Surrealism – that seminal artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton – has continued to inspire creative minds in every realm ever since its Paris heyday, which lasted from 1924 up until World War Two. The Surrealists sought to upend what they viewed as the oppressive rationalism engulfing modern society by tapping into the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious – an idea propelled by psychoanalytic writings of Sigmund Freud. In his Surrealist Manifesto, Breton called upon his fellow artists to plumb the uncharted depths of their imaginations to achieve new, uninhibited modes of expression – be it hyper-realistic renderings of their dreams or abstracted “automatic” drawings that transcended conscious thought.
Before long, artists across the globe were putting their own spin on the concept, from Belgian artist René Magritte’s array of mysterious figures, their faces obscured by apples, bones and cloths, to Frida Kahlo’s stunningly evocative blend of realism and fantasy told in the language of Mexican folk art. Here, to coincide with two current exhibitions on the movement – British Surrealism at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Fantastic Women at Schirn, Frankfurt – we remember ten of our favourite Surrealist artists who worked across different media to flip reality on its head, interrogating society’s staid beliefs along the way.
1. Dorothea Tanning
Groundbreaking American artist Dorothea Tanning discovered Surrealism in 1940s New York, whereafter she met and married Max Ernst, and moved with him to France. Recently celebrated in a memorable and long overdue Tate Modern exhibition, Tanning’s art “tells stories which are etched into a personal universe she used to give meaning to modern life,” in the words of the accompanying catalogue; her work currently features in Fantastic Women. Whatever medium she employed – be it painting, drawing, “soft” sculpture or writing – Tanning’s aim was to enforce a transcendence of reality by presenting her audience with what she termed “unknown but knowable states”. Many of her Surrealist-era paintings show dishevelled female figures in domestic settings, depicted in a state of sensual reverie, to subvert gender expectations, while others take the more traditional route of assembling mismatched objects into strange still-lifes, to no less intriguing, or disquieting effect.