From Bosch to present day
Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516) depicted gruesome scenes of humans being tortured and caught up in poverty and toil, even his scenes depicting pleasure and earthly delight are bizarre. The subject usually relates to religion and was a view into the horrors awaiting the unbeliever. Despite the surreal nature of images they were rendered realistically, which is a tenet carried throughout the Surrealist movement to the present day.
It is interesting that the plight of men at that time were grim as most of Europe was recovering from the Black Death, which, in 1347-1351 destroyed nearly a third of the population. So it seems probable that the climate experienced is relevant to the work produced.
Apart from Goya in the 17th Century and Blake in the 18th Century, very little work was produced in a similar vein, although landscapes were produced which when turned sideways appeared as a head. Blake’s work is often overlooked, I think, possibly because at the time he was considered mad. He was an early forerunner following the principal of later Surrealism in that he rejected traditional modes of working, preferring not subscribe to academic training and instead drew upon his sub-conscious ‘visions’. ]
With the terrible conflicts that existed in the 20th Century, namely two major world wars, the destruction, horror of bloodshed and mutilated bodies took a great toll on civilisation at the time. Born out of the apocalyptic nightmare of the First World War, the Dada movement was born, in Switzerland, started by André Breton, a poet, together with other poets (Tzara, Gide) and avante garde artists. Various well-known names were connected with the movement even though some may have been on the fringes: Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Andre Masson, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Arp.
Breton always wanted Picasso to join but his art moved along an individual path. The Dadaists proclaimed art by being anti-art and indeed anti-establishment. Kurt Schwitters invented the word ‘Merz’ – “freedom from all fetters, for the sake of creation” .
Their bitterness and pessimism died with the movement which only lasted for six years, but it became a stepping off point for art, a freeing from tradition, that is as relevant today as then. Many artists went on to become involved in Surrealism where the unconscious and automatism became new ways of approaching subject matter.
Giorgio de Chirico started to paint canvases which had a melancholic threatening atmosphere. They often featured trains in the background. His father was an engineer helping to build a railway when in Greece, but when his father died the family moved to Florence where he started to explore his own childhood memories and subconscious feelings of threat from his mother, hence the tall arches, and loneliness. His paintings are evocative of these feelings. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was of course exploring these feelings of abandonment through psychoanalysis.
Later artists such as Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) were influenced by his work. Tanguy saw a painting by de Chirico in a gallery, and apparently immediately decided to become a Surrealist. Rene Magritte is influenced by de Chirico, and Andre Masson, almost becomes Abstractionist.
De Chirico’s work was not appreciated that much at the time, and indeed he virtually rejected his own work, preferring to paint metaphysical paintings after a period of ill health, and many of the Surrealists implored him to go back to his original style. Rene Magritte’s (1898-1967) work continues to fascinate with its obscure logic. Francis Bacon (1909-1992), for whom the mouth became an important feature in his work continued to abhor the general public.
The idea of exploring unconscious thought was not new, Odilon Redon (1840-1916) explored similar themes as a result of his early childhood, choosing to draw his ‘noirs’ (which were his black ghosts) in charcoal of monstrous spiders, eyes, balloons, cacti with faces, etc. These were cathartic, introspective drawings that eventually freed him from his days living at Peyrlerbade in Bordeaux with an aunt because of his epilepsy which was a social stigma and required him to be “hidden”. He achieved infinite depth with his charcoal. When Peyrelebade was eventually sold, at age 58 he started painting in colour. I find that amazing, and rather sad.
The Surrealism banner is carried today by Jacques Resch, clearly influenced by Dali and Bosch. His “Les maisons qui volent” re-worked in TV advertisements. Another modern surrealist, Frido Kahlo with her meeting eyebrows has become iconic. Martine Rhyner does an even slicker surrealist take in her paintings.
http://beinart.org/artists/martinerhyner/gallery/drawings is a good place to view modern surrealists, who don’t seem to appear on Bridgeman.
My reactions to Surrealism
In the past I have all but ignored the Surrealists, effectively averting my gaze, for me there was enough tragedy and pain in the world without re-creating it.
The only artists that appealed to me were Georgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali. De Chirico’s work was haunting enough to be captivating and Dali’s interesting transformation of things was fascinating. However, I now see that my objections have caused me to miss out on a number of creative and interesting artists, and the movement effectively fills in the missing link for me. I had often wondered how we moved from Impressionism to Constructivism and Conceptual Art, and now I know. I even like some of Duchamp’s work now, which is huge intellectual progress for me. He was not the commercially minded spirit I thought he was, and the Dadaist thought that life was more important than art appeared to ring true with him, as he took so many years to complete ‘The Glass’. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what the artist is like as a person, it is the art that should speak, but for me it is important understand where the artist is coming from. At least two artists I have read in detail about, had sad childhoods and I think this influenced their work immensely; I am sure there are more but I haven’t read all the biogs., and certainly not recently. I now feel ready to do my first Surrealist painting, and am looking forward to it.