Surrealist Sculpture - History and Concepts
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.