I t’s hard to overstate the influence Surrealism has wielded in the near-century since the writer-poet André Breton published his first manifesto defining the movement. Like many texts by the European modern art intelligentsia, “First Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924) is a sweeping, introspective take on the human condition, sprinkled with whimsical, sometimes sentimental declarations – yet Breton’s central point that logic is a social construction that defies the unconscious mind became exceedingly impactful for artists around the world.
This month, a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s Palm Beach brings together 17 works from the renowned Nahmad Family Collection made under Surrealism’s influence. Spanning five decades from the late 1920s through the 1970s, “Le Sens Surréaliste” (on view 7–22 January) features work by nine artists, ranging from those directly rooted in European Surrealism to those who expanded the movement’s legacy – which remains as strong as ever today. “Surrealism remains highly appealing to collectors and art lovers because of how avant-garde the subject matter and aesthetic are,” says David Rothschild, a senior specialist of private sales who co-organized the exhibition. “There are fascinating cultural, political and geopolitical themes depicted throughout many Surrealist paintings, and aesthetically they read as very contemporary.”
Works by Max Ernst, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy were made directly within the artistic milieu of 1920s Paris – and, as Surrealism caught on, they became integral to the burgeoning movement. Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, already established artists at the time, soon experimented with the movement’s aesthetics, while Alexander Calder, a young ex-pat still finding his footing, discovered in Surrealism a foundational influence.
As we approach the centennial of Breton’s manifesto, Surrealism looms larger than ever, having transcended the rarefied spheres of art, literature and philosophy into film, music and pop culture. Its immediate influence on early cinema – as in Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) – established Surrealist motifs that recur in everything from highbrow arthouse films by David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick to the lowbrow horror and sci-fi of “The Twilight Zone” and superhero blockbusters. It first graced the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1930s, only for the magazine to declare 2021 the year of its comeback in fashion.
Perhaps nowhere was its influence more pronounced than in music. The biggest acts of the 1970s and ’80s embraced Surrealism in their ambiguous, poetic lyricism as well as their gender-blurring personal styles. Stop Making Sense, the title of the 1984 concert documentary about Talking Heads, could be a Surrealist dictum. The futuristic, space-age chic aesthetic of someone like Ziggy Stardust, for example, echoes the idealistic vision of the cosmos visible in Miró’s Femmes devant la lune (1971), in which a stylized female form hovers next to a blue crescent, and Ernst’s (Feuilles vertes) (1963), which depicts a branch floating against a marbled celestial body.
Album art became a repository for the Surreal, from Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” (1969) to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The Aeroplane Over The Sea” (1998) to Drake’s smash hit “Nothing Was the Same” (2013), where the rapper’s profile is superimposed over a horizonless blue sky strewn with pillowy white clouds. That same sans-context, cloud-marbled sky graces many of the compositions in Sotheby’s presentation, among them de Chirico’s Mobili nella valle (1929–30), Tanguy’s À Gauche (1941) as well as Magritte’s La Recherche de la vérité (1962–63), which Rothschild describes as “quintessentially Magritte.”
“I also love that it’s a gouache-on-paper, which is a delicate medium, versus oil-on-canvas,” says Rothschild. “The way that Magritte uses the paintbrush – his ability to control the gouache to create these beautiful clouds on the horizon – I think that’s Surrealism at its finest.”
Perhaps Surrealism’s perennial appeal lies in how its aesthetic and conceptual threads connect in an intuitive manner. To fully appreciate, say, Cubism, one must also grasp how historically momentous it was for Picasso and Braque to flout naturalistic perspective, upending centuries of precedent. But with Surrealism, the wide-ranging visual lexicon – and, crucially, the feelings of mystery and ephemerality it evokes – intrinsically conveys a sense of what it’s all about. Dreams are universal and timeless, after all. As is the allure of nonsensical imagery and disjointed narrative in subverting the assumed supremacy of conscious sensory experience.
“Surrealism pushes the boundaries of artistic technique and social acceptability,” remarks Rothschild. “It’s the idea of challenging what we accept to be normal or correct each and every day.”