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Man Ray, Surrealist Chess Board, 1934.

This is a continuation of from the previous post. Click here for Part I.

Object Making:

One genre of art that the Surrealists took from Dada but adapted to their own uses was the construction of Surrealist objects. The artists combed Parisian flea markets and found various elements that they could combine to make assemblages that were not quite sculpture and not quite functional object. Marcel Duchamp was the forerunner of this idea. He chose ordinary objects and deemed them works of art by putting them within the context of a museum. Later he would begin to combine objects to make more complex ‘Readymades’.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964.

Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1921.

Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1921.

Duchamp’s friend, American artist Man Ray continued this trend and bridged the gap between Duchamp and the Surrealists through the creation of works like Gift, Object to Be Destroyed, and The Mystery of Isadore Ducasse titled after the real name of the Comte de Lautréamont. These works took functional objects and made them useless but still somehow inviting like some strange object from a dream. From there the other Surrealists began to create their own strange objects in a similar vein.

Man Ray, Gift, 1921.

Man Ray, Gift, 1921.

Man Ray, Indestructible Object or Object To Be Destroyed, 1958 (replica of 1923 original).

Man Ray, Indestructible Object or Object To Be Destroyed, 1958 (replica of 1923 original).

Man Ray, The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, 1920.

Man Ray, The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, 1920.

One of the most famous is Meret Oppenheim’s sculpture Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure). This work (unlike many Surrealist objects) seems to have many levels of meaning. It seems like something out of a dream and has become, like Man Ray’s works, a useless object. It is also a sexual pun (sex and the fear of sex were common theme of Surrealist art) having to do with putting one’s mouth onto a hairy vessel.

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936.

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936.

Another example were the odd works constructed and photographed by Hans Bellmer. Bellmer created built disturbing  dolls of young women which were manipulated in various ways and conveyed themes of voyeurism, molestation, rape, abuse, and even murder. He photographed these dolls in various positions and created some of the most sexually charged and violent of the Surrealists’ works.

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936.

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936.

Many other Surrealist artists, such as Dali, created objects of these kinds but very few have the importance or staying power of the objects mentioned above. Nonetheless the construction of objects (as well as installations and performance) was an important aspect of the Surrealist movement’s output that would be taken up in a more successful form by later art movements in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone, 1936.

Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone, 1936.

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955.

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955.

Photography and Film:

From the late 19th century up until to around 1920, photography had tried to be a form of art on part with others by co-opting the expressiveness of painting, a period of photography known as ‘Pictorialism.’ Then came faster film and more portable cameras. Photographers could now be more inventive and experiment in ways wholly new and not tied to any other minimum.

Leonard Missonne, London, 1899.

Leonard Missonne, London, 1899.

Edward Steichen, Rodin, Le Penseur, 1902.

Edward Steichen, Rodin, Le Penseur, 1902.

The  Constructivists in Russia such as Alexander Rodchenko, and later the New Vision photographers like Lazslo Maholy-Nagy (whose style would become the dominant form of photography during the 1920’s and 30’s) used new light cameras, strange new angles and points of view, sharp focus (Pictorialists had been obsessed with fuzziness that resembled the fuzzy quality of Impressionist painting), and whole new styles of  photo-montage by artists such as the scathing Dadaist political satirist John Heartfield to push photography in totally new directions.

Alexander Rodchenko, Shukhov Tower, 1929.

Alexander Rodchenko, Shukhov Tower,


Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Oscar Schlemmer in Ascona, 1926.

John Heartfield, Hurray the Butter is Gone!, 1935.

John Heartfield, Hurray, The Butter is Gone!, 1935.

Soon photography became not a medium attempting to rise to the level of painting but a medium of art in its own right with the capabilities of experimentation, abstraction, montage, portraiture, and whole new ways of seeing the world. One of the originators of this trend was Man Ray.

Although Man Ray is most famous today for his photography, he wanted to be known for his painting. He only did photography for the money, so he claimed. Though he has some important painted works, the vast majority of Man Ray’s important output was in the form of photography and film. Along with creating whole new grammars in advertising and fashion photography, as well as portraiture, Man Ray invented new forms of the medium in general.

Man Ray, Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936.

Man Ray, Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936.

Man Ray for Harper's Bazaar, 1936.

Man Ray for Harper’s Bazaar, 1936.

Man Ray, Arnold Schoenberg, 1927.

Man Ray, Arnold Schoenberg, 1927.

Man Ray, James Joyce, 1922.

Man Ray, James Joyce, 1922.

He invented what he called ‘Rayographs’ (named after the artist) which consisted of placing objects on photographic paper in the darkroom and then exposing the paper leaving odd ghostly white shadows of objects over a black background. He experimented with this technique in film as well. He also invented solarization, the technique of quick exposing full light to the paper during a negative exposure, which creates a kind of halo effect, and played with effects usually thought of as mistakes within photography such as double exposure.

Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922.

Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922.


Man Ray, Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller, 1929.

In the end he captured some of the greatest images of Surrealist photography including those featuring the notorious Parisian bohemian celebrity Kiki de Montparnasse. His images brought photography into a dreamlike world that had previously not been possible and because of this he was championed by the French Surrealists even before he arrived in Paris and became officially part of the movement.

Man Ray, Kiki, La Violon d`Ingres, 1924.

Man Ray, Kiki, La Violon d`Ingres, 1924.

Man Ray, Les Lames, 1932.

Man Ray, Les Lames, 1932.

Though there were many Surrealists who worked with photography, Man Ray’s works were probably the most important. Nonetheless,  photographers such as Claude Cahun, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Henri Cartier-Bresson were embraced by the Surrealists without really being members but doing work tangentially related in subject matter, style, and theme. The strangeness of their imagery, either constructed or captured, aligned with what the Surrealists saw as either he construction of a dreamlike image in the vein of Surrealist painting or moments of the irrational unconscious making itself known to ordinary people in the split second the photograph was taken, what Cartier-Bresson referred to as ‘the decisive moment.’

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Don't Kiss Me, 1927.

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Don’t Kiss Me, 1927.


Manuel Alvarez Bravo, The Big Fish Eats The Little One, 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Derriere La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932.

Man Ray was also an innovator in film along with other important experimental Surrealistl filmmakers. These filmmakers came were heavily interested by developments in film and animation of contemporary practitioners such as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, the German Expressionists, early silent Hollywood films, the abstract animation of Viking Eggeling, and Dadaist performance and film such as those made by Hans Richter. Probably the most famous of these Surrealist filmmakers were Man Ray, René Claire, Jean Coctaeu, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dali.

Hans Richter:

Man Ray:

René Clair: 

Jean Cocteau:

Man Ray and Salvador Dali.

Man Ray and Salvador Dali.

Buñuel and Dali are perhaps the most infamous, at least during this period as they created one of the most controversial short films of all time, Un Chien Andelou, known most critically for its sexual explicitness, strong imagery (ants coming out of a hand comes to mind), and its violence including a scene with a women getting apparently getting her eye slashed with a razor. The film was deeply surrealist in its use of dream pacing and imagery and would in some sense dictate the way experimental film and dream sequences would be filmed in the ensuing decades from Hitchcock to The Sopranos.

Meanwhile, although Dali moved away from film, Buñuel began to make feature length Surrealist parables about bourgeois society and the crisis of identity within capitalist catholic society up until his death in 1983.

Un Chien Andalou:

Hitchcock’s dream sequence in Spellbound designed by Salvador Dali:

A dream sequence from The Sopranos:

Buñuel’s feature-legnth Surrealist masterpiece, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Decline and Legacy:

Like most of the art movements of the twentieth century, Surrealism had a short shelf-life petering out by the 1960’s. It began to decline because mainly of World War II. Many of the artists came to the United States as a result of the fall of France in 1940 and were influential on American artists, notably Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and filmmakers such as Maya Deren. However, these artists were (besides Deren) only tangentially interested in Surrealism and more interested in abstraction and personal expression. Although they used Surrealist methods for untapping the unconscious such as chance, their art was not cerebral like Surrealism but visual and about the experience of looking.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944.

Robert Mother, Elegy to The Spanish Republic, 1971.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to The Spanish Republic, 1971.

Jackson Pollock, Number 11 (Blue Poles), 1951.

Jackson Pollock, Number 11 (Blue Poles), 1951.


Still from Maya Deren’s dreamy experimental film, Meshes Of The Afternoon, 1941.

Surrealism did become influential in another way. It was used by advertising, fashion, and movies in a form known as ‘pop surrealism.’ It became more important to applied art, entertainment, and commerce than it did a revolutionary movement of freedom. All trappings of its communist leanings went out the window when money entered the picture.

An example of 'Pop Surrealism,' Andy Warhol on the cover of Esquire, 1969.

An example of ‘Pop Surrealism,’ Andy Warhol on the cover of Esquire, 1969.


Surrealist-influenced fashion, 1930’s.

The most well-known Surrealist, Salvador Dali, became more famous as a celebrity figure and personality (not to mention buffoon in an emperor has no clothes sort of way) than as a serious artist. Later cerebral and literary art movements such as Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Conceptualism became  much more attracted to the original Dadaists during WWI and the 20’S, particularly Duchamp, than they were with Surrealism, although Conceptual artists in particular shared Surrealist’s interest in language.

Surrealism’s fate was sealed by two factors; the rise of the New York art scene during the war and the state of the French Avant-Garde after it. With Abstract Expressionism, the first art movement in America to catch on as truly revolutionary and globally significant, along with a new booming economy, modern art institutions (of which there were few in Europe), and a strong stream of art patronage, the center of world art domination moved from Paris to New York where it would stay until at least the end of the century.

Meanwhile, when they returned to Europe, the Surrealists no longer had the moral authority they had once commanded among elements of the leftist avant-garde. Stalinist and Troskyite notions of communism had been sidelined in favor of an even more unfathomable attraction to Maoism among French communists. The Existentialists and artists like Picasso and Alberto Giacometti had stayed in France during those years and had resisted the Nazi occupiers. By the time the war had ended the Surrealists were no longer able to lead the way as a revolutionary artists, writers, and thinkers in the way that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubeffet, or even Picasso could. Their style had become stale.

A work of Picasso's during the German occupation of France, Still Life with Blood Sausage, 1941.

A work of Picasso’s painted during the Nazi occupation of France, Still Life with Blood Sausage, 1941.

Alberto Giacometti surrounded by his Existentialist-inspired works, 1951.

Alberto Giacometti surrounded by his Existentialist-inspired works, 1951.


Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beavoir.


Albert Camus.

The Paris art scene, severely weakened by the war, continued to have innovative movements such as Art Brut and the Nouvelle Réalistes but Surrealism was the last movement in France that dominated the art world. Breton continued to influence young artists in the Surrealist vein particularly in South America until his death in 1966 but it was really artists like Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists who would have a greater influence on the postwar Avant-Garde. Art in France and later in the U.S. became particularly influenced by philosophical fads such as Existentialism, Buddhism, Phenomenology, and the media theories of Marshall McLuhan that began to dominate the intellectual scene during the 1950’s and 60’s.

A work by Art Brut founder Jean Dubuffet, Limbour as a Crustacean, 1946.

A work by Art Brut founder Jean Dubuffet, Limbour as a Crustacean, 1946.

Yves Klein, L'accord bleu (RE 10), 1960.

Founder of the Nouvelle Realiste movement Yves Klein, L’accord bleu (RE 10), 1960.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t totally write off Surrealism’s accomplishments. The idea of investigating dreams and other elements of the unconscious was an important precedent that many artists who were interested in deep recesses of the mind would continue to be attracted. Even today, one of the most popular works of art at The Museum of Modern Art is a work by Salvador Dali. Surrealism continues to attract us because the unconscious is a universal that, if we decide to tap it for creativity, can elucidate beautiful, disturbing, and deeply fascinating things.

tumblr_lrmiq2X7Zp1qdu5ijo1_1280 It’s no secret that the conscious imagination can be a powerful driver of creativity. But what about the unconscious? Can ideas born from dreams and other forms of subconscious sources be equally powerful drivers of creativity? During the 1920’s and 30’s one group of international artists and writers centered in Paris believed this to be the case. They thought true creative freedom came not from the ego of the artist but from those elements just under conscious control. These artists called themselves Surrealists after a word invented by French modernist poet Apollinaire signifying the strange place between the real and the unreal.

Poet André Breton was the founder and leader (often dubbed Pope) of the Surrealist movement. It was he who established its definition and mission and acted as arbiter of its rules. He was famous for excommunicating members for not being sufficiently ‘surreal’ or a million other reasons. It was Breton who made the Surrealist movement possible.

André Breton, 1924.

André Breton, 1924.


The Surrealist movement had a number of precursors and influences that it sought to co-opt into its philosophy and output. The first was Dada. Dada was started in Zurich in 1916 at the height of the First World War and was a reaction to the madness into which the continent had descended. To protest this irrationality they utilized irrationality in their art in order to force society out of its coma. From Zurich, it spread to Berlin, Paris, and New York among other cities.


Paris Dadaists including Breton in fake facial hair.


These artists began to create art that was so radical that it shunned all previous forms of artistic expression and all other movements and concentrated on those such as sound poetry, provocative performance, collage, radical typography and graphic design, photography and photo-montage, experimental film, and object making. During and just after the war it was notable for anarchic spirit, its hatred of authority,  and its bravery in standing up to reactionary forces during a time when societies were much more homogeneous in their beliefs in traditions and trust in authority.

A reenactment of one of Hugo Ball’s early Dadaist performances in Zurich from 1916:


Dadaist assemblage: Kurt Schwitters, Revolving, 1919.

An example of Dadaist sound poetry. Raoul Hausmann,  kp' erioUM, 1919.

Dadaist sound poetry and typography: Raoul Hausmann, kp’ erioUM, 1919.

An example of Dadaist photomontage. Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. 1919-1920

Dadaist photo-montage: Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. 1919-1920.

BPL228866  Credit: L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 (colour litho) by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) ©Private Collection/ Photo © Boltin Picture Library/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: French / in copyright until 2039 PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist's copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919.

By the early 1920’s, Dada was running out of steam and to some in the Parisian Avant-Garde its Nihilism had become counterproductive. Breton was first drawn into the Dada movement. But during the early 1920’s, he decided he wanted to move towards an idealistic vision and back to art from what the Dadaists had called ‘anti-art.’ He became interested in dreams and to believe that the only way to real freedom was through a revolution of the mind to free it from its conscious constraints.

Surrealist expression through manifestos, literature, and visual art was a method to make this possible. As opposed to the Dadaists who tried to work against art, culture, and taste, to destroy the remnants of the stuffy and nationalistic nineteenth century mentality once and for all, the Surrealists really were idealists and they thought they could change the world through art and literature through high-minded expression and radical politics. It was in a way a Romantic movement and though very different in almost every other way, recalled in its marriage of a sensuous and emotional art with socialism in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphealites of the previous century.

The Arts and Crafts movement: frontispiece to William Morris's News from Nowhere, designed by Charles March Gere in 1893.

The Arts and Crafts movement: frontispiece to William Morris’s News from Nowhere, designed by Charles March Gere in 1893.

A Pre-Raphealite painting: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.

A Pre-Raphealite painting: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.


The Surrealists in a dream state surrounding Hidden Woman (1929), painting by René Magritte, cover of Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1932. The text reads, ‘ I Do Not See the [Woman] Hidden in the Forest.’

Much of the forms of art invented or developed by Dadaists such as collage, assemblage and experimental film were co-opted by Surrealism. Additionally, many who had worked in the Dadaist mode such as Max Ernst, Man Ray, Jean Arp, Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard, and Francis Picabia became important members of the new movement.


Sigmund Freud.


Surrealism would not be possible without the insights and work of Sigmund Freud. Although Freud cared very little for Modernism or for Breton and his movement, the Surrealists worshiped him as the man who’s discovery of the unconscious and developments in the therapeutic benefits of dream analysis had made their art possible.

However, Freud’s belief that the unconscious could tell us a lot about ourselves yet it needed to be suppressed for the individual and civilization to function was lost on or ignored by the Surrealists. Instead they believed that the unconscious should be let loose from its moorings to free the individual from what they believed was the tyranny of civilization and consciousness that had made it possible.

They were anti-rationalists and stood in direct opposition to the philosophy of the Enlightenment with the importance it placed on an objective reality over the subjectivity of the inner mind. Freud was himself a rationalist and saw irrationality as a symptom of pathology not freedom from it. Nonetheless, Freud’s insights were very important to the Surrealists and formed the basis for a lot of their thinking.


Art of the mentally ill.

In their search for the irrational and the unconscious they also showed an interest in the art of children and the insane. Because neither group was locked up in the straitjacket of modern adulthood and its concentration on the rational, they were able to be completely free and express their unconscious as they wished. They of course did not take in to account  either the suffering of the mentally ill or the nascent science of childhood development. As with Freud, they idealized the parts of the unconscious they wanted to and discarded the rest.

Additionally, the Surrealists were interested in the work of amateur artists like Henri Rousseau who created magical worlds while being naïve and unpolished in their style. They thought the amateur was able to tap into something that was lost when an artist began to hone his or her skills. In this way, Surrealists wanted to get back to basics and even though much of their paintings in particular were polished and technically proficient, they admired art that seemed to go back to basics.


Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910.


One of the more perplexing influences on Surrealism was Communism. Many members of the Surrealist movement were avowed Communists. Breton himself was a Trotskyite and later became friends with Leon Trotsky in Mexico shortly before his assassination there. Trotsky himself, also had a hand in writing elements of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in the early 1930’s, the treatise that made the Communist influence explicit. Poet Max Jacob went even further, becoming a strident Stalinist during this time.


Breton with Trotsky and Communist mural painter Diego Rivera in Mexico, 1930’s.

The turn towards Communism was no doubt multifaceted in nature, however it seems strange looking back as Marxists were interested in a purely objective and materialist reality, while Surrealism embraced the opposite. Additionally, the Soviet Union, beginning during those early years of Stalinism in the 20’s, became increasingly hostile towards the Avant-Garde. Some artists were forced to change to new national propaganda style of Socialist Realism, which celebrated great Communists, national leaders, and the people in a traditional way. Others left, were jailed, or even killed.


An example of Social Realism, the state-mandated style of the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes. Alexander Gerasimov, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, 1938.

The state and realistic content in art were what Surrealism was rebelling against, so what accounts for this contradiction? Like with the Freud influence, it is clear that the Surrealists cherry-picked those elements of the Communist doctrine that fit their own philosophy, but intentionally ignored those that didn’t. For instance, the Surrealists embraced the fact that Communism like Surrealism was intended to be an international revolutionary movement while ignoring its censorship (or worse) of artists and writers within the Soviet Union.

Both saw the Bourgeoisie and Capitalism as being responsible for World War I and Communism for helping to end it through the 1917 revolution that took Russia out of the war. They  also were perhaps influenced by the Communist revolts that occurred in Germany around 1919 after the German defeat and the overthrow of the Kaiser. There is also the fact that many on the far-left during the early twentieth century embraced Communism as a new and exciting form of government. They also saw Capitalism as the status quo which they wished to overthrow and Communism provided seemingly the best mechanism to do this.

The Spartacist Uprising, a Communist revolt following the fall of the Kaiser, 1919.

The Spartacist Uprising, a Communist revolt in Berlin following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1919.

Not all Surrealists were Communists, however. Salvador Dali for instance, embraced his strong Catholic roots and Fascism, in particular the Franco regime in his home country of Spain who the Communists backed by Stalin had fought in a bloody civil war.


Avowed fascist Salvador Dali meeting with the dictator of Spain, Generalisimo Francisco Franco.

Forms of Expression:

Surrealist Games and Literature:

Surrealism was like Dada in that it was playful in spirit yet deadly serious about that playfulness. The most notable form of this was the Surrealist games that various members of the movement, most notably Breton, devised as ways of inserting the unconscious into everyday experience. These games came in various forms and involved different ways of tapping into the unconscious from passing a paper around adding elements to a story or picture without seeing what came before it (known popularly as ‘Exquisite Corpse’) to The Dadaist Poem, ie: putting pieces of cut up newsprint text in a bag and writing poetry by pulling the words out in a random order, to automatic writing. They allowed a new way into the creative process that avoided the conscious mind and decision making. They were also interested in seances and the occult, as the realm of spirits did not behave in a rational manner and therefore could be another point of unconscious contact.

An early example of the exquisite corpse created by some of the Surrealists, 1920.

An early example of the exquisite corpse created by some of the Surrealists, 1920.

Surrealist literature came out of several previous literary movements in France and elsewhere including Symbolism, the absurdest poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont, the dreamlike visions of Arthur Rimbaud, the modernist poetry collages of Apollinaire, the extremity and violence of Antonin Artaud’s plays and the works of the Marquis De Sade, the irrationality and energy of Futurist and Dadaist sound poetry, and the wild plays and poetry of Jean Cocteau. All these influences combined along with an interest in chance in the work of poets and writers such as Breton, Paul Eluard, and Max Jacob. They created in words something very similar to what Surrealists artists later created in images.

Artist Max Ernst proved that you didn’t need words to create works of Surrealist literature. Ernst constructed elaborate, bizarre, and uncanny ‘novels’ made out of collages of nineteenth century book and magazine illustrations that he created by cutting and reassembling and then printing from this hybrid of the original plates on which they were printed creating bizarre and frightening worlds.

Max Ernst, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, 1930.

Max Ernst, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, 1930.


There were two main strands of Surrealist painting. One was to create a vision of a dreamworld through the combination of a realistic painting style and juxtapositions of strange objects. This strand saw its precedents in the strange meeting of objects in The Comte De Lautremont’s prose poem Maldoror and in the ‘metaphysical’ paintings of Giorgio Di Chirico.

Giorgio De Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914.

Giorgio De Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914.

The two most famous artists of this style were René Magritte and Salvador Dali. Magritte’s art was as much about language as it was about images. His paintings seemed real but always made you question what you saw. A giant apple would take up an entire room, dark buildings lit like it was nighttime would sit below a blue daylight sky, hundreds of business men would fall from the sky like rain, and a miniature steam-powered train would come flying out of a fireplace. A pipe would be labeled with the statement “This is not a pipe.”


René Magritte, The Empire of Lights, 1950-54.

Rene Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952.

René Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952.

Rene Magritte, Infinite Gratitude, 1963.

René Magritte, Infinite Gratitude, 1963.

Rene Magritte, The Invention of Life, 1928.

René Magritte, The Invention of Life, 1928.

Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1948.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe), 1928-29.

Magritte’s paintings were of the slippery place were reality meets fantasy and language loses its meaning. Magritte is one of the most famous and beloved of the Surrealists because his art was fun (though sometimes violent or scary) and it was either easily understood or wonderfully enigmatic as a visual pun or joke or as a mysterious moment where the world began to stop making sense.

The smoothness and realism of his Flemish-influenced Belgian style meant that his art took on an extra surreal quality. What you were seeing didn’t seem possible yet looked as real as anything you could encounter in life.

Salvador Dali is the most famous of the Surrealists. His images are immensely popular because even in their strangeness and dark character they seem to somehow relate to us directly through our own dreams and nightmares.

The famous image of the melting clock in The Persistence of Memory is one of the iconic images of modern art precisely because it seems at once funny and unsettling. Dali’s paintings depict what seem to be realistic worlds, strange as they may be but also appear to be slightly out of control. Like the melting watches they are full of references to time slipping away, to disillusion and decay, to mortality.

Dali’s works also evoke feelings of shame, violence, lust, paranoia, and nightmares. They speak to us because they are universal in a way. Unlike Magritte’s straightforward yet highly intellectual dreamscapes, Dali’s images seem to come directly out of the Id. They are the remnants of the reptile brain bubbling to the surface like out of a fever dream.  Despite Dali’s ego, atrocious political beliefs, and extreme pretension his art still speaks to us because it taps into our own unconscious desires and fears in a way few artists besides perhaps Goya were able to before.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War, 1936.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War, 1936.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator, 1929.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator, 1929.

Salvador Dali, The Face of War, 1940.

Salvador Dali, The Face of War, 1940.

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcisssus,

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcisssus, 1937.

The other strand in painting was one of abstraction. It was interested in chance and in the lack of premeditation in the painted subject or in the juxtaposition of abstraction and realistic imagery. The most famous artist of this trajectory of Surrealism was Joan Miró. Like Dali, Miró was a Spaniard (more precisely a Catalan) and his early work is injected with the spirit of his native country. The yellow plains and blue skies, the rich soil, the heat. They combined a somewhat abstracted world with a completely abstract one in the same image.

Juan Miro, Carnaval de Arlequín, 1924-1925.

Joan Miró, Carnaval de Arlequín, 1924-1925.

Joan Miro, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), 1923-24.

Joan Miró, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), 1923-24.

Later Miró would go on to move to towards total abstraction, using elements that might allude to reality yet were hard to decipher. He painted on the backs of canvases adding new and interesting textures to his images. They seem childlike and playful and do not have the kind of dread or violence found in either Magritte or Dali’s work. They also come from an even more elemental place that evoke the curiosity of children’s drawings or the mystery of the cosmos. Miró was one of the few artists who was actually able to transcend Surrealism because his vision was so inclusive. It was fun, unlike the work of many of the Surrealists that could be so serious that they verged on self-parody.

Check out Part II of this article coming next week, featuring other forms of Surrealist expression including photography and film and more great images and video.

Joan Miró, Morning Star, 1940.

Salvador Dali, Woman and Bird in the Night, 1971-75.

Joan Miró, Woman and Bird in the Night, 1971-75.

Joan Miro's Studio, Mallorca, Spain.

Miró’s Studio, Mallorca, Spain.


I started How Creatives Work two years ago with a simple mission. I wanted to investigate how creative people did what they did. What was their process? Their routines? Their struggles? Basically, what makes them tick? This continues to be my mission and although it is sometimes hard to put out posts as regularly as I would like, my passion for the subject is as alive as ever.

A major inspiration for this project was another, much better blog created by writer Maria Popova: It was probably the thing that first gave me the spark of the idea and that convinced me that such a thing would be possible.

I would recommend Brain Pickings to anybody who feels like they have reached a creative standstill. The donor-supported website is hugely motivational. Popova highlights books and interviews and letters and infographics and audio and video all relating to the theme of creativity and practical advice from figures of the past and present. She has a particular interest in picture books that tell stories about historical figures in ways that both children and adults can understand and appreciate.

As opposed to tackling the various themes of a figures whole life, Popova focuses on one aspect of a their life and work to highlight a theme that is universal whether that be Alan Watts on happiness and presence, Hunter S. Thompson on finding one’s purpose and meaning, various writers talking about their craft, or a recent post on Cheryl Strayed and ‘The Art of Motherfuckitude.’

There are other interesting features on the site that makes it as great a way to waste an afternoon as anything on the internet, albeit in a much more substantive way than most. There’s the ‘book pickings bookshelf‘ where Popova recommends interesting titles in the categories of design, science, history, psychology, and art. There’s her great weekly email newsletter with a roundup of posts from the past week. There’s her creative experiment ‘literary jukebox,’ where a quote from a book is paired thematically with a song. There’s beautiful ‘original art’ by illustrators which includes a visualization of a quote, which you can even buy as prints. Then finally there’s the SoundCloud page where you can listen to fascinating audio.

As Popova describes the mission of her website:

Brain Pickings is my one-woman labor of love — a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why. Mostly, it’s a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — and an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.

Popova accomplishes this in spades. Brain Pickings was hugely useful and motivational for me and I’m sure it will be for you too.

If you are interested in seeing more, check out the website, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe to the email newsletter, and follow Popova on Twitter. Also, check out these 7 things Popova has learned since she started her blog:

Akira Kurosawa, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas during the production of KAGEMUSHA, 1980.

One of my first posts for this blog was on visionary director Akira Kurosawa, master of the Samurai epic and the genius behind such films as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ran. He is particularly notable for his groundbreaking use of wide shots and telephoto lenses, his interest in extreme weather and strong sometimes overwrought performances. More than that, it was his signature style that has influenced directors from Altman, to Coppola, to Spielberg and Lucas. He was my favorite filmmaker for a long time. In high school and college, I collected as many of his films on DVD as I could and watched them over and over. He truly was a master of the medium and should not be overlooked in terms of his importance to the history of film both technically and for the many classics he was responsible for.

One of Kurosawa’s most important contributions to modern filmmaking was his use of motion. This extended to the movement of the actors, of the camera, and to his use of editing. It is important to remember that none of this is ever accidental (or usually shouldn’t be anyway). Filmmaker and editor Tony Zhou has an interest series of videos on the way filmmakers tell a story through visuals called ‘Every Frame A Painting.’ His most recent video is on Kurosawa and goes into interesting detail about how Kurosawa used motion as an important storytelling tool.

Zhou explains how Kurosawa, through all of his 30+ films, used the motion to create visual interest, point to characterization and plot, and create a seamless flow. He discusses how Kurosawa used elements such as the power of nature, groups, unrealistic and exaggerated blocking, fluid camera motion, telling a story through a single shot, and cutting on movement to create visual excitement and to help guide the viewer through the story without having to use endless exposition. He also explains how directors could improve their films by following Kurosawa’s example.

I am thankful to Zhou for pointing out how motion is so skillfully used in Kurosawa’s films that I never really noticed it before. I think that’s a real gift: to be able to be so adept at some important element of your creative endeavor that it slips by unseen. Zhou’s breakdown of Kurosawa’s use of motion is a really strong demonstration in craft and I think creative people in many disciplines may find it useful to their own art forms.


Ever since I heard of John Cage and his unusual work, I was drawn to him. Here was a composer who wasn’t interested in composition in a traditional sense but instead wanted to open up music both to the elements of chance and of ambient sound. I found the daring quality of it very attractive and while it took me some time to attune my ears to the strange sounds in his compositions, I got used to them and began to enjoy them. There was, of course, another side of John Cage that I found interesting: his interest in Zen Buddhism.

Kay Larson’s recent book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Lives of Artists is a kind of biography but it’s not a typical one. It does not give an overview of Cage’s life in any typical sense. Instead, it is a kind of overview and breakdown of Cage’s developmental thought, spanning from his early years and an interest in modernist art and music, to a burgeoning fascination with Indian mystic thought, to the much more down-to-earth practices of Zen which correlate directly with Cage’s musical development and philosophies. This last phase is the real center of the book.

John-Cage-Prepared-PianosmWhen I first read this book it pleased me because it is so rich and deep, going into a tremendous amount of detail about not only Cage’s life and career but also the background of Zen teachings, other important figures of the middle twentieth century who were thinking about similar things as Cage, as well as about probably the most important figure in Cage’s life: the philosopher and popularizer of Zen thought in the West: D.T. Suzuki.

This book is tremendous from a number of perspectives. First of all, it is a really great biography of Cage, although it stops around the late ‘60s so we don’t get to know much about his last thirty or so years. Secondly, it’s a great breakdown of Zen history and thought. Thirdly, it is a detailed and fascinating accounting of the twentieth century American avant-garde, both in New York and on the West Coast, particularly Seattle. Fourthly, it is great guide for creative people to find the drive from which their work can grow.

An example of one of Cage’s more revolutionary works and a befuddled audience who didn’t get it:

When I say drive, I mean it in the sense of whatever strong energy that lies within you which you can help push your creative work forward. For John Cage, that force was Zen and the practice of meditation. For me, it tends to be the sense that if I don’t get down to work, I will be letting myself and my readers down. For others, it may be a sense that something important needs to be expressed. For you, it may be something else.  Whatever it is, it’s important to listen to that force and use it as a source of your creative energy.

Kay Larson’s book is terrific for anyone who is looking for an instructional example of how one very original and fascinating artist was able to do something totally different from what had come before. Cage had to deal with a lot of negativity and rejection from those who thought his work silly or ridiculous. Nonetheless, he became probably the most influential composer in the latter half of the twentieth century. This is a reminder of the need to follow your inner force, that thing that pushes your creative work forward and to do what you think is best not what other people tell you is appropriate or doable. There’s a good chance it will pay off.


Francisco Goya, Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820.

Creating art is not an easy thing. As I talked about in my review of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, it can be a struggle, a battle even. Pressfield’s book was about overcoming the difficulty of getting down to work, of stopping procrastination and doing the thing you have to do. But there is another kind of creative struggle that many go through – the struggle with one’s self, with one’s inner demons.

Whether it be issues of mental illness, depression, physical disability, or addiction, many creative people have had to find ways to overcome their issues in order to create. Some have even used their problems to their own creative advantage.

Three artists who transcended their inner turmoil, at least for a time, and created masterpieces in the process were Francisco Goya, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock. They didn’t always win the war (and the fight sometimes ended up destroying them) but each went on to be regarded as a master of their medium partially because of that struggle.


Goya, Self-Portrait at 69 Years, 1815.


Because of the tremendous range he achieved during his lifetime and the intensity of his work, Francisco Goya was a legitimately one-of-a-kind painter. Although he created work that encompassed neoclassical idylls and portraits of the Spanish royal fantasy, he is probably most famous for his more disturbing paintings: his images of war, of political corruption, and of monsters.

Francisco Goya, La cometa (The Kite), 1778

Goya, La cometa (The Kite), 1778.


Goya, Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800.


Goya, The Black Duchess, 1797.

Early on, paintings like The Third of May and The Disasters of War print series – both made in reaction to Napoleon’s brutal occupation of Spain – showed the unfiltered the horrors of conflict. He became a kind of photojournalist (mostly of his own imagination admittedly) decades before the advent of photography.

Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814.

Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814.

Goya, Plate 3: Lo Mismo (The Same), 1810-1820.

Goya, The Disasters of war, Plate 3: Lo Mismo (The Same), 1810-1820.

However, to me, his most powerful images, known as the ‘black paintings,’ depicted the darkness that can lie within the recesses of the imagination – the black corners where most of us are too scared to go. Taken off the walls of his home, dubbed ‘the blind man’s house’ these terrifying and magnificent works were incredibly dark, both in subject matter and in color, and remain his most arresting images.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823.

Goya’s turn from portraying an idyllic world of a fashionable aristocracy to plumbing the depths of the id came around the time he lost his ability to hear. His deafness meant a new inability to communicate or interact with the outside world. He was imprisoned within the self. Here he used his frustration with his disability, much as Beethoven did, to create arguably his best work. He dove headlong into the abyss.


Goya, The Dog, 1819-1823.

Many have mistakenly called Goya crazy. This isn’t quite right. Some of his most poignant images deal with the theme of insanity. But to focus merely on the deranged aspects of his late images is to ignore their more potent intention: as a satire of the craziness of society and the systems of order that led often to war, poverty, and misery for so many.


Goya, The Madhouse, 1812-1819.

His paintings also move from showing a fear of royal and military power run amok, to a fear of the mob, of witchcraft, and of monsters. What was truly Goya’s gift was his rare ability to go to the darkest most dissolute reaches of his imagination and pull out those aspects, those dark creatures that at once attract us, intrigue us, frighten us, and disgust us.


Goya, Fight with Cudgels, 1819-1823.


Goya, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, 1819-1823.


Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1819-1823.

The black paintings, as well as other works from his later years, are difficult to look at precisely because they are so powerful and so visceral. We may want to turn away, yet we are strangely drawn to the dark images. They fasten our eyes to them like glue. This uncanny quality is precisely what Goya had a rare gift for.


Goya, Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-1823.

Because he could not express himself normally through language, he used his art to tell the story about what was rotten and ugly in humanity as he had told about what was beautiful in his early paintings. In other words he told the truth both as we wish it were, as it truly is, and as we fear it might be. This deeper truth is what gave his works their immediacy and their staying power.

Vincent Van Gogh - Self Portrait 14

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889.

Van Gogh:

Vincent Van Gogh is one of those artists whose very existence has become a kind of cliché. He’s the mad genius, the misunderstood master, the artist who became famous only after he died. At the same time, these are clichés precisely because they are true. Van Gogh is today one of the world’s most popular artists. The reason for this is half because of his amazing and vibrantly colorful paintings and half because of the manic depression that made them possible.


Van Gogh, The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing, 1888.

Van Gogh’s mental issues were something he battled all his life. The ups and downs of his inner state moved between high points of manic energy and creativity and low points of despondency, erratic and sometimes violent behavior, and an inability to work.

Van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888.

Van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888.

In one of his most infamous moments, he cut off of his own earlobe to give it to a woman in town. It came at a time of creative ebb not long after his disastrous experience trying to form a cooperative art studio with the talented but equally difficult Paul Gauguin in the yellow house in Arles. It precipitated a breakdown that led to a long period at a sanitarium and the beginning of his slow decline towards his ultimate end.

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers, 1888.

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers, 1888.


Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889.

Alternately Van Gogh would go through periods of incredible production. At one point he painting a picture a day, including some of his best known and beloved works. He created classics like his many self-portraits and landscapes including the instantly recognizable Starry Night. During his black depressions he did almost nothing, acted erratically, and sometimes violently. It was this back and forth that made Van Gogh both the great artist we all know and the intensely depressed man who would eventually shoot himself in the chest at the age of 37.


Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889.

We know a lot about him from the sheer volume of correspondence he had with his art dealer brother, Theo (who tragically died not long after Vincent). From it, we can track his mood swings, as well as discover the incredible wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm he had for his art. He was wild about nature and beauty, a great driver of his work, and very open and honest about his attacks of depression.

Theo Van Gogh

Theo Van Gogh

He revealed that he had once been a preacher with a positively transcendental outlook. It was this feeling of god all around him that imbued his paintings with their characteristic frenzied brushstrokes, vibrant color, and sense of pure and loving energy. A good example is Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun, where the jubilation of nature almost teeters over the edge of sanity, its so intense.


Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun, 1889.

Other times, such as when he painted the Wheat Field with Crows, the jubilation of those periods seems to go to the other emotional extreme, a kind of foreboding despair, the way drinking too much can move the drinker from joy to darkness. Some have argued that this painting, with its disregard for simulated perspective, frenzied brushstrokes, abstraction, and flatness, is the beginning of modern art.


Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890.

In the end the incredibly boisterous, frenetic, and sometimes scary nature of his paintings always seems connected to his state of mind. Because of this and the fact that he painted so quickly and frequently, we have a kind of visual diary of his mental state which manages to pull the viewer in to Van Gogh’s very personal and deeply felt vision of the world.


Jackson Pollock:

Jackson Pollock was an extremely driven artist, but also an extremely difficult and self-destructive character. His work redefined what was considered possible in painting up to that time. With that gift, and the odd kind of notoriety he received from his revolutionary splattered works, dubbed ‘Action Painting’ by critics, Pollock changed the very way we look at art today.

Jackson Pollock,  Lucifer, 1947.

Jackson Pollock, Lucifer, 1947.

With other artists in the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and his wife Lee Krasner, Pollock helped to create two new elements in the art world: painting that was completely abstract and unencumbered by metaphor, and the rise of New York as the new center of the art world (replacing Paris which had dominated it for at least a century and a half). He has also come to symbolize (in a kind of interesting reversal of Vincent Van Gogh’s extreme popularity after his death) everything that is difficult and even detestable to many people about modern art.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950.

Mark Rothko, No. 16, 1961.

Mark Rothko, No. 16, 1961.


Lee Krasner, Gaea, 1966.

In some ways Jackson Pollock’s story is similar to Van Gogh’s. He too struggled with periods of extreme highs and lows. He had those of genius, filled with constant and consistent work, and those of complete stagnation and depression as well as excessive drinking to the point that it basically crippled him. Pollock’s alcoholism came to define him in a certain way, much as it did many creative people of the twentieth century. And it also led to his tragic end, drunkenly driving off the road with one young women in the passenger seat and another in the back, neither of whom was his wife.


Pollock, Mural, 1943.

Despite his wild nature, it is often overlooked that Pollock was an incredibly deliberate artist. He had formal training under the tutelage of Thomas Hart Benton and the Mexican muralists, from whom he would later adopt the idea of working on a large canvas.

Thomas Hart Benton, Archelous and Hercules, 1947.

Thomas Hart Benton, Archelous and Hercules, 1947.

José Clemente Orozco, Gods of the Modern World, Dartmouth Mural, 1932-34.

José Clemente Orozco, Gods of the Modern World, Dartmouth Mural, 1932-34.

He came from the American West, a place that influenced his work with its vast landscapes and Native American cultures. He thought of himself as acting in the way that nature did, creating spontaneity through his application of paint. His splatters and drips were never random. Using sticks, brushes, or even his hands he applied paint to the canvas in a controlled way, much as a jazz musician does when constructing an improvised solo.

Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952.

Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952.

Pollock’s dark side was very dark indeed. He would get drunk, become brutish and mean, and even commit acts of violence. During a thanksgiving dinner after a disagreement with the photographer Hans Namuth who was making a film about him, Pollock yelled out ‘NOW!’ and pushed over the table. All the dishes and food went crashing to the floor.

Van Gogh, Number 32, 1950.

Van Gogh, Number 32, 1950.

During these long dark periods of drinking he could do nothing but be unhappy. When Lee Krasner was able to convince him to stop for any short or extended period of time, he would go over to his studio on Long Island and paint. She made a concerted effort to keep bad influences away from him so he could remain stable and work.

Pollock, Galaxy, 1947.

Pollock, Galaxy, 1947.

It is partially because of these interventions that we have much of the most famous work. But there was a point at which, as he was losing popularity among the important critics, Pollock descended to his lowest point. Fat, constantly drunk, and cheating on his wife, he lost complete control. This downward spiral would eventually lead him to his premature death at the age of 44, late at night on a Long Island road.

Pollock, Convergence, 1952.

Pollock, Convergence, 1952.

Art and Struggle:

Creation is not usually an easy thing. Even those who love to do it, myself included, often struggle to get down to work, to get something out of it that is truly good. Being creative people, we are often plagued by our own dark thoughts: those of inadequacy, jealousy, and doubt. Sometimes this war is what allows an artist to create their best work as in the case of these three artists who worked to rise above depression, physical or mental issues, or addiction. In the end, whether or not they won that battle, their art serves to show what good can come from this fight with darkness.


Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888.

So, in a mission to get more material on this blog and also more out in the world, I’ve decided to add a new feature. From now on (hopefully starting this week) I will post weekly pieces called ‘Creative Recommendations’ featuring all kinds of different stuff to check out that I believe would be useful or interesting for creative people. This will include books, articles, films, podcasts, apps, anything that I think you all might like. Hopefully followers and others will enjoy it and learn something from it.

Additionally I’ve started a new Tumblr blog where I write short pieces on interesting images:

Please follow me on Twitter (@liamcragin) where I will be posting other stuff and just generally being cantankerous. I am going to stop being so lazy with it. Anyways, I hope you guys like the new stuff! Please let me know. Feedback is always appreciated.