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Surrealist Art

Surrealism characterized by its use of dream-like imagery, unexpected juxtapositions, and a rejection of traditional artistic conventions. Surrealist artists sought to explore the workings of the unconscious mind and the irrational aspects of human experience. One of the key figures in the development of Surrealist art was the French poet Andre Breton, who published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. This manifesto called for artists to embrace the irrational and the absurd, and to break free from the constraints of reason and logic. Surrealist artists often used a range of techniques to create their works, including automatic drawing, collage, and photomontage. They also often incorporated found objects or everyday materials into their work, such as toys, textiles, and household items. Some famous Surrealist artists include Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and Joan Miro. Their works are instantly recognizable for their bizarre and fantastical imagery, and their exploration of the subconscious mind. Today, Surrealist art continues to inspire artists across a range of mediums, from painting and sculpture to film and performance art. Its legacy has had a lasting impact on the art world, challenging traditional notions of beauty and artistry, and encouraging artists to embrace their innermost impulses and desires.

The Mother of Surrealism

Denise K McTighe

ASAG Journal

November 30, 2020

Hilma af Klint  (October 26, 1862 – October 21, 1944) was a Swedish artist and mystic from Stockholm  whose abstract work came  before the compositions o Kandinsky in 1911. Created between 1906 and 1915, Klint’s paintbrush was driven by her spiritualistic practice and a desire to bring mystical views into observable forms. Her little-known presence as the World’s first abstract artist was due partly because Klint herself arranged that her works would not be released to the public until twenty years after her death. In true artist-archetypal form, she believed her contemporaries and a wider audience were not ready to receive, or grasp the meaning of her work.

Af Klint’s series Paintings for the Temple, were viewed as her Magnus Opus. Personal doorways into higher states of consciousness, and the psychedelic, geometric composition indeed seem to represent a new area of thought and perception, never before seen on a canvas. On the process of their creation Klint said:“The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”

The temple paintings consist of three large canvasses named the Altarpieces. Group X, No 1 Altarpiece, 1915, Oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 179.5 cm is the first painting from the series. It depicts a pyramid in symmetrical elegance, with multi cultured panels seemingly ascending towards a sun like spherical globe, with a golden circle that could be perceived as a gateway beyond the five senses. The artist was influenced by the Theosophical view of evolution, and this work and in fact the entire series, perhaps represents the movement between the material and spiritual realms. Af Klint herself admittedly painted them in a mystical ecstasy, resigning herself to the esoteric impulses of her brushstrokes.


"Altarpiece, No. 1, Group X, Altarpieces" 1907 by Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Meaning of Night

Denise K McTighe

ASAG Journal

February 15, 2020

'The Meaning of Night' (oil on canvas, 1927) seems to represent the deep fear of darkness in human nature and of what is unseeable and unknowable in the external landscape, and inner world of the human psyche and soul. Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a Surrealistic, Belgian artist who spent most of his years as a painter doing commissions for wallpaper, before gaining fame at the end of his career, and life.

'The Meaning of Night' poetically reveals the struggle the individual has with its own shadow complex, and the fear of the unknown night and darkness that also lingers in the souls of others. The painting forms in intense, heavy colors of graduating grey layering over a sandy beach of fallen clouds. This non sensical content,  that intermingles with touches of the sane in recognizable forms such as man, hands, sea, and feathers, stretches the boundaries of the mind with illusions. The more one studies the art, the more one is caught by images that have little rationality, yet have powerful imagery that reaches far within to provoke a psychological reaction to the piece. Through the strange and convoluted stories told on his canvases, Magritte believed his work to be an open invitation to welcome that which we cannot know: 

"My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?' It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing, it is unknowable.”

Since his death, many of the painter’s works have been appropriated by popular culture and used in media and various advertising campaigns. Given his viewpoints while he was alive, one might speculate that Magritte would have been unhappy by this exploitation of his artwork and original message. Influenced by the ideology of Sigmund Freud, Magritte was a part of the 1920’s Surrealism movement that revolted against mainstream constructs, believing society was an oppressive machine that needed to be deconstructed through new avenues of thought and perception. 


The Meaning of Night

The Accidental Physicist:
Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory
& the Bending of Time

Hanging in the walls of the MoMa in New York, is one of Salvador Dali’s earliest, and most defining pieces of work.  Created when the young surrealist was only 27 years old, the dripping time pieces and disfigured face, with ordinary ants congregating and humming against a rational mountainous background amongst the bizarreness, assured Dali’s stardom in the art world. And with the birth of his masterpiece, he was crowned one of the princes of Surrealism of the 20th century.

 The Persistence of Memory (1931), with its often unexplainable and objective symbolic imagery, has provoked many artistic and even scientific and philosophic debates among many thinkers over the decades, who have attempted to enter the scene to extract meaning from the absurdity. According to Dali, The Persistence of Memory was created under a self-induced hallucinatory and paranoid state of mind. And even he could not explain the exact meaning of the strange images and creatures he summoned from the inner reaches of his own subconscious material: “The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret.” 

The few ordinary and tangible images in the painting, the soft mountains and lines of the landscape, the ants known for their predictable organization, draw the observer back out from the subconscious intent, back to the world where the ticking away of moments guide our perfunctory motion. However, with a single glance, the observer can be transported back into the metamorphoses of the imagery to question the nature of one’s place in the universe. The work of Dali reminds us like so many thinkers, mystics, neuroscientists of today, that reality is not so easily defined or constructed. It is wrought with illusions and governed by states of consciousness that we as a species still cannot fathom in full entirety. However, through The Persistence of Memory and other works of art, perhaps we can have glimpses into these infrastructures that are moving somewhere “out there” in the brain/mind stratosphere.

Dali stated that his goal and purpose for taking us into these very far places in the inner cosmos was to invoke and “systematize confusion and thus discredit completely the world of reality.”  His work cascades effortlessly across the eras, holding onto its original meaning that remains relevant even in the modern day. It is “timeless”, operating outside a single theory of perception and the mind’s clockwork. Even Dali’s earlier critics were convinced the artwork was a representation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and was meant to expose the illusion of a fixed clock that governs all of our comings and goings in mechanistic purity. Dali initially denied this comparison, although he had been emerged in the world of science since adolescence. He had a library teeming with books on physics, quantum mechanics, the origins of life, evolution and mathematics, including psychology and dream interpretation texts. He studied Sigmund Freud and his theories of dream reality feverishly. The mathematics of optical illusions fascinated him, and this could be seen in the twisted alternate realities he created on his canvasses. The surrealists of his day were taken by the new quantum physics that sought to transcend the predeterminism of classical physics through a reality that gave the observer power to bring objects into the tangible. Places where a single particle could exist in two places simultaneously, opening up to the possibilities of multi-dimensional worlds. These exciting new scientific theories offered Dali further insight into his own strange lands, and the power they perhaps held beyond the five senses-artifacts of other existences, if even only from the imagination.

The melting time pieces and deforming faces in The Persistence of Memory are straight out of a Freudian dream reality, or what the quantum world would call a multi-dimensional existence that parallels the present day. However, it seems that this painting belongs to not one area of thought or understanding, or even one point in time.  One of the great defining works of the surrealistic movement, The Persistence of Memory can still be interpreted in a multitude of ways, without ever having the final answer on the ultimate truth behind it. And perhaps like in the theory of quantum mechanics, the painted scene cannot truly be born until it has an observer peer upon it, bringing the spectrum of hues, images and concepts from the immaterial into the material- brought to life only through the act of observation. But whatever theory you hold fast to your intellectual and artistic brow, it is certain that this powerful, thought provoking, and time bending work of art will bring those who look upon it with curious and open eyes, to places never explored before time and time again. If time even exists.


Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, and the Bending of Time

The Surrealist Art of Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was a British born surrealist painter. Although she came from a family of high privilege, she had a fierce rebellious spirit and elevated perception from an early age that would drive her potential beyond her background. After being expelled from many schools, she was sent to Mrs. Penrose Academy of Art in Italy. Later she attended the Chelsea School of Art and the Ozenfant Academy, both in London where she developed her technical skills. However, the magical realism that occupied her psyche took flight over the walls of the institutions. 

Although the young woman was made to come out as a debutante at Buckingham Palace by her parents, she was never deterred from fulfilling her deepest destiny. Her vision and determination as an artist to explore the strange landscapes of surrealism surpassed her family obligations to meet with tradition, and uphold a standard place in society. 

She faced many great events in her life that would test her resilience, including escaping the Nazi’s while her friend and one-time companion, surrealist artist Max Ernst was arrested by the regime after they occupied France. In 1939, after the traumatic event, she trekked across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain to visit the Prado Museum in pursuit of her own potential and to view the masterpieces that fed her own visions. Despite her depth of character and ability, she suffered a psychotic break and was sent to recover against her will in a Spanish institution where she was rescued by her former nanny in a submarine documented in her 1944 memoir “Down Below.” 

She recovered from her breakdown, which had been brought on in part by her failure to be able to emancipate Ernst from the Nazi’s, and had evolved into a delusional belief that she had a metaphysical power over the world. She moved to Mexico City in 1942, newly divorced, equipped with more insight into the unknown realm of the psyche.  Carrington transformed the psychosis of believing she actually controlled humankind’s destiny on Earth into fantastical and breathtaking existences on the multiverses of her canvas. She continued to have a brilliant career and life, including a second marriage and two children and ongoing collaborations with many other European artists who had fled to Mexico to seek asylum from Nazi Germany.

In  Carrington’s painting Adieu Ammenotep,1960; oil on canvas,   a strange operation is being performed over the body of Egyptian pharaoh Ammenotop. The artist believed he was a ruler who expanded the idea of patriarchy, further suppressing the female voice and pushing women underground. In the painting suspended in a surgical suite, attended to by priests and priestesses, the entrails of the King, now a lotus flower, are being medically removed from the body. In the symmetry of the piece there is a slight sterility, echoing a modern day operating theatre, expressed through the geometric and minimalist imagery.  An unknown observer peers in from a window and a group of men separated from the room look on. 

Leonora Carrington had an intense interest with the dream world of the mind and bringing it into visibility through such unusual and sometimes provocative imagery. Perhaps the artist’s attempt to recreate an alternate reality in a parallel world where things unfold as the dreamer and observer intend them to. Carrington’s art were representations of the magical universes and gateways between the rational, conscious mind and the subconscious material that governs an immensity of the human experience. An activist and intellect her entire career, these dream realities were perhaps her way of retracting and recreating history, through the metaphysical and psychological realms of the non-linear psyche. 



The Surrealist Art of Leonora Carrington

Frida Kahlo

Denise K. McTighe

ASAG Journal

December 20, 2020


Frida Kahlo

"The Chinese Nightingale"
by Max Ernst

Ani Margaryan

ASAG Journal

February 4, 2021

"The Chinese Nightingale"
by Max Ernst 🇩🇪
Period: Avant-garde, Surrealism, Dadaism
Location: Museum Of Grenoble, Grenoble, France 🇫🇷

The Chinese Nightingale was created in 1920 by a German-American prolific artist Max Ernst (1891–1976) and is another example of the Dadaism school of art initiated by a number of European avant-garde artists in the early twentieth century which was particularly prevalent in Germany, Switzerland and France.It belongs to a series of a sort of collages called “photomontage”, made in 1919 and 1920, using photographs that were published in military publications to produce seamless worlds that are both poetic and concerning. In this particular piece of artwork Ernst has continued his phase of combining human limbs with war machinery, or other accessories, to create disturbing mash-up creatures. The collage features the limbs of an oriental, most likely a Chinese dancer, with the fan acting as a headdress. The body is an English aviation bomb with the addition of an eye to give the impression of a strange birdlike creature, and this somehow serves to lessen the impact of the grotesque machinery.Part of the power of these often tiny works comes from the collision between bodies and machines, suggestions of sex and death and war and peace. And Max Ernst himself has served in the field artillery during the war and was wounded by the recoil of an artillery gun. He spoke of that moment as saying that he had died and then was resurrected. It makes the proximity of the war very clear.

Despite the fact that the artwork, however, evokes associations  with the protagonist of the Hans Andersen’s Asian-inspired “The Nightingale” fairy tale, but visually and in terms of content Ernt’s interpretation is obviously cut out of its literary context, representing references to China (title, fan, anonymous Chinese dancer's limbs) for solely providing a slight exoticism and softness to the war-related ironic hybrid creature, originated from the notorious symbol of disruption of his time - a bomb.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is known for the immensity of her self portraits which make up 60 per cent of her entire life work. She suffered many tragedies throughout her life, and was known to paint herself when she was ill, or under intense duress. Indeed her portraits are candid, raw glimpses into the soul. The ambitious, colorful brushstrokes indicate an artist who did not shy away from fully living, and expressing the entire range of the magnificent and sometimes, hideous human condition. Kahlo used her life experiences to bring immeasurable genius to the public eye, and thus her suffering was not in vain.

“Me and My Parrots”, 1941, oil on canvas, is a captivating and,surreal, although still highly realistic, portrait she made soon after the death of her father. The intensity of her gaze penetrates against the soft, sweeping movements and primitivism of the strokes on the canvas. The paradisiacal birds perched on her shoulders and in her arms, perhaps a symbol of her defiance against the tragedies of life.

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