Dreamlike and Thoughtful: Surrealism

– by JD Westfall, VW’s film connoisseur and art critic –

“There is no progress in art … There are simply different ways of doing it.”- Man Ray

Throughout history, countless styles of art have been developed and perfected, and most of these art styles have successfully flourished in a wide variety of media – paintings, sculpture, music, film, photography, etc.

As much as I enjoy mainstream art, I find I like it best when I mix it up with modern and post-modern styles from the past 150 years or so: Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Post-Modern, and on and on. However, out of all of these, probably my favorite style is Surrealism.

What Is Surrealism?

Far too many people will see anything weird or senseless and immediately classify it as being surreal. However, the dictionary definition tells us the word means: “Having the irrationality of a dream.” Thus, surrealism is the manner of art that adopts the logic and structure of a dream. While this may sound like it therefore fits anything that is weird or senseless, consider how the majority of dreams work. Often what we dream is representative of what we’ve experienced recently, or been thinking about extensively. It has a reasonable, sensible interpretation. So really, surrealist art aims to achieve the same thing.

How can we tell the difference, then, between something that adheres to surrealism versus something that is just plain weird? Let’s look through three different artworks in three different media to discuss this.

Paintings

Arguably the most famous surrealist of them all is Salvador Dali. Even if you don’t know any of his paintings, you likely recognize his mustache if nothing else. Incredible facial hair aside, let’s zero in on just one of his artworks, the curiously titled The Great Masturbator from 1929. dalimasturbatorConfusing, yes? Worry not, it makes perfect sense. The central image in this painting is a face that’s contorted into an unusual shape. It’s worth pointing out that the face’s shape is reminiscent of the outline of Spain, the country in which Dali was born. By this he’s identifying himself as the subject of the artwork. Now note the variety of things scattered about the scene. Clear to the right we see the waist and legs of a man right next to the bust of a woman. Next to her is the head of a lion. Further down there’s a grasshopper clinging to the face, and covering the grasshopper are ants. All the way at the bottom is something like a man embracing a feminine figure partially carved out of stone.

What does it all mean? For starters, Dali had a childhood phobia of grasshoppers, so in his paintings he would use them to represent fear. Ants he would use to represent decay, for obvious reasons. By combining these, he’s showing that he’s overcoming a fear he has.

Which fear? Attached to the head is the man next to the woman’s top. Next to the woman is the lion’s head, which Dali often used to indicate strength and power. So between these two, Dali is giving strength to the woman, not the man. Put it all together, and he’s indicating an early fear of strong women dominating him, a fear which he’s now getting over thanks to having fallen in love with a woman, (which history shows us was Gala Dali, whom you may guess from the name soon thereafter became his wife) indicated by the embracing figures below, leaving behind the fear-ridden head.

Obviously there are a lot more details in this painting (the balancing rocks, the fish hook, the brightly colored feathers by his eye), but if we cover everything we’d have no space left for the other two topics, which are:

Photography

One of the earliest adopters of the surrealism movement was Man Ray, an American who emigrated to France where the movement really picked up steam. Though skilled in a wide variety of media, Ray is today best remembered for his photographs and particularly his photograms, also known as cameraless photography. I’d try to explain how this is done, but honestly it’s beyond me. I’m just a critic; I don’t claim to understand how every single thing is done. I look at the artistic side of it.

manrayRay specialized in juxtaposing everyday images in new and bizarre ways, thus adding to the dreamlike nature of his works. In our dreams, we find images, ideas, places and objects grouped together that really have no business in each other’s vicinity. Through Ray’s photograms (or rayographs, as he liked to call them) he captures this sensation, giving you the impression of seeing snapshots of a person’s dreams.

Film

You knew this was coming. Far be it for me to write anything and not take the opportunity to blather on about some movie or another.

I believe I’ve used this exact phrase before, but surrealism and film go together like peanut butter and jelly. Out of everyone who’s used this combo effectively, few people have done so as well as David Lynch. I’ve covered one of his masterpieces, Mulholland Drive, before for this site, so let’s take a look at a different film of his, 2002’s Rabbits.

The story is … um, well, it could be simple or it could be complicated. OK, so we don’t actually know what the story is in Rabbits. What we see happening is a household of three rabbits (human actors wearing ridiculously oversized rabbit heads) moseying about an apartment talking to each other. Here’s the thing though: the lines are not delivered in the correct order. It feels as though someone wrote the script for a mystery/thriller, then took scissors to it, tossed the pieces in the air, and then performed the lines in whichever order they happened to fall.

“What time is it?” asks the first rabbit.

“I have a secret,” the second replies.

“There have been no calls today.”

(laugh track)

“I’m not sure.”

Oh yeah, there’s a laugh track on it as well.

This carries on for about 45 minutes. Have fun seeing if you can piece together the true story of the film. Even if you don’t, you’ll have a great time with the atmosphere and the creepy performances by all involved.

If David Lynch’s free-form surrealism isn’t for you, I also highly recommend Maya Deren (the first female surrealist filmmaker), who experimented extensively with the technical capabilities of movie cameras; likewise Jan Svankmajer, who set a high bar for surrealist animation; and finally Luis Buñuel, who has already received his very own article on The Violet Wave.

All in all, surrealism is a great, diverse, and surprisingly meaningful art style, which you should not discredit and rather seek to understand.

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