W e live in surreal times, and — consciously or not — the art world appears to be tapping into the underbelly of this troubled moment in history. At the time of writing, there were no fewer than 33 exhibitions devoted to Surrealism and its key artists in major museums and galleries around the world, including London’s Tate Modern, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the National Gallery Prague, the Kunstmuseum Bern and Seoul Arts Centre. This year’s Venice Biennale takes its title, The Milk of Dreams, from a children’s book by the British-Mexican artist Leonora Carrington. Surrealism is cropping up in adverts and films, and even fashion, too, with recent catwalks populated with references to Oppenheim’s famed furry teacup and Dalí’s anthropomorphic cabinet.
Why now for Surrealism?
For a movement that materialised in the wake of the First World War, it is perhaps unsurprising that Surrealism is once again garnering attention around the world. The war in Ukraine casts a shadow over Europe once more, while the economic aftershocks of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. As Ingrid Pfeiffer, the curator of Fantastic Women, which opened at The Schirn in Frankfurt in 2020, puts it: “Surrealism was born in a period of existential crisis. The Surrealists were against war, but they were also against the middle-class family and other powers of the state. They were looking for an alternative life, one that was more poetic, more mysterious, more open.”
Surrealists offered an escape from the harsh realities of life with their fantastical, dream-like landscapes and found humour in the darkest aspects of humanity. The New York-based dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, whose exhibitions have drawn attention to European artists who settled in Latin America during the Second World War, describes their work as exploring “timeless themes that may feel especially relevant today”.
Thomas Bompard, Sotheby’s vice-president in France, believes Surrealism to be the only artistic movement that was “both super radical and believed in the power of the figure.” For Bompard, Surrealists reinvented figuration for the Modern period. “Forget the Surrealism label – Magritte, Dalí, Picabia are among the greatest figurative painters in history. They were not only revolutionaries, they were heirs,” he says.
Big hitters still hitting
The market for Surrealist artists is rising. Modern art accounted for 22% of the global auction market’s value in 2021, second to Post-War and Contemporary (at 55%), the latest Art Basel/UBS report stated. Modern art sales rose by 23% in value, to $2.7 billion. René Magritte was in the top five artists in the sector.
Currently Magritte remains the most sought-after Surrealist. In March, Sotheby’s transformed the exterior of its London HQ to look like Magritte’s cinematic panting L’empire des lumières, 1961. The canvas sold for £59.4 million with fees, tripling Magritte’s record set in 2018. Bompard notes a “growing appetite” for Surrealist artists among “classic collectors” (who buy contemporary art or Old Masters) and younger buyers. “Magritte would be among the first on the wishlist of a 30-year-old collector.”
Sotheby’s set another record for Francis Picabia, whose hallucinatory painting Pavonia, 1929, sold for €10 million. Part of Surrealism and Its Legacy, 23 lots brought in €33 million, with a 95.7% sell-through rate. Bonhams also held Surrealist sale The Mind’s Eye, fetching £1.7 million, with 71% sold by lot.
Di Donna thinks the market is yet to peak, with awareness of how Surrealists fit into the 20th-century canon. “There’s a steady core of collectors who recognise that Magritte, Miró and Dalí should be in the same breath as Picasso, Warhol or Calder,” he says.
New regions emerging
Contrary to popular Western belief that Surrealism was the preserve of a select few working in Paris, its scope has “always been transnational”, according to the text introducing Tate Modern’s current exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders, which first opened at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last year.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Mexico became a new centre for the Surrealist avant-garde. Surrealism co-founder André Breton and his wife, artist Jacqueline Lamba, first visited the country in 1938 where they were welcomed by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, while others from the movement such as Carrington, Remedios Varo and Alice Rahon and her husband Wolfgang Paalen settled in Mexico.
Less well-known are the pockets of activity in Nagoya, Seoul and parts of Africa. For example, Cairo became a centre of resistance to European nationalism and Nazi ideology thanks to a group of artists and writers known as Art et Liberté — jama’at al-fann wa al-hurriyyah (Art and Liberty).
As art historical narratives open up, so too do audiences for Surrealism. Di Donna notes “more of a global interest in Surrealism from a market perspective”, though he also sees this as a reflection of the globalisation of the art market over the past two decades. “The themes and subject matter of Surrealist works have resonated with new collectors, both in the US and Europe and around the world,” he adds.
Women artists in the spotlight
No other artistic movement has made sexuality, desire and the female body so central to its purpose, sometimes to disturbing effect.
Hans Bellmer’s poupées (large-scale dolls), for example, presented the female form as bound, mutated and disfigured; while Man Ray declared in 1936: “The woman is a sandwich covered with white marble.” Despite such characterisations, female Surrealists — some of whom were initially dismissed as girlfriends and muses to their male counterparts — significantly shaped the movement as artists themselves.
Many have been forgotten — until now. Fantastic Women was one of the first major exhibitions to look at the achievements of female Surrealists and featured more than 260 works — many of them never exhibited before — by 36 known and unknown international artists, including Toyen, Maya Deren, Germaine Dulac, Sheila Legge, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning. “Even Frida Kahlo wasn’t really discovered until the 1980s, more than 30 years after she died,” Pfeiffer points out.
“Even Frida Kahlo wasn’t really discovered until the 1980s, more than 30 years after she died”
Over the past 10 years, British dealer Alison Jacques has built a market for Tanning’s oeuvre — not just the highly desirable works from the 1940s. Supply for good Surrealist works is a perennial problem, though Tanning stipulated before she died that 50% of her works be earmarked for museums. Jacques has recently placed works with the Whitney Museum and MoMA in New York as well as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
A reflection of the market’s growing interest in women Surrealists, New York dealer Paul Kasmin also recently took on Tanning’s estate. As Jacques puts it: “The pendulum is finally swinging the other way.”
Young contemporary “Surrealists”
The legacy of Surrealism is wide-reaching, particularly among contemporary female artists. Jacques observes Surrealist threads running through the expressive paintings of Cecily Brown as well as the bawdy figurative sculptures of Sarah Lucas. Louise Bourgeois, whose current Hayward Gallery retrospective explores themes of familial anguish and sexuality, could also be considered a natural heir to the Surrealists and was included in Pfeiffer’s show.
Of the newest generation to be rising through the ranks, some are enjoying early market success. Julie Curtiss, who has been dubbed a Neo-Surrealist for her disconcerting close-up paintings of hair and other body parts, burst on to the auction market in 2019 with Princess, 2016, which rocketed over its $6,000–$8,000 estimate to sell for $106,250 (with fees). Her record, achieved at Phillips New York in 2021, stands at $466,200 (with fees). Others working in this Neo-Surrealist vein include Nicolas Party, Sean Landers and Mary Reid Kelley.
Figurative painting, it seems, has taken a surreal turn once again.
Cover image: Sotheby’s London headquarters transformed to look like René Magritte’s L’empire des lumières, 1961. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images