I dream."
Leonor Fini, L'Escarpolette III, 1970
Leonor Fini, Femme avec le sphinx, circa 1946
Leonor Fini, Tête de femme, circa 1946