I am going to tell you a secret: I found my love of the surrealist art movement because of Pixar.
To me, Pixar’s Inside Out encapsulated the essence of the mind with bright colors and simple characters, simultaneously breaking down the complexity of the mind into an understandable story for children while inspiring curiosity in me, a malleable 16-year-old at the time, to learn more about that mysterious psyche of ours.
Surrealism can be found in literature, philosophy, and art. Much like our modern-day sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genre, it aims to revolutionize the human experience, asserting the value of our unconscious and dreams. Psychologist Sigmund Freud influenced surrealism, as he furthered the revolution against the constraints of the rational mind. The rules of society felt particularly repressive during the 1920s-1950s, which allowed surrealism to flourish first in Europe before spreading across the world. Honestly, I have mostly studied surrealism and wondered at it through its arts lense, hence my perspective.
The most famous painting that is often people’s introduction to surrealism is Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.
Through his art, Dali sought to “systematize confusion and thus discredit completely the world of reality.” Many suggested the image of soft watches was a commentary on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Isn’t it wondrous that Dali’s inspiration for the painting was cheese he had seen melt in the sun? It was no commentary at all. And there was no purpose but to challenge the limits of our vision and liberate us.
The most beautiful surrealist paintings to me depict our hidden psychological tensions. An example is artist Rene Magritte’s Empire of Light, which Magritte maintained multiple versions of, one which I happened upon at the Magritte Museum in Brussels, Belgium. Empire of Light pits a dark street against a pastel blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Many have claimed that Magritte’s meaning in this painting is to depict the premise of life — how the day, which is usually the source of clarity, can sometimes cause confusion, unease, and darkness. The painting is disturbingly deeply impersonal. It draws the viewer in, and for me, I could not help but wonder at the impossibility of the scene. Yet everything in the painting is “real.” We see them every day in our lives. The clouds, tree, lamp, house. Somehow, this painting with an ordinary setting still makes us stop and think. That is Magritte’s true purpose, in my opinion. Not to make a huge supposition about life but to just surprise and delight us. As Magritte said in an interview in 1956, “I call this power: poetry.”
And poetry it is indeed.
The beauty of surrealism to me is that yes, the image itself is beautiful, particularly the symbols, precise strokes, and dream-like visuals, but the true incredulity of the best surrealist painters is how purely they leave their work’s interpretation to the viewer — like poetry. There are certain themes each painter often carries throughout their work, but as Dali said, “the public could rest content with their difficulty in understanding the work, since the artist himself did not know what it meant either.” Surrealist artists often painted to reach their subconscious and explore feelings, ideas, and dreams they were not even sure of yet. So rest assured, when looking at a surrealist painting, it does not have to be fully figured out.
A common term concerning surrealism that comes into discussion is “automatism,” which are the involuntary actions and processes not under the conscious mind’s control. Examples are dreaming, breathing, and tics. One of my main draws to surrealism is my interest in interpreting dreams. Another draw is the subconscious association between images, text, and their meanings.
“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” — Rene Magritte
Another famous Magritte painting is The Son of Man, which is a self-portrait, except that his face is obscured by a large hovering green apple. Viewers become concerned about what is hidden — the person, and Magritte has said himself that this can invoke an intense conflict between the visible that is present and the visible that is hidden. I have found the beauty in this painting in my own interpretation. I find that with our need to constantly focus on what we cannot see, know, or control, we miss other peculiarities and beautiful things in life before us. We barely notice the oddly bent left elbow and hovering apple, both physical impossibilities. To me, it’s like that feeling you get when you look up (on what is next) so much that you never look down (on what you have now).
The next Magritte painting that caught my attention is The False Mirror. The eye is oddly close in focus, allowing the viewer to be mesmerized completely by the juxtaposition of the sky and the pupil. Physically, the image depicted is an impossibility. The puffy white clouds in the blue sky are a common theme throughout Magritte’s work. He purposefully paints it to be “too perfect” that it becomes unsettling. Could it be that we become too focused on everything to be so perfect and on that “clear sky” positivity that we lose sight of reality?
What I love about the surrealist art movement is that it makes us question our assumptions about the world and our own reality. Embracing the magic realism, this painting can invoke a sense of child-like wonder: an eye that opens into another reality and universe (perhaps a too idealistic one if we are going one step further). For me, The False Mirror was ominous despite the bright coloring. The longer I looked at it, the more I tried to pull meaning from it. The eye..the window to our soul..the clouds that Magritte always paints..what grandiose new realization can I make of this (see above about the positivity)? Then, I realized that by making me already challenge my own assumption that there must be immediate meaning in everything, the painting had already made me put a mirror (pun intended) on myself.
I could go on about all of Magritte’s works and other surrealist artists, and I may in a part 2. For now, there is one last painting that gets at Magritte’s style and the effect of surrealist art on me.
The Key to Dreams shows six seemingly unrelated objects, a classic Magritte move to display ordinary objects in unusual contexts. The text does not match up to each object. “La lune” means moon, but instead there is a shoe above it. Just like in his “Ceci n’est pas” paintings, Magritte is saying that no matter how realistic an object is in art, we can never be sure of what it is. In the end, a pipe in a painting is not a pipe-it is merely an image of a pipe. Psychologically in terms of perception, there is a difference.
For me, The Key to Dreams has led me to two thoughts: one, that things only have the meaning we give it and two, things are more deeply connected than we might think — in terms of language (the names we give), thought, and reality. These 6 things and the unrelated names below them do not seem connected at first, but just by the mere context Magritte painted them all together in, they are. Therefore, dreams could be more connected to our thoughts and reality than we might think.
Surrealist art is not for everyone. Examining it requires more than an inquisitive mind. It requires a willingness to unlock your mind. To question assumptions about the world, including the line between reality and the subconscious, is never easy. I realized some beautiful things from each painting and from painting my own (I particularly like the theme of time). It makes you realize most of all what intrigues you and definitely makes life a little more interesting.