"The Real Functioning of the Mind": Surrealism

By 1924, Breton had written a manifesto in which he defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism, by which one intends to express verbally, in writing or by any other method, the real functioning of the mind."  Central to this expression of the real mind was the reality of dreams and undirected thought, with the latter being the real sense of the meaning of psychic automatism.  Breton's lingering Dadaist connections were evident in his assertion that surrealism had no aesthetic or moral preoccupations.  The anti-aesthetic manifestation is that the artist gives up conscious control of the art-work, making this about the denial of the artist-creator.  It is further anti-aesthetic in that beauty is something which results from unexpected juxtapositions, and not from composition.

Just as there were two directions in Dada (art in everything vs the anti-art direction), there were also two directions (at least) to Surrealism.  The automatist element led to the seemingly unplanned compositions of artists such as Joan Miró and André Masson, while the dream element led to the more composed but "otherwordly" compositions of René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali.  All, however, were committed to what is called "poesie-peinture" -- a poetic, visionary form of painting.  It is also important to note that commitment to these two directions in art varied among the same artists over time, such that automatist strategies dominated most Surreal art of the 1920s while illusionistic, dream strategies dominated in the 1930s.

The "Metaphysical" Style of Giorgio de Chirico

De Chirico is not a Dadaist; nor is he a surrealist.  He is one of those artists who have a unique style which seems to stand outside of any existing movements.  He did not call himself a surrealist because he developed his style before the surrealist movement existed, but he was claimed as one by the surrealists themselves. His work has also been seen as influential to the German artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity.  For de Chirico, the object had a physical reality and a "spectral, or metaphysical” reality which was generally concealed from people.  The objects to which de Chirico referred were not fantastical in themselves, in the way that surrealistic ones were, but, like surrealism, their value lay in their role as omens and enigmas.  Thus, although his images are not truly fantastical, they are dreamlike:  they are familiar but they are placed in strange, almost stifling contexts, environments which seem to be without air, and then juxtaposed with other ordinary objects in bizarre ways.  This juxtaposition of familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts is central to the process of dreaming and lies at the heart of Freud's theory on dream language.  Since de Chirico was most likely not familiar with Freudian dream theory, what we find in his work seems to be a natural translation of dreams to artistic language. This is undoubtedly part of de Chirico's appeal to the surrealists.  Another source of his appeal probably lay in his unusual use of Renaissance perspective, shading and modeling which he then undermined in ways that are almost imperceptible. Finally, historians of the New Objectivity have made an association between de Chirico's use of mannequins and the robotic or automaton-like treatment of figures by artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix.
De Chirico: The Seer, 1915 De Chirico: The Enigma of a Day, 1914
De Chirico: The Enigma of the Hour, 1911

In 1936, the Museum of Modern Art featured an exhibition, "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism," which included 17 works by de Chirico.  De Chirico undoubtedly had a strong influence on Edward Hopper, perhaps on Milton Avery as well. Another connection we might make to the influence of de Chirico is the work of American artists who are variously known as American surrealists, magical realists, and social realists (O. Guglielmi, Peter Blume, Kay Sage, and Walter Quirt being some of the artists in this category -- see examples under "American surrealism").  Despite the surrealists' attempt to claim de Chirico as one of their own, the reality is that we find his influence to be more marked and apparent in American art than in surrealist, with the exception of Dali's art.

Edward Hopper: Nighthawks, 1942 (o/c, 33x60") Milton Avery: Seated Girl with Dog, 1944 (44x32")

Automatism and Biomorphism as Surrealist Strategies

Although Miro's art was always committed to biomorphic forms, the two paintings below demonstrate a shift in styles from a freer automatist painting with almost no suggestion of structure to a painting which is still biomorphic and automatist but anchored by the constellation type of composition so characteristic of Miro.  Biomorphism and automatism are not necessarily independent of one another: automatism may generate a variation on an organic image, such that the image looks biomorphic.  Together, both relate to the surrealist interest in representing the process of dream thoughts.

Biomorphism: the forms suggest a relationship to biological or organic forms found in nature but they do not look like a realistic or naturalistic imitation of anything we might see in the real world

Automatism: techniques which suggest that the artwork has bypassed conscious or rational thought; that the forms and images were generated by the subconscious without the artist's control.  Note that an important word in this definition is "suggest."

Miro: The Birth of the World, 1925, 8'3x6'7 Miro: The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers, 1941
Max Ernst: The Attirement of the Bride, 1940 Leonore Fini: The Ends of the Earth, 1949

Ernst and Fini, along with Dali and one or two other surrealists, were more likely to use an illusionistic style of painting with some hints of biomorphism, as opposed to the more abstract, automatist style used by Miro or Matta.  Masson used both styles.

We should also note that surrealist work can be found in almost any medium, from photography to the surrealist "ready-made" construction:

Man Ray: The Primacy of Matter over Thought, 1929 (gelatin silver print) Meret Oppenheim: Object (Fur-Lined Breakfast), 1936
Masson: Battle of the Fishes, 1926 Masson: Gradiva, 1939
Dali: The Birth of Liquid Desires, 1931-2 Magritte: The False Mirror, 1928

On one level, the results of surrealist art and literature were an ordering and systematization of the chaotic inventiveness of Dada.  On another level, Surrealism as a method signified an art or the creation of art through a process that corresponded rather closely to the state of dreaming.  The states of dreaming and reality would then be resolved in an absolute reality, or a state beyond reality, “surrealité.” The exploration of this uncensored state was the key point; art was the by-product in a sense.  But in another sense, art was the means of exploration and expression.  This notion of art as the means of exploration, and the corresponding de-emphasis on the product, is a very modern position to take although at the same time, it is a position which evokes the spirituality and magic of much ancient art.

By the 1930s, the surrealist movement was divided between those who wanted to merge with communism and forsake art, and those leaning toward art for art's sake.  Breton tried to steer a middle path, sympathizing with communism but believing art served a purpose as a means of expression.  In his second manifesto, Breton stressed the goal of liberating the individual (discovering his inner nature) while he deplored the use of automatism and dreams if they end only in art.  It should not be surprising, then, that Dali illusionistic, dream style epitomized surrealism in the early 1930s.  Like Masson, his earlier style had been more firmly rooted in automatism and the use of non-traditional materials, but also like Masson, his style changed by the 30s to the more visually familiar academic style with its hallucinatory imagery.

Dali: Bather (Female Nude), 1928 (oil and pebbles on laminated panel) Dali: Autumnal Cannibalism, 1936 (oil/canvas)

Giacometti: From Surrealism to Heroic Existentialism

Giacometti is usually considered a surrealist for the first half of his career, although as is the case with many artists whose careers span a long period, it’s unlikely that the visual references and ideas of one period of his work are completely obliterated by later developments.  The earlier, more surrealist works are more pictorial in nature, suggesting complete dream sequences while his work after the war becomes more of an obsessive attempt to "get the figure right."
Giacometti: The Cage, 1930-1 Giacometti: The Palace at 4 a.m., 1932
wood, glass, wire and string
Mannequin? spinal cord? reptilian bird?
The Invisible Object, 1934 (bronze: 1935)

The Invisible Object (Hands Holding the Void), 1934: the ultimate representation of the unobtainable desire?  Or is this the work in which Giacometti both memorializes and decries the relationship with his father, an artist who encouraged him and recognized his gifts but did not approve of the abstract styles favored by Giacometti and a parent who died a year before this work was made?  Is the work a sublimated expression of Giacometti’s fantasies of violence, in particular, patricidal fantasies, intermingled with the guilt he undoubtedly felt after his father’s death?

Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932 (bronze: 1949)
The Chariot (1950) Tall Figure, 1947

One critic has recently suggested that after a period of not working very much and destroying most of what he made, a period which coincided with WW II, and after his exposure to the truth of what had happened during the war, what the “Final Solution” had meant and how many people had lost their lives, Giacometti began to devote his work to the production of the human figure.  One of the interesting contradictions in his figural work, a contradiction which does seem to support the idea that his work is an attempt to resolve the psychological conflict he experienced in himself with respect to fantasies of violence and the recognition of what violence in real life achieves, is the difference between looking at his figures from a direct position in front of them and looking at them from a profile position.  This dual vision conveys the helpless fragility of humankind as well as the inner strength which resides in the flesh. Giacometti’s own comments neither contradict nor completely confirm this hypothesis.  He speaks of the impossibility of trying to model a figure or draw a head, and says that it will never be more than a pale reflection of what he sees.  He describes this as both a failure and a success and perhaps an obsession in that he keeps trying and keeps asking how you honestly make something.  He concludes that he doesn’t know if he continues to work in order to make something or if he works in order to know why he cannot make what he would like to make.  Perhaps that’s the reason why his figures always appear to be far away from us, no matter how close we may get to them–and that’s the quality which Sartre found so existential in Giacometti’s sculpture.  It’s also the quality which sets his work apart from the abstract expressionist goal of creating a work of art which subsumes or absorbs the spectator.

From Europe to America

Prior to the start of World War II, most of the surrealists relocated to New York where they had a lasting influence on the emerging New York avant-garde.  The NY artists did not all respond to surrealism in the same way: some took the techniques without the ideas or interest in the unconscious; some took the unconscious and the techniques as an initial stimulus to develop new ones.

American Surrealism (Magical Realism)

O. Louis Guglielmi, Walter Quirt, Peter Blume, Ivan Albright (and a few others) are thought of as American surrealists.  Unlike the European surrealists, the images in the works of these artists generally remain closer to images of the real world, which they then treat in a surreal fashion in order to emphasize social problems.  Some of the social surrealists, such as Guglielmi (and Quirt), eventually turn to a more psychological and personal form of surrealism.  Mental Geography, for example, has less to do with Brooklyn than with the inner space of Guglielmi's mind.  Blume's Eternal City is an idiosyncratic political statement about the threat of Fascism, not only in Italy but coming to the U.S.  There were also a number of female surrealists (Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, and Leonora Carrington are three examples), who seem to fall into a category of their own -- neither the magical realism of the Americans nor the hallucinatory surrealism of the Europeans.
Peter Blume: The Eternal City, 1934-7 Guglielmi: Mental Geography, 1938 (black-and-white photo of original painting)
Dorothea Tanning: Rainy-Day Canape, 1970 Tanning: Murmurs, 1976


As we will see when we move on to abstract expressionism, surrealism did offer the emerging avant-garde several things: