Surrealist Techniques: Subversive Realism


Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913, 106 x 94 cm (Tate Gallery, London)

Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913, 106 x 94 cm (Tate Gallery, London)

The omnipotence of the dream

A central approach of Surrealist visual art was derived from André Breton’s assertion of “the omnipotence of the dream” in the first Surrealist Manifesto. Following the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists saw dreams as visual representations of unconscious thoughts and desires. In their first magazine, La Révolution Surréaliste, they published accounts of their own dreams and reproductions of art that seemed to record dream images, notably the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.

In addition to the dream-like atmosphere of de Chirico’s work, the Surrealists were attracted to what are often called its literary qualities. The strange juxtaposition of female nude, bananas, and train in The Uncertainty of the Poet seems like a literal illustration of the discordant imagery of a modern poem. In addition, the erotic symbolism of the image conforms to Freud’s belief in the central importance of sexuality in the unconscious.

Rejecting the formal concerns of modern art

In claiming de Chirico’s pre-war work as exemplary, the Surrealists implicitly rejected modern art’s emphasis on formal innovation. De Chirico’s use of linear perspective, his inexpressive representation of objects, and his lack of interest in the material qualities of paint all seemed to revive the outdated naturalistic conventions of pre-modern painting, as did his use of complex, symbolic subject matter.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914, oil on canvas

Giorgio de Chirico, The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914, oil on canvas (Private Collection)

For the Surrealists de Chirico’s style was irrelevant; what mattered to them was his ability to represent unconscious dream images. They were interested in the subject of his painting, not how it was painted. In their willingness to elevate subject matter over painting style and technique the Surrealists explicitly placed themselves outside of what they considered were the limiting concerns of established modern art. In return, many critics (and later art historians) attacked the Surrealists for failing to understand and appreciate the formal achievements of modern art.

Because the movement was initiated and led by writers, Surrealist art was often considered to be literary and illustrative rather than a properly modern visual art. This overlooked the fact that many prominent Surrealist artists, including André Masson, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst, frequently employed modern styles and developed innovative artistic techniques.

For the Surrealists, an artist’s style and technique were the means to concretize inspired thinking, the creative activity of the unconscious. Whether those means were traditional naturalism or the more abstract innovations of modern art was not important as long as they were effective. The use of meticulous naturalistic techniques — traditionally employed to represent the accepted “reality” of the external world — demonstrated the equal reality of the unconscious world revealed by Surrealism.

A window into another world

Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924, oil with painted wood elements and cut and pasted printed paper on wood with wood frame, 27 ½ x 22 ½ x 4 ½ inches (MoMA)

Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924, oil with painted wood elements and cut and pasted printed paper on wood with wood frame, 27 ½ x 22 ½ x 4 ½ inches (MoMA)

Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924, detail, oil with painted wood elements and cut and pasted printed paper on wood with wood frame, 27 ½ x 22 ½ x 4 ½ inches (MoMA)

Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924, detail, oil with painted wood elements and cut and pasted printed paper on wood with wood frame, 27 ½ x 22 ½ x 4 ½ inches (MoMA)

The complexity of the Surrealists’ challenge to modernist values can be appreciated by considering Max Ernst’s Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale. This painting was one of the first works by a Surrealist artist reproduced in the group’s journal, La Révolution Surréaliste. It combines echoes of de Chirico’s classical architecture and deep perspectival space with an incomprehensible nightmarish scene of violence in the foreground. Small wooden elements are attached to the painting to form a building, gate, and doorknob. The title is handwritten on the edge of the frame, which connects the painted world to the world of the viewer.

Ernst’s combination of painting, writing, collage, and relief sculpture disrupts the established categories of the individual arts as much as the image defies rational explanation. The painting is no longer simply a flat plane covered by colors, it has returned to its pre-modernist role as a window into another world, and that world is one into which we as viewers are invited. The gate on the left has swung open towards us, and the man running on the roof of the building at the right reaches for the “doorknob” on the frame that separates our world from his.

For the Surrealists who desired the complete breakdown of distinctions between art and life, dream and reality, Ernst’s disruption of pictorial boundaries meant far more than a challenge to the conventional distinctions between the different arts. It was the means to enter an entirely new world and heralded the concrete realization of Surrealism’s ultimate goal, the resolution of dream and reality into a new surreality.

The interior model

The Surrealists believed that the world of the imagination was the only proper subject for the arts, which must challenge what Breton called “the poverty of reality.” He claimed that the work of art must “refer to a purely interior model.” While this statement applies to all Surrealist artworks, regardless of productive technique, style, or subject, many Surrealist artists followed de Chirico’s example and created dreamlike imagery that appears to literally reveal the “interior model.”

Yves Tanguy, Mama, Papa is Wounded! 1927, oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 28 ¾ inches (MoMA)

Yves Tanguy, Mama, Papa is Wounded!, 1927, oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 28 ¾ inches (MoMA)

Yves Tanguy’s meticulously painted depictions of imaginary landscapes stretching off to an infinitely distant horizon combine the naturalistic rendering of real space and light effects with suggestive abstract forms. Their naturalism invites the viewer’s imaginative entry into the world they make visible and presents the possibility that the world of the unconscious can be made real.

Realism as subversive

The realistic representation of the world of the unconscious reached its apogee in the paintings of Salvador Dalí, who adopted an extremely detailed realistic technique reminiscent of nineteenth-century academic painting. This was an explicit attempt to turn academic naturalism into a subversive technique.

Salvador Dalí, The Lugubrious Game, 1929, oil and collage on cardboard, 44.4 x 30.3 cm

Salvador Dalí, The Lugubrious Game, 1929, oil and collage on cardboard, 44.4 x 30.3 cm

The vivid realism of Dalí’s bizarre scenes seems to confirm that the world they represent is just as real as scenes encountered in ordinary waking life. In paintings such as The Lugubrious Game, Dalí minutely depicted his psychological obsessions, which were largely derived from Freud’s theories of infantile eroticism.

The artist’s profile floats horizontally in the center of the painting and generates a bizarre collection of objects, human figures, animals, and insects. Explicit and symbolic depictions of male and female genitalia abound, as do direct references to Freud’s theories of castration anxiety and anality. In this painting and many others Dalí portrays a universe in which the most apparently innocent objects, from a seashell to a man’s hat, acquire erotic significance.

Systematic confusion

Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, 1929, oil on canvas, 140 x 81 cm (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid)

Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, 1929, oil on canvas, 140 x 81 cm (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid)

Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, detail, 1929, oil on canvas, 140 x 81 cm (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid)

Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, detail, 1929, oil on canvas, 140 x 81 cm (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid)

Dalí invented a technical strategy for Surrealist art that he called “paranoia criticism.” In Dalí’s view unconscious erotic desires inevitably shape our vision of reality, and the Surrealist artist’s role is to demonstrate this in order to “systematize confusion,” overthrow rationality, and discredit what we think of as reality. Just as paranoiacs are convinced that seemingly unrelated objects and events are in fact intimately connected to their own obsessions, Dalí’s paranoiac paintings were intended to demonstrate how his imagination radically transforms objects to make them conform to his desires.

His first published paranoiac painting, The Invisible Man, depicts a strange landscape with multiple figures and objects. Individual elements also create the figure of a large seated man. The back of a nude woman in the upper center of the image is one of his upper arms. His face appears in a collection of architectural elements, and his hair is also clouds. The longer you look at the painting, the more figures and parts of figures you will see. Paintings such as this were intended to make viewers aware that the “reality” they see is only one view. It is possible to make reality answer our desires simply by changing the way we look at things.

Philosophical conundrums

René Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 inches (National Gallery of Art, Washington) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

René Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 inches (National Gallery of Art, Washington) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In contrast to Dalí’s often obscene and intentionally shocking imagery, René Magritte used realistic painting techniques to present philosophical conundrums about the nature of representation and its relation to reality and language. In The Human Condition, Magritte depicts the way a painting’s representation “replaces” reality, leading us to consider the many assumptions we make about realistic images and their relationship to what they represent.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929, oil on canvas, 23 ¾ x 32 inches (LACMA)

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929, oil on canvas, 23 ¾ x 32 inches (LACMA)

The Treachery of Images presents the disjunctions between the written phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) and the depiction of a pipe above it. Representation is not reality, although it may look like it; nor is language to be trusted as a source of truth about what is real. The painting of a pipe is not a pipe; but the word “pipe” is not a pipe either. By undermining comfortable assumptions about the human ability to understand reality through language and representation, Magritte’s works demonstrate that we make the world we think we know. Everything is, in the end, a question of representation (in words or images) in which we choose to believe, or not.


Additional resources:

Read a biography of Giorgio de Chirico at the Guggenheim Museum

Read a biography of Yves Tanguy at the Guggenheim Museum

Read more about Salvador Dalí at MoMA

Read More about René Magritte at MoMA

Cite this page as: Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant, "Surrealist Techniques: Subversive Realism," in Smarthistory, March 29, 2020, accessed October 20, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/surrealist-techniques-subversive-realism/.