Surrealism, pt 2: From Europe to America

1. 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 Giacometti:
The Invisible Object, 1934 (bronze: 1935)
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 person.

2. Surrealist Objects

Meret Oppenheim: My Nurse, 1936 Dali:  Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically (1970 reconstruction of 1930 object) 

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.

3. 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 in the next unit, surrealism did offer the emerging avant-garde several things: