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.
Artworks and Artists of Surrealist Sculpture
The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse
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.
National Gallery of Australia
Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?
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.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Shirtfront and Fork
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.
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Woman with her Throat Cut
With their exploration into the shadow sides of the subconscious, the Surrealists were often criticized for violent and dismembered presentations of women. Here Giacometti treads a line between provocation and outrage. The bronze sculpture, only three feet long and nine inches high, was meant to splay on the ground without a plinth - an unusual departure from traditional presentations. In it a female figure lies on her back inviting viewers to walk over her and look down upon her, conjuring the uncomfortable emotions of desire mixed with fear. But even on her back, with her throat cut, her position also beckons, creating the effect of a simultaneous sexualized image. Giacometti described the heavy weight at the end of one arm as representing the nightmare of being pinned down, unable to push an attacker away. But she also strongly resembles an insect on a leaf highlighting the interest in metamorphosis with a nod to the key Surrealist symbol of a praying mantis. Both insect and woman are seen as both vulnerable and femme fatale. The mantis is both passive and aggressive for once she has mated she devours the male. As Giacometti was only affiliated with the Surrealists for a small period in his overall career, before he went on to make his renowned long, thin and crude figures, it might be said that his Surrealist pieces were efforts to dig into his own darker corners of the mind, exploring sexuality, irrationality and shock. The piece also reflects Giacometti's ongoing dialogue with Picasso and Matisse
Bronze - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Four-Piece Composition: Reclining Figure
In 1927 Henry Moore was in Paris studying primitive art and visited Picasso's studio with Breton and Giacometti. The influences of those artists can be seen in this piece. There are four bone-like (or stone-like) shapes incised with fine diagrammatic lines, a technique common in Moore's work of the 1930s. These lines reflect his interest in ancient stone carving and also hint at the Cubism of Picasso. Alone the pieces are irresolvable, abstract, a separated composition of biomorphic shapes. But together they assemble into a recognizable, if still abstracted, female body. The piece also conjures Giacometti's Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932) because of the way the figure is fragmented into separate pieces that lay across a plane rather than standing upright. This illustrates the enormous impact of Surrealism on Moore and his integration of such currents in his work.
Today, Henry Moore is best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures, typically abstracted from the human figure and in various poses of recline. These forms in repose also tend to conjure landscapes where the voluptuous curves of the body come to be seen as hills and valleys. Moore once stated that for him, "knees and breasts are mountains."
Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
German artist Hans Bellmer was known for the life-sized pubescent female dolls he produced in the mid 1930s. This obsession with dolls was spawned through a marriage of events in his childhood and early personal life having to deal with insubordination, authority, fascism and unattainable beauties. For Die Puppe he created an overtly sexualized doll from wood, glue, plaster, straw and an unkempt wig, which represented a personal obsession to create an artificial girl who would be a "real object to be possessed" - as he once said. He then posed "her" in multiple settings. In this one, she glances back toward the viewer coyly and disturbingly real flashing a mere hint of breast and part of the stomach with her buttocks fully exposed. The Surrealist Manifesto had called for words to be cut up and rearranged and for Bellmer, his version of that became the doll's body, his self-professed "plastic anagram." Breton hailed it as "the first and only original surrealist object with a universal, provocative power" and it became a Surrealist icon. The Surrealists believed in resurrecting childhood, but Bellmer's apparent voyeurism and violation by cutting up female dolls into body parts, in addition to his adult evocation of child sexuality invited allegations of sadism and pedophilia. In some photographs he showed himself with the doll in a double exposure, in a power play of cruelty. These images of sexual desire and domination, and childhood fears of violation, threat, and observation still shock today.
Gelatin silver print - Museo Reina Sofia, Spain
Venus de Milo with Drawers
Salvador Dalí was the trickster of the Surrealist set, which is cheekily evident in this reinterpretation of the famous marble statue of Venus from the Paris Louvre. Dalí's version is altered with pom pom decorated drawers inserted at various points of the body: forehead, breasts, abdomen, and left knee. The cool painted plaster is in startling juxtaposition to the silky baby pink tufts, illustrating the Surrealist concept of combining disparate things to form a new reality. With the new revolution in consciousness, Dalí had written of making an object so "absolutely useless...and created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way, with maximum tangible reality, ideas and fantasies of a delirious character." A delirious character is certainly present in this piece where a cabinet is transformed into a female figure, or through Dalí's own words, an "anthromorphic cabinet" representing all the psychological mysteries of female desire inserted within the universally known goddess of love. As influenced by Freud, as his Surrealist peers, Dalí said of this piece, "The only difference between immortal Greece and contemporary times is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, purely platonic in the Greek epoch, is nowadays full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable to open."
Viewed by many as the definitive surrealist object, this teacup is an unsettling brew of household domesticity and wild animal. In 1936, Picasso and his girlfriend Dora Maar had admired Oppenheimer's fur covered brass bracelet, provoking a discussion about what could be fur-coated. She bought a teacup, saucer, and covered them with Chinese gazelle pelt. The bizarre juxtaposition confuses the viewer's senses - on the one hand it invites petting, on the other it repels with the mental connection of finding a hair in a drink. Oppenheim said that her only conscious intention was to play with contrasting textures, but in fur-cladding such a stereotypical feminine domestic object it invites comparison to a woman in an expensive fur coat, seemingly civilized yet covering the internal animal. This work is an example of pure shock value and Breton renamed it for his 1936 Exposition Surréaliste as Déjeuner en Fourrure, a title that stemmed from a Freudian interpretation of fur as a sexual fetish, recalling the eroticism of von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Fur (1870). The new title greatly increased the transgressive and provocative effect it had on spectators. Breton's other analyses posit the cup as the womb or female genitalia, replete with a phallic spoon to "stir" it. Oppenheim claimed to be unconcerned that her creation was known by Breton's title, and much later she poked fun at it in Souvenir du Déjeuner en fourrure (1972). Besides creating Surrealist objects with a feminine and sometimes sexual bend, Oppenheim was the nude model in the photographs of Man Ray, most noted of which feature her interacting au naturel with a printing press.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
It is what it says it is - a telephone with a lobster for a handle, a classic example of a Surrealist object made from the conjunction of two objects not normally associated with each other. The individual objects are unaltered yet the power is in their unexpected blend - an absurd dream made manifest. The viewer is first compelled to imagine how it would feel to grip a lobster instead of a telephone. It offers a jarring visual clash between a modern human device and a primal, underwater creature. Although, seemingly playful this duality hints at darker origins if we too, like the Surrealists, follow Freud's theories on dreams. The deviant brilliance of Dalí is exorcised in this piece where we glimpse his fears, anxieties, and obsessions; he had a lifelong phobia of locusts, which strongly resemble the lobster. This work was originally titled Aphrodisiac Telephone, which may reflect the meeting of lust and fear in the artist's mind that the lobster/locust represents. As per usual though, Dalí had the last word in his autobiography, noting simply: "I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone." His brand of surrealism, although centered on subjects from the psyche's underbelly, was never without a hearty dose of the jester, portrayed with dramatic humor.
Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Beginning in the summer of 1928, Picasso flirted with Surrealism after a period of deep Classicism. During the 1930s, the Minotaur replaced the harlequin as a common motif in his work, which we see here. The half-man, half bull of Ancient Greek myth was a key Surrealist motif in line with the use of animal-human or animal-plant hybrids. The Minotaur ran deep in Picasso's psyche due to the ritual sacrifice of the Spanish bullfight, and he produced many Minotaur works exploring sex, death, and violence including Minotauromachy (1935) and his masterpiece Guernica (1937) after the Luftwaffe bombing of the Basque town. This piece was a product of happenstance when Picasso's eyes alighted on this bicycle saddle and handlebars in a pile of jumbled objects. Individually the two items are ugly, worthless junk, but united with the power of imagination elevates the ordinary upon a pedestal of beauty and myth. Picasso said "the idea of the Bull's Head came to me before I had a chance to think." As such, this assemblage fits Breton's definition of objet trouvé as an object drawn to an artist by way of chance and synchronicity.
Picasso Museum, Paris
After visiting Piet Mondrian's studio in 1930, Alexander Calder began exploring the concepts of physical environment and actuation of space via abstract compositions that hinted at ordinary everyday things. His constellation series presented kinetic sculptures consisting of allusions to items as random as knives, bones, pins, or stars articulated through biomorphic shapes floating in chaotic orbit of a stand-alone cosmos. Duchamp coined these kinetic sculptures as "mobiles" in 1931, meaning motion and motive in French. Although traditional mobiles operated via cranks and motors, Calder's pieces moved on air currents, light, humidity and human interaction. Jean Arp pegged Calder's later, stationary works as "stabiles."
Calder Foundation, New York
Chess Table and Pieces
Noguchi's iconic chess table merged ideas of Surrealist's biomorphic lines, loose geometries and whimsical interaction into a visually compelling, functional sculpture The rounded shell is made of lacquered cast aluminum. The shape contrasts the curved surface and the abstract grid of the board. The board wears transparent plastic for the white squares and embedded red pegs for the black. Chess pieces are individual sculptures, molded from red and green plastic. The table was created for Julien Levy's iconic Imagery of Chess exhibition (curated by Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst). Other artists included Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and André Breton but Newsweek called Noguchi's the most beautiful piece in the show. It shows how Surrealism complements ideas of Abstract Expressionism, specifically in the way Noguchi explored sculptural design while presenting a metaphor for love, war, and metamorphosis. He was looking to the future, with an eye towards practical value and affordability in art. As he put it, his artistic aim was to make things for everyone's pleasure. Noguchi would go on to take elements he loved from Surrealism as well as Cubism and Minimalism to inform a career as one of our most predominant and elegant sculptors.
Noguchi Museum, New York
Romanian artist Victor Brauner culled from the worlds of magical folklore, literature, philosophy, anthropology, metaphysics and spirituality in accord with Surrealist elements and archetypes of the unconscious to create his work. The effect on the spectator becomes rich with symbolic connotation, pulling on both the personal and universal points of resonance. By the time Brauner made this piece for the 1947 Exhibition Surrealiste, he had been producing works on the lycanthrope or wolf-man hybrid for some time. Only here, the warm and furry animal is cold and dead, a segment of utilitarian furniture far removed from nature. At first glance it is a Surrealist object, a combination of "readymade" (table) and objet trouvé (found object). However it was less spontaneous than it appears because Brauner had produced this image in earlier paintings. It is thought André Breton may have asked him to recreate it as a three-dimensional sculpture specifically for the show. Breton interpreted it as being a premonitory sign of Brauner's fear and anxiety about war.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris
Max Ernst was an innovative artist, steeped in both Dada and Surrealism, who mined his unconscious for imagery meant to provoke and mock social convention. After being a soldier in World War I, he emerged highly traumatized and critical of Western culture. He felt the modern world was irrational; an idea that formed the basis for much of his work. He continually turned to primitive art and magic for inspiration and indeed fancied himself a sort of creative shaman, accessing occult powers and remaining in tune with a more naturally taboo-free state. He even created an alter ego called "the Loplop bird" that would find itself in many of his works. This monumental piece was built from cement and scrap iron in the garden of his dessert home in Sedona, Arizona. It displays two regal animal-human hybrid deities on thrones. On the right sits the king with goat horns and a human torso, representative of the tenth sign of the zodiac. On his left hand sits a slighter character, a queen also bestowed a horned crown, but lacking arms and with a mermaid's tail. The king may very well pay homage to Pan, the Greek God of flocks and herds. Ernst called this piece a "family portrait." When he left Sedona in 1953 Capricorn stayed, but he returned to make molds for new editions in 1964 and 1975.
Max Ernst Museum, Bruehl, Germany
Beginnings of Surrealist Sculpture
The Surrealist Movement and Ethos
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.
The Emphasis on Sculpture and The Surrealist Object
Early Surrealist experiments with automatism had extracted ideas from the unconscious and recorded them on two-dimensional mediums such as paper. Now three-dimensional forms were required to further solidify an impetus to present fantasy as real. These concrete objects needed to be both magical and tangible, representing the metamorphosis from dream into reality. This delving into the dream world to extricate items of a marvelous reality hidden under everyday life was first mentioned in Louis Aragon's Wave of Dreams (1924).
Concurrently, in 1924, The Bureau of Surrealist Research created the Surrealist Manifesto, demanding the "total revolution of the object." This called for an investigation into any "forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind." Their focus on the tangible is also shown in their Declaration of January 1925: "Surrealism is not a poetic form... it is determined to break apart its fetters, even if it must be by material hammers!" Drawing inspiration from Giorgio de Chirico's juxtaposed classical statues, rubber gloves, and sunglasses, Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" and Dada works such as Marcel Janco's "constructions," the Surrealist artists reinterpreted what sculpture could be, creating a 1930s golden age of a new surrealist object. This fresh, intuitive and improvisational approach to the Surrealist ideas toward sculpture would eventually grow outside, and independent of, membership in any "official" group of Surrealists who might be included or excluded at Breton's whim.
Salvador Dalí was one such artist who fell in and out of favor with Breton, yet who remains perhaps one of the most famous Surrealists of all time. His eccentric and blazing creative forces brought about a revolution in thinking about the relationships between sculptor and material, and sculpture and viewer. In his essay The Object as Revealed by Surrealist Experiment he pushed against tradition and defined Surrealist objects as those with a symbolic function, "readymades," trans-substantial objects (e.g. his renowned limp and liquid watches), wrapped objects, machine-objects and cast-objects. He helped reconcile the Surrealist belief in automatism and chance with the control imposed by the traditional sculptural techniques of hacking, welding and casting. In his "Paranoiac-Critical method" chance and control worked together. With this technique, an artist would invoke upon himself a paranoid state of fear from which to pull whatever random imagery was conjured. The imagery would then become the artwork, subjectivity now its primary aspect.
Biomorphism and Abstracted Forms
Artists such as Joan Miró, Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi transformed organic shapes from anatomy and biology into biomorphic imagery. Hans Arp was coined the king of "organic abstraction" as he extracted forms originating in earlier Dada practices and brought them into new Surrealist works. This also demonstrated the interplay of Surrealist painting with sculpture because such abstracted forms previously appeared in the paintings of Yves Tanguy.
Found Objects and Assemblages
The Surrealists adopted a line from the poetic novel Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) written by Isadore Ducasse, in which a character is described "as beautiful as the accidental encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table" as a type of sacred writing. They too sought to give such illogical and seemingly random juxtapositions beauty through physical form. By rummaging in bric-a-brac shops, or via casual discovery on city streets, the magic of chance and synchronicity ignited artists such as André Breton, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí to create assemblages. Miró's "constructions" and Breton's "Poeme-Objets" are two great examples of these objet trouvés, or found sculptures, which freed the mind from conscious thought. They might be jumbles of mechanical items, food, dolls, violins, or buttons, often with witty titles. Max Ernst called his found-object assemblies: "the exploitation of the chance meeting of two remote realities on a plane unsuitable to them."
Surrealist Sculpture: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
In his 1899 work The Importance of Dreams, Freud legitimized the role of the subconscious as a valid portrayal of our innermost emotions and desires. He also exposed the unconscious as a source for our repressed and complex inner worlds of sexuality, desire, violence and all other shadow aspects of the self. Surrealist artists relied on the revelation of their personal obsessions, imagery, motifs and symbolism to inform their work. Although much of what was produced points to the wild and outlandish individuality revealed through this unconscious archaeology, there were several common themes that emerged. These commonalities may simply be cultural representations of the era and environment in which Surrealism burgeoned or perhaps denote the deeper, underlying commonalities of the human condition buried within us all.
Desire and Fear
Breton called desire "the only master man must recognize," adeptly borrowed from Freudian ideas in which our obsessions, fears and phobias are manifestations of what we repress or shun as taboo. The Surrealist Manifesto had noted the inherent human need for "fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for the extravagant" in a world where everyone, if honest, internally craved to "try on the white helmet, to caress the fur bonnet." Surrealist objects drew heavily on Freud's investigations into sex and fetish, and the exploration of fantasy, perversion, and madness. Breton ensured that Surrealist shows were deliberately provocative; one early Surrealist exhibition boasted work of "a strictly pornographic nature, whose impact will be of particular scandalous significance."
Marcel Duchamp had already highlighted the fluidity of sexuality and sexual transgression often by the time he created his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, a name that read aloud sounds like "eros, c'est la vie." The Surrealists went further, even drawing upon the sadistic works of the Marquis de Sade for images of sexual violence and torture. Giacometti's Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932) is a shocking example of a woman, flayed apart as are Dalí's constructions of females with missing limbs or embedded with boxes which bring to mind the complicated disparages between attraction and lust. The conflict of desire and fear is most eloquently shown in a common Surrealist fixation on the female praying mantis, an insect known for eating the male after copulation. The 1959 Exposition Surréalisme magnified the theme of Eros; in fact, visitors entered the Surrealist 'Forest of Sex' through a vaginal door.
Dolls, Mannequins, and the Uncanny
The Surrealists often fragmented the human body's anatomical parts, such as fingers, toes, and eyes, manipulating them into plays on reality through light, shadow, or pose. Photographs of torsos, headless bodies or strangely posed limbs such as Man Ray's Anatomies (1929) presented parts as considerations separate from their whole. Naturally, this prompted dolls and mannequins to become key Surrealist motifs, as they loomed both inhuman and alive, tweaking the Surrealist sensibility of equal parts ease and dis-ease within subject matter. Dolls also recalled childhood, another Surrealist theme, because of its decidedly innocent and primal moment within existence's overall arc when magic seemed real and toys were bestowed with imaginary life. Hans Bellmer's series of mutilated dolls, Die Puppe and Games of The Doll (1933-1937) used the doll body as a type of "anagram" to create what he called a "real object to be possessed." Bellmer's doll was celebrated by Breton as: "the first and only original surrealist object with a universal, provocative power." At the 1938 Exhibition Surrealiste, visitors were inundated by works of art consisting of dolls or mannequins, including Salvador Dalí's Rainy Taxi, which took the theme to an extreme - his installation rained water onto mannequins sitting inside a taxi as their skin crawled with live snails.
Metamorphosis amd Magic
With a basis in transforming the immaterial and ephemeral into reality, it was only natural that the Surrealists became interested in the occult as well as the everyday magic of coincidences and synchronicity, typified by their use of the object trouvé. The 1924 Surrealist Manifesto called for a return to fantasy and superstition that had been banished in the name of progress. The Surrealists violently opposed rational 'civilized' culture, instead praising irrational 'primitive' cultures for their lack of censorship. A particularly appealing aspect of the primitive resided in the ancient and sacred myths of chimeras and metamorphosis, spurring possibilities of the animal-human or animal-plant hybrids as subject matter. Such physical transformation mirrored the psychological transformation that was at the heart of Surrealism; returning to an animal state removed ego-constructed, societal taboos. Images such as the Minotaur, the Mermaid, and the Sphinx were adopted as Surrealist totems; indeed the Surrealist magazine was named Minotaure. Leonora Carrington's work was populated by many half-human, half-animal hybrid figures culled from medieval alchemy, American folk art and Celtic literature reflecting her interest in transformation and constantly shifting identity. Dorothea Tanning's early works were literal interpretations of dreams often containing mythological beasts as well as animal features like feathers incorporated into self-portraits.
Sculptural forms such as Picasso's Bull's Head (1942) and Victor Brauner's Wolf Table (1947) reflect this awe of primitive nature in the Surrealist search for the 'marvelous.' At the 1947 Exhibition Surrealiste, Breton described installations as "altars" to beings that "could possess mythical life." This invention of new myths and anthropomorphic creatures was perhaps most clearly elaborated in Max Ernst's adoption of his alter ego "the Loplop bird" and in his sculptural works such as Capricorn (1946).
Spectators, Surrealist Environments, and Audience Interactions
All Surrealist objects aimed to subvert reality with a dose of shock, which caused a revolutionary new way for viewers to interact with sculpture. Regarding this, Dalí stated that, "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." In the 1937 Exhibition Surrealiste, visitors were invited to become active participants, to imagine lifting, touching, playing with, and even eating such seminal pieces as Duchamp's Why not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy? (1921), Alberto Giacometti's Boule Suspendue (1930), and Meret Oppenheim's Object in Fur (1936). During another exhibition, works were shown in a mock cave, in pitch darkness, where audience members roamed with flashlights. Giacometti invited viewers to play with his game-pieces such as Man, Woman and Child (1931) and No More Play (1932). He said he wanted a person to be able to "sit, walk and lean on them."
Dalí often conducted experiments to test people's reactions to his work. He concluded that each viewer's reaction depended "only on the amorous imagination of each person" and was "extraplastic." Breton noted this interaction as having "a power over minds that surpasses the work of art in every sense." Dalí called it the spectator's desire or hunger - the "cannibalization of the object." This reached comic heights when his Retrospective Bust of a Woman went on show in 1933. Adorned with a baguette, it was allegedly eaten by Picasso's dog. Later in the New York resurgence of Surrealism of the 1940s, ideas of form, function and metaphor through interactive Surrealist sculpture were explored in the iconic Imagery of Chess exhibition. Chess sets by Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Yves Tanguy, and Isamu Noguchi took Giacometti's earlier game-pieces to new heights of exploration.
Later Developments - After Surrealist Sculpture
The Surrealist golden age made crucial investigations into what sculpture had been, currently was, and indeed could, and should be in the future. The questioning of the gap between the imaginary and the real, and the intangible and tangible, toppled traditional sculptural forms and techniques. The use of defamiliarization, juxtaposition and metamorphosis resulted in fantastical creations that have influenced every subsequent genre of art. Many artists that identified with the Surrealist movement went on to have illustrious careers in their own right. For example, Noguchi became known in the art and design world as one of the most eloquent crafters of elegant furniture, landscape architecture and large-scale public works; while Dalí went on to make films, design jewelry, clothes, stage sets and even fashionable retail window displays. Giacometti later produced his signature figurative sculptures that put him on the international map, as did Henry Moore, whose large-scale voluptuous reclining bronzes grace many museums and public spaces today. Today, the influence of Surrealist sculpture can still be seen in artists such as South American Fernando Botero and in the multi media worlds of digital illustration and visionary art.
Abstract Expressionism and Art in the New World
By the 1940s in France some critics claimed that the Surrealist object had failed to make its stated impact to change reality but this was not so in post-WWII America. There was an influx of Surrealists who were escaping the war in Europe to New York and this evolved a new generation of up-and-coming artists that would eventually become known as Abstract Expressionists. Artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still began to create color field and gestural works inspired by the Surrealist techniques of automatism and expressing the subconscious through art. Although these new works were decidedly less literal and more action-identified, many of their creators had been inspired by the presence of Breton, Masson and Matta in New York in the 1940s and earlier works by Miró.
By the 1950s the Surrealist reinterpretation of three-dimensional art led to a sculptural emphasis on everyday objects, further rejecting traditional casting and modelling. From 1954-1964 Robert Rauschenberg developed Dada and Surrealist ideas in his "Combines" - assemblages of striking juxtaposition such as Monogram (1959), composed of: a stuffed goat, a police barrier, a shoe, a tennis ball, and paint. Other Neo-Dada artists such as Edward Kienholz followed in a similar vein. Surrealism also reappeared in Pop art where visual puns echoed the use of humor as a subversive tool of developing artistic representations of the surrounding world. The deliberate shock and provocation of the Surrealist installations and exhibition spaces inspired artists to think differently about how their work could be presented, displayed and interacted with, positioning the spectator as an integral part of art. This would inspire future conceptual work by Louise Bourgeois, Robert Gober, David Smith and Sarah Lucas. More recent echoes of the power to subvert and shock via objects can be seen in the notorious "Sensation" exhibition of the Young British Artists of the 1990s.
Useful Resources on Surrealist Sculpture
- Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New YorkOur PickBy Valerie J. Fletcher
- Passages in Modern Sculpture,By Rosalind Krauss
- The Object as Revealed in Surrealist ExperimentOur PickBy Salvador Dalí
- Surrealism: Desire UnboundBy Jennifer Mundy