Surrealism: A Journey through the Subconscious

Surrealism: A Journey through the Subconscious

F ew art movements have been as influential and expansive as Surrealism. What began as a rebellion against the stifling rationality that permeated the beginning of the 20th century, grew into a vibrant, cross-disciplinary creative force which took root across the world, and continues to inspire to this day. Spearheaded by poet André Breton and formalised in his 1924 manifesto, the movement ignited a new form of artistic language that championed the power of unconscious thought, through a combination of free association, corporeal eroticism and the uncanny imagery of dreams.

Salvador Dalí The Persistence of Memory 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2021.

The mythologies that surround household names such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte have historically perpetuated a rather one-dimensional view of the Surrealists, dominated by illusionistic, figurative painting. While the cultural impact of works such as The Persistence of Memory (1931) and The Treachery of Images (1928-9) cannot be understated, manifestations of Surrealist sensibilities stretch far beyond the canvas.

Take, for example, the joyous assembled sculptures of Joan Miró, often made from studio scraps; the playful nature of Alexander Calder’s kinetic mobiles; or Meret Oppenheim’s subversive, somewhat repulsive Object (1936), which takes the form of a fur-lined cup, saucer and spoon.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.

While the parameters of the group are often seen as static – not least because Breton policed membership rather ferociously – the reality is less fixed. A huge range of artists, writers and intellectuals have been associated with the movement, including major Dadaist figures such as Francis Picabia, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, as well as literary minds including George Bataille and Antonin Artaud, and filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel.

Following a mass exodus of artists from Europe in the wake of the Second World War, new Surrealist vernaculars also blossomed across the Atlantic, most notably in Frida Kahlo’s sensational interpretations of her own inner psyche, which blend traditional Mexican iconography with vivid scenes of trauma and introspection. Cuban-born Wifredo Lam was also stuck by the Surrealist exploration of the subconscious and automatism during his time in Paris, utilising this methodology to inform his distinct form of modernism on his return to Havana.

While historically critics have referred to the Surrealists as a ‘male-dominated’ circle, where women were consigned to the role of mistress and muse, the narrative is slowly being rewritten. Leonor Fini, for example, subverted the demonic imagery often used to vilify women, creating erotically charged, often nightmarish scenes dominated by mythical figures, complete with Medusa-esque tendrils or animalistic bodies. Likewise, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning (whose work has often been overshadowed by their relationships with Max Ernst) created worlds that not only embodied the Surrealist obsession with dreams, but also the symbology of occult practices, witchcraft and more recognisable scenes of domesticity.

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943. Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery. © DACS, 2021. Photo © Tate.

The notion of woman as protagonist, as opposed to passive muse, also drew these artists to the world of Alice in Wonderland, in a manner that distinguished them from their male peers. Lewis Carroll’s stories of a girl caught in a world of unimaginable absurdity was lauded by Breton, Ernst and the like, with Dalí creating his own illustrated version of the text in the 1960s.

Yet it is Tanning and Carrington who manage to embody the darker echelons of Alice’s travels, with works such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) evoking an inherent uneasiness that articulate the young woman’s search for her own agency. The relationship between Carroll’s novel and the movement is explored in the V&A’s upcoming exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, which also examines the correlation between the ongoing popularity of both Alice and the tenets of Surrealism within mainstream culture.

While the countercultural sensibilities of the 1960s have a clear connection to Surrealist mind-expansion, the visual lexicon forged by the group is embedded in less obvious settings. For instance, the sci-fi skeletal structures of HR Giger’s xenomorphs, heralded as ground-breaking monsters that terrorised the Alien franchise, could have been pulled directly from Ernst’s post-apocalyptic, biomorphic landscapes, as seen in works such as Europe After the Rain (1940-2) and L’oeil du Silence (1943-4). Likewise, the slippery, metaphysical wastelands painted by Yves Tanguy inform the graphic art of the 1980s, which is so closely linked with the dawn of the digital era.

Contemporary artists, too, have often cited the impact of Surrealist philosophy on their own practice. Throughout her long career Louise Bourgeois utilised mirrors as a way of opening up new or different planes and perspectives, while her famous bodily sculptures – which tread an uneasy line between sexuality, maternal instinct and existential dread – are anchored in a complex interrogation of human emotion.

Younger artists such as Sarah Lucas and Julie Curtiss have also cited their palpable sense of transgressive sexuality within the context of Surrealism, while painter Loie Hollowell associates her bodily geometry and pursuit of a spiritual form of light with a shared obsession with the unconscious.

The movement’s influence is not tied purely to the visual arts either. Notably, William Burroughs drew inspiration from the automated actions heralded by the group to create much of his written work. He is often credited with pioneering the ‘cut-up method’, in which a piece of text is sliced up and rearranged, yet it was poet Tristan Tzara (a powerful yet intermittent force in the Surrealist circle) who pioneered the form. The radical technique has forged not only the shapes, but the sounds of popular culture ever since, having been used by everyone from David Bowie, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.


Watch art critic Shahidha Bari in conversation with Creative Director Grace Coddington, V&A Curator Kate Bailey and Sotheby's Contemporary Art Head of Evening Sale Emma Baker to celebrate 'Alice: Curiouser & Curiouser', an exhibition presented by the V&A. The conversation explores Lewis Carroll’s 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', Surrealism and how Surrealist disciplines continue to inspire art, fashion & photography.

Impressionist & Modern Art

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