Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Surrealist Sculpture Collage

Surrealist Sculpture

Started: 1924
Ended: 1966
Surrealist Sculpture Timeline
People were no longer limited to talking about their phobias, manias, feelings and desires, but could now touch them, manipulate and operate them with their own hands.
Salvador Dalí Signature

Summary of Surrealist Sculpture

Surrealist sculpture rose from a desire to concretize what lies beneath. In the 1920s, the Surrealism movement began as artists and writers began to delve deeper underneath everyday, literal existence to mine the sandbox of the unconscious mind. It was a revolutionary impetus and philosophical drive first, its members craved to pierce the veil between reality and our more primitive desires, fantasies, taboos and the unconscious ephemera that nevertheless affects real life. They accomplished this by creating visual works across a massive spectrum of art, film, music, literature and philosophy. Surrealist sculpture evolved this process further by making manifest three dimensional objects conjured from those primal, subconscious spaces, bringing them to physical form where the underlying power and mystical presence of the imagination could no longer be denied.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Surrealist sculpture perfectly enhanced Surrealism's radical provocations by forcing people to encounter physical objects that represented taboo or repressed issues floating just beneath our common surfaces. Rather than simply viewing a painting that might express one artist's buried madness or embarrassing fantasy, viewers were now invited to interact with the unreal made real, and touch a fantastical embodiment of repressed desire.
  • Two major veins of work defined surrealist sculpture: the "biomorph" and the "objet trouvé" - giving two-sided insight into the way the imagination works when attempting to materialize the pure unconscious. In the former, we find abstracted shapes and forms created through organic, emotional association. In the latter, we find compositions of random items chosen intuitively without strategy or predetermination. Both represent the non-strategic, automatic processes of Surrealism.
  • Surrealism had a major impact on modern art and continues to be seen globally across creative fields including film, literature, graphic design, fashion, and visionary art. This is a testament to the freedom unleashed by Surrealism's initial mission whereby artists and writers may convey their own uniquely individual thoughts, feelings and innermost drives through creative means. It loosened the field of possibilities and promised perpetual fodder to mine.

Overview of Surrealist Sculpture

Surrealist Sculpture Image

Founder of Surrealism André Breton defined the movement as "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of thought." Surrealist artists were heavily influenced by concepts found within psychoanalysis, particularly Sigmund Freud's theories that our repressed desires and fears oftentimes float to the surface through the subconscious temple of dreams or the unfettered creative flow of poetry and art. Surrealism claimed to be an invisible ray, which channeled the unconscious mind in order to unlock its imagination and to showcase its myriad taboos, complexities and similarities within man. This provided an arena where artists could forego conscious thought and embrace chance.

Key Artists

  • Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
  • The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
  • Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.
  • The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
  • Henry Moore was an English sculptor and artist. He was best known for his abstract monumental bronze sculptures. His forms are usually abstractions of the human figure, typically depicting reclining figures, or even more commonly, the mother and child theme.
View all

Do Not Miss

  • Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. They hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
  • This ground-breaking practice of photography was inspired by Dada's improvisational practices and the Surrealist's foray into the unconscious, dream, and fantasy realms. Many artists contributed various works that ultimately stretched the possibilities of the medium.
  • Surrealist films, an important part of the greater Surrealism movement, explore, reveal, and possibly even replicate the inner-workings of the subconscious mind in a highly visual and accessible manner.
  • Existentialism deals largely with the complexities of individual human emotions, thoughts and responsibilities and the philosophy was widely used by various artist in the arena of modern art.

Important Art and Artists of Surrealist Sculpture

The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920)

Artist: Man Ray

In this early "readymade" a sewing machine is wrapped in an army blanket and tied with a string. The title refers to the French poet Isidore Ducasse who wrote the book Les Chants de Maldoror, which was a text of particular obsession to the Surrealists for its influential line "Beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella." Chance effects were instrumental to the Dada artists, including Marcel Duchamp who was a large influence on Man Ray's work yet this piece pre-dated the Surrealist impetus toward using the subconscsious as creative fodder. The piece was constructed to be photographed and then dismantled. The sewing machine underneath the blanket was never revealed as such. Instead, Man Ray wished to pose a riddle to the viewer, the object's identity hinted at within the work's name. Man Ray was a significant contributor to both the Dada and Surrealist movements, although loosely. He mostly fancied himself a painter yet it was his photography that elevated him to worldwide acclaim as well as his noted photograms, which he called "rayographs" after himself.

Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (1921)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp was a proto-Surrealist who had been making "readymades" since 1915. He wished to question the very notion of art and the adoration of art by presenting objects in an indifferent fashion. This was in direct opposition to what he called "retinal" art, or art intended merely to visually please the viewer. He said that he wanted to put art back into the service of the mind. Duchamp called this particular work an "assisted" "readymade" because he takes a pre-existing object and alters it. A birdcage is filled with marble cubes made to look like sugar lumps, a mercury thermometer, a piece of cuttlebone and a tiny porcelain dish. The combination of these objects is odd, creating a surreal feel yet when we delve deeper we find the concept of transformation and metamorphosis in the cubes, which exist as both sugar and stone. The question in the title was stuck on the underside with black adhesive tape and when viewers lifted the work to read this, they would be surprised by the unexpected weight. The work plays with the key Surrealist ideas of appearance and reality with its deceptive weight and perceived edibility. It is simultaneously light, sweet, heavy, and cold. The title further jars the mind because you can't sneeze on purpose and then, by the way, who is Rose Sélavy? The name happens to be Duchamp's female alter ego - a pun on the phrase: "Eros, c'est la vie." Breton praised this work, saying: "... it is worth nearly all the tricks of art put together." He adopted it for show widely at exhibitions because it so perfectly demonstrated the themes of subversion, play, and sensory confusion that characterized Surrealist sculpture.

Shirtfront and Fork (1924)

Artist: Hans Arp

This wooden painted relief is from a series of sculptures made by Arp in the 1920s spanning both Dada and Surrealist genres and marks his transition from the former to the latter. It presents an ambiguous subject; is it a shirtfront and fork, or human face or a tooth next to an arm? The plate or frame is also uneven, blurring the recognizable. The black, grey and white palette gives the piece a graphic feel and allows for the incorporation of shadow. Loosely literal and mysterious, the piece points to its conception within a core stream of unconsciousness. Arp said, "I tried to make forms grow. I put my trust in the example of seeds, stars, clouds, plants, animals, men, and finally in my innermost being." Arp played a pivotal role in the abstraction of the body and nature through his early involvement with Surrealism. He was known for organic abstraction: bringing the abstract, organic forms of Dada toward more biomorphic Surrealist images and further obscuring their possible meaning through his choice of titles. Transformation, growth, fecundity, and metamorphosis are common themes in his work.

Useful Resources on Surrealist Sculpture

Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

"Surrealist Sculpture Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
Available from:
First published on 05 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]