Although the “true end” of surrealism is hotly debated, most scholars agree that surrealism continues to be a significant and influential even into modern times. Expressed in such varied forms as art, theater, literature, film and even music, it is hard to determine just how Surrealism as a movement can ever truly “end”. That being said, the peak of the movement is considered by many to have occurred shortly after the split of 1929, and continued into the mid-1930’s, when Salvador Dali came into popularity. It was during this time that exhibitions were held throughout Europe and Surrealist art really came into the public eye. Once World War II began in the 1940’s, however, many artists fled Europe and many journals were disbanded. Despite this breakdown in communications, many artists continued working in the Surreal style for years to come, and their work greatly influenced artists throughout the century.
from Mom and Pop Art, 1999
from Treehouse of Horror IV, October 1993
Paintings such as Magritte’s Son of Man and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory have come to characterize the Surrealist movement in many people’s minds, and have become famous to such a point that even the common man who claims to know nothing of art can recognize them. For instance, although your average joe may not be able to identify Rene Magritte as the creator of Son of Man, he will likely recognize the image from its references in pop culture. From Michael Jackson music videos to episodes of The Simpsons or Futurama, Surrealist art has left a legacy which will not soon be forgotten. The Simpsons, often known for including subtle academic humor in their shows have even gone further into the depths of Surrealism. In one episode, Mom and Pop Art (1999) Homer falls asleep while in an art museum and finds himself in a world filled with melting clocks (The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali 1931), exploring the subconscious nature of Surreal art. While these works are nearly a century old, they have remained relevant throughout the generations when they are prominently featured in current pop culture.
Tim Burton, 1992
Surrealism has also bled into the movements in the “postmodern” era (present times). For instance, present-day artist and cinematic genius Tim Burton recently held an exhibition of his work at MoMA in Los Angeles, where he was heralded as a forerunner of “Pop Surrealism”. The term, coined in the 1970’s, refers to “lowbrow” cartoon-like imagery not typically associated with the fine arts, such as graphic novels (comics) and animated cartoons. His movies, including Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) are two popular examples of his dreamlike characters and landscapes. One of the featured pieces of the 800-piece exhibition is the polaroid Untitled (A Christmas Photo). This strange image of what appears to be a chihuahua with antlers is jarring in its dissonance. The image of such a small dog with oversized elk antlers displays similar techniques to Surrealist painters like Rene Magritte who juxtaposed incongruous elements in order to create a surreal image.
Top: Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton (1988)
Bottom: The Red Tower, Giorgio De Chirico (1913)
To the right I have included a still from the movie Edward Scissorhands (1988) next to an early surreal landscape by Giorgio de Chirico, The Red Tower. The two share a similar focal point technique which highlights the disproportionately sized building in the center. These skewed dimensions are reminiscent of a dreamscape, bending space in an impossible manner although the objects around them appear to be “normal”. This inversion of the Renaissance focal point technique which is used classically to convey depth is a hallmark of Surreal landscapes.
Landscapes and the focal point technique were often used by Salvador Dali. In The Persistence of Memory (1931) and The First Days of Spring (1929), Dali employs a classical backdrop for his otherwise surreal subjects, causing the viewer to become somewhat disoriented. In the latter, Dali also employs another common Surrealist trend: Collage. In order to best achieve the skewed proportions of a dream, many artists would collage cut images over a painted backdrop, as we can see on the right. This technique has persisted, as is evidenced by the movie poster for Time Bandits, an English movie released in 1981. The plot involves a young boy with an incredible imagination who goes on a historical time-traveling adventure, and the cover art reflects the “trapdoors” which seem to take him through time and space. When viewed side-by-side the similarities between the collaging techniques become apparent. Both of the images have a seemingly realistic skyline, but the other elements are seemingly independent of one another, yet are arranged in collage to interact. The image of the pirate ship atop the swimming man’s head is especially provocative of surrealist notions of the subconscious, inviting a mental adventure into lands unknown.
Left: Time Bandits, 1981
Right: The First Days of Spring, Salvador Dali 1929
All in all, it seems that although the Surrealist Movement has dwindled considerably, the art and techniques created, as well as the ideas which inspired them, are still relevant to society today, and will hopefully remain so for years to come.
“Surrealism, as many of us had conceived of it for years… I hope will be considered as having tried nothing better than to cast a conduction wire between the far too distant worlds of waking and sleep, exterior and interior reality, reason and madness, the assurance of knowledge and love, of life for life and the revolution”
- Andre Breton