Progression of Art
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.
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 - 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."
Tate Gallery, London
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.
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.
Tate Gallery, London
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