Page 1 || Encyclopedia Article || Fantasy Arts || Modern Surrealism Art Observation
III Dreams, Myths, and Metamorphosis
(modern surrealism movement)
Dreams, according to Freud, were the royal road to studying the unconscious, because it is in dreams that our unconscious, primal desires manifest themselves. The incongruities in dreams, Freud believed, result from a struggle for dominance of ego and id. In attempting to access the real workings of the mind, many surrealists sought to approximate the nonsensical quality of dreams. Chief among these artists were Salvador Dal from Spain, and Ren Magritte and Paul Delvaux from Belgium.
To suggest the irrational quality of the dream state-and at times, to shock their audience as well-many surrealist painters used realistic representation, but juxtaposed objects and images in irrational ways. In Magritte's Pleasure (1927, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dsseldorf, Germany), for example, a young girl devours living birds with her bare teeth. The work underscores the cruelty of human nature, while playing upon the incongruity between title and image. In Dal's Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut) a fruit dish appears as a face, a bridge as a dog's collar, and a beach as a table cloth, depending on what the spectator focuses upon.
Dal also experimented with motion pictures (see History of Motion Pictures), which offered the possibility of cutting, superimposing, blending, or otherwise manipulating images to create jarring juxtapositions. In films such as Un chien Andalou (An Adalusian Dog, 1929) and L'age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930), both collaborations with Spanish motion-picture director Luis Buuel, these devices were used in addition to irrational plot sequences and development.
The metamorphosis of one object into another, popular with surrealist painters and filmmakers, was a device also used by surrealist sculptors. Swiss artist Mret Oppenheim lined a teacup, saucer, and spoon with fur in Object (Breakfast in Fur) (1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), leading the spectator to imagine the disconcerting sensation of drinking from such a cup.
Many surrealists became fascinated with mythology. According to Freud, myths revealed psychological fixations and desires that were latent in every human being. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung went on to argue that myths, regardless of their time period or geographic origin, displayed remarkable similarities. He explained these similarities through the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, a layer of the psyche that all of humanity somehow shares. Just as dreams displayed irrational images that revealed the psychology of the dreamer, myths revealed the psychology of all humanity.
In Dal's painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1934, Tate Gallery, London, England), the artist refers to the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, in which a young man fell in love with his own reflection and was transformed into a beautiful flower. Greek myths interested the surrealists because metamorphosis (changing from one form into another) is their most recurrent theme. Similarly, in Dal's painting, what at first looks like the body of a man can, seen another way, become an image of a hand holding an egg.
Myth also appealed to the surrealists because of its importance to non-Western cultures. In the Freudian view, Western civilization was in danger of divorcing humanity from its primal nature. It was widely believed that non-Western cultures were more in tune with nature and primal forces-forces that were expressed through these cultures' myths and art. One surrealist who borrowed from African art was Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. In creating Spoon Woman (1926, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), in which a spoon also resembles a rounded female form, Giacometti was influenced by the Dan people of Liberia and Cte d'Ivoire, whose spoons and ladles also played on similarities to the human form.