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