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13.8: Surrealism

  • Page ID
  • Max Ernst



    Joan Miró



    Leonora Carrington



    René Magritte



    Salvador Dalí



    Marc Chagall



    Frida Kahlo



    Kay Sage



    Surrealism became a cultural movement, starting in the early 1920s, depicting the difference between dreams and reality. The art is exceptionally visual and painted with photographic precision in unexpected situations. The movement was based on liberating the artist's imagination of their subconscious. Influenced by the dream studies of Sigmund Freud, the art used Freudian methods of free association to produce unexpected and surprising whimsical imagery. Surrealism was also influenced by Karl Marx, a German philosopher who wrote The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.

    Surrealism was interpreted as the “sandbox for the subconscious mind’

    Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a German painter and one of the primary pioneers of the Surrealism movement. When he was young, he studied philosophy but only wanted to paint. Forced to join the German Army in World War I, he became highly critical of modern civilization and developed his concepts of fantasy and dreams, becoming one of the early supporters of Surrealism. L’Ange du Foyer (The Fireside Angel) (13.83) was painted in response to the outbreak of World War II, based on a political incident in Spain, the Fireside Angel is a destructive figure trying to destroy humankind. The overly abstracted figure fills the entire canvas with a somewhat dark and gloomy sky and landscape behind. The bold use of reds and blues brings the action together, leaving the viewer's imagination to the subtle meaning of the work. Ubu Imperator (13.84) appears as an iron red top, spinning through the empty landscape, the hands held in some sort of emotional response.

    13.83 L’Ange du Foyer
    Ubu Imperator
    13.84 Ubu Imperator

    Joan Miró (1893-1983) was a Spanish painter and sculptor from Barcelona, Spain, and believed his work was a re-creation of his subconscious, eschewing traditional methods of painting. Miro's Horse, Pipe, and Red Flower (13.85) is a collaged inspiration from his early career and still influenced by Cubism. A number of small groupings crowd the overall composition while color bursts from different areas of the painting, each symbol maintaining its basic shape instead of the pieces and parts of Cubism. Dona I Ocell (Woman and Bird) (13.86), is a concrete and brightly colored tile sculpture standing twenty-two-meters high. The sculpture reflects Miró’s frequently used themes of women and birds and stands near the sea in Barcelona.

    Horse, Pipe and Red Flower
    13.85 Horse, Pipe and Red Flower
    Dona I Ocell
    13.86 Dona I Ocell

    Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was born in England, eventually moving to Mexico City as a painter, writer, and activist. From a wealthy family, she was well educated, including reading books about the new concepts of surrealism, although her family did not encourage her to become an artist. She met Max Ernst, who left his wife to join Carrington, encouraging her to pursue her career as an artist. The Inn of the Dawn Horse (13.87), a self-portrait, depicts Carrington sitting on a chair in an unusual setting, perhaps a dream, her hand reaching out to the moving hyena. After Ernst was arrested by the Nazis, she left France, suffered a breakdown and was hospitalization for three years before going to Mexico. Always interested in animals and mysticism, Crocodrilo (13.88) is a statue she created based on her earlier painting of surrealist crocodiles.

    The Inn of the Dawn Horse
    13.87 The Inn of the Dawn Horse

    13.88 Crocodrilo

    RenéMagritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian artist known for his unusual perceptions of reality. Magritte's process of painting depicted the use of objects in different contexts. The Empire of Light (13.89) illustrates the concept of daytime based on the blue sky; however, the lower half is filled with the dark street lined with a single street lamp appearing as nighttime, even some of the windows are lit adding to the sense of evening; the painting a paradoxical image of day versus night. Magritte's paintings leave the viewer, asking, "what does it really mean"? Magritte's famous painting, The Treachery of Images (13.90), was a simple image generating continual controversy. The words under the pipe state, “This is not a pipe.”, yet it appears to be a pipe. Magritte argued that if he said it was a pipe, he would be lying, as it is only a representation of a pipe.

    Empire of Light
    13.89 Empire of Light
    The Treachery of Images
    13.90 The Treachery of Images

    Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was the most prominent Spanish Surrealist artist, and his best-known work is The Persistence of Memory (13.91), painted in 1931. The use of everyday objects in uncommon circumstances is the dream state, and Dalí casts light on what is essential. Do the clocks represent time? The distortion in dreams become real when painted, the ants attracted to metal instead of flesh, hard objects oddly bending, the weird creature laying in the center, how is this perceived when awake. In 1954, Dalí painted The Disintegration of the Persistence Memory (13.92) as a recreation of his original work; however, in this work, water floods the area, and the shapes and parts float, unattached to each other. Even on the dead tree, the watches begin to melt. Dalí was interested in the theories of atomic energy and the properties of the new nuclear energy and its potential destruction.

    Persistence of Memory
    13.91Persistence of Memory
    The Disintegration of the Persistence Memory
    13.92 The Disintegration of the Persistence Memory

    Dalí was always interested in mathematics and science while maintaining his religious views, believing they were compatible. Corpus Hypercubus (13.93) is a standard Biblical image of the crucifixion, only reinvented. The body is in perfect condition, no wound marks, the face turned upward and away, images of Dalí and his wife seen on the figure's knees. Instead of the usual flat cross, the image is affixed to a hypercube on the end of one block. The woman looking up at the floating figure stands on a checkerboard, repeating the image of blocks. The large sculpture, Rinoceronte (13.94), is an image of a rhinoceros who is dressed in lace which is playing with sea urchins. Dalí was inspired by a Vermeer painting of a woman sewing hung in his father’s house.

    Corpus Hypercubus
    13.93 Corpus Hypercubus
    13.94 Rinoceronte

    Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was a Russian artist who traveled to Paris to attend art school. Half-Past Three (13.95) was painted by Chagall a few months after arriving in Paris and shows the concepts of Cubism as Chagall moved into surrealism. The fragmented poet in the blue suit sits at a red table in ordered chaos. The composition is balanced with the poet's elbow resting on the red table and an open notebook in his lap, the pen in the man's hand resting comfortably, waiting for the creative energy to flow. Chagall was friends with a Russian poet who stopped by every morning for coffee, the image suggesting his friend waiting for the muse to flow.

    While he lived in Paris, Chagall used the thought of his life in Russia and depicted multiple images of figures floating in the paintings. In Paris Through the Window (13.96), the figure in the corner is looking both ways, perhaps in Paris and back to Russia. Outside the window, float dream-like experiences he had in Paris. The Fiddler (13.97) represents Chagall's small village in Russia, a fiddler standing on the house in front of the rustic hamlet.

    Half-Past Three
    13.95 Half-Past Three
    12.61 Paris Through the Window
    13.96 Paris Through the Window
    13.97 Fiddler

    This painting is a representation of a fiddler in Chagall’s village, Vitebsk. Chagall uses the fiddler to create an image of the internal battle of an average individual, which is accentuated through his choice of colors and other elements. Created at a time when nostalgia dominated his thoughts, the painting highlights his cultural and religious legacy through the image of a violinist dancing in a rustic village. Chagall’s image of the fiddler served as an inspiration for the famous 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, which held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost ten years.

    Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a famous Mexican painter known for her self-portraits, marriage to Diego Rivera, and the unending endurance of physical pain from accidents. Characterizing her Mexican roots in her paintings, Kahlo painted her reality more than her dreams as other surrealist artists. Suffering life-long injuries from a traffic accident and multiple surgeries to repair her spinal column, she painted from her bed or a chair in her room. Isolated most of her life, self-portraits were Kahlo's way of showing her pain. In the painting Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (13.98), the thorny necklace is puncturing her neck, causing blood to drip down her neck representing physical injury, yet her calm expression shows her tolerance to deal with the pain. The hummingbird usually symbolizes freedom and life, yet it is painted black and lifeless. The monkey on her back may represent her failed marriage with Rivera. The painting is one of 55 self-portraits Kahlo painted in her lifetime.

    Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
    13.98 Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

    The Two Fridas (13.99) was painted after her divorce, two images of Kahlo, one in a traditional dress and a broken heart, and the other Kahlo in modern clothing. Both have visible hearts, one cut by scissors and bleeding, the sky dark and ominous, a painting many believe represented her sadness from the divorce. In her devastating accident, Kahlo injured many parts of her body, The Wounded Deer (13.100) symbolizing the multiple wounds while the face remains serene. Only tree trunks are visible, no foliage, a broken branch painted in detail lays on the ground.

    The Two Fridas
    13.99 The Two Fridas
    The Wounded Deer
    13.100 The Wounded Deer

    Kay Sage (1898-1963) was an American from a wealthy family who studied art in school and Europe. After a ten-year marriage and divorce from an Italian prince, she moved to Paris and was exposed to and inspired by Surrealism. When World War II started, she moved back to the United States, encouraging other artists to come and escape the war. Most of Sage’s paintings were based on architectural structures, either decaying ruins or celestial sights. Danger, Construction Ahead (13.101) appears as a lunar landscape, the bridge from the modern city extending to the next city while Unusual Thursday (13.102) appears as an old, dilapidated scene, the bridge extending to nowhere.

    Danger, Construction Ahead
    13.101 Danger, Construction Ahead
    Unusual Thursday
    13.102 Unusual Thursday

    Pablo Picasso is known for his work as a leader and painter of Cubism; however, he lived a long life, and one of his most famous paintings is Surrealist style, Guernica (13.103). Based on the Spanish civil war, the black, white, and gray painting are considered one of the prominent works illustrating the destruction and pain of war; the gored horse, flames, mutilation, and despair. The painting did not specify any particular location for the painting, and today it has become a timeless symbol for the suffering and brutal desolation of war.

    13.103 Guernica
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