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To see, or not to see? Introducing the Surrealists

19 Dec 2017

By Amanda Sheppard


Melting clocks, abstract landscapes, bowler hats, a lashless eye with a blue sky “iris” and a dilated pupil…and, a chessboard.


This, is art? Yes. But not just any kind of art – it’s surrealism.


To truly understand surrealism is to understand the context in which it came about. During the height of the First World War, Parisian artists sought refuge in Dadaist philosophies, which saw art, in its conventional form, to be bourgeois and a factor in the conflicts dividing nations.


Surrealism arose from the politically charged “anti-art” Dada movement as a unique avant-garde movement in the 1920s, and later spread across many different of creative channels such as literature, visual arts, music and film. The surrealist art movement never truly dissolved, but its revolutionary artists left a clear legacy for generations of artists that followed – the postmodern, abstract impressionists (such as Jackson Pollock), and pop-artists of the world owe much of their approach to their predecessors. Outside of the visual arts, 1960s counter-culture, beatnik novelists and poets also drew influence from surrealist philosophies.


While French writer André Breton is associated with setting up the surrealist movement in 1924, it was Guillaume Apollinaire who first coined the term “surrealism” and is credited with its founding principles. Surrealists were influenced by Freudian theory, the study of dreams, and their power to challenge the status quo. Because of this, the ability to unleash the power of the subconscious and to obscure the boundary between reality and the imagination became fundamental to the surrealist art movement.


Surrealists traded in conventional images and visuals for obscured realities

So how can you recognise surrealist art? Surrealist art depicts everyday objects and portraiture in unconventional ways; their manipulation of perspective often leave a sense of unease. Salvador Dali’s melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory, for example, highlight surrealist artists’ trademark foray into the dream world, while René Magritte’s Son of Man remains one of the most celebrated examples of their experimentation with the notion of obscurity. Surrealist art also frequently drew upon the motifs of nature and fantasy, all in a bid, at the time, to escape the drudgery of living through the war years.


Even if you’re unfamiliar with surrealism, you will have likely heard of Dali, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and the Belgian-born Magritte, who, as sculptors, photographers and filmmakers, often took surrealism off the canvas. Sculptors would remove everyday objects from their conventional settings, rendering the ordinary obscure. Similarly, photographers like Man Ray used techniques such as double exposure and montage to challenge the naked eye. Known foremost as a painter, Magritte used photography as a private field of research, choosing not to exhibit these intimate artefacts in his lifetime (a selection will be shown at René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films at the new ArtisTree).


The surrealist movement coincided with the birth of film, granting these artists the privilege of being the first to experiment with this medium. The result was a series of dreamlike, unconventional, and, at times, distressing images. Prominent surrealist filmmakers include Luis Bunuel and René Clair, while Dali created a surrealist dream sequence in Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Spellbound.


An illusionist and master of the paradox, Magritte was one of the most influential surrealist artists – not satisfied with only honing his craft as a surrealist painter, he delved into photography and filmmaking not only as passion projects, but these mediums also had an impact on the paintings he would go on to exhibit.


Things to ponder as you’re exploring “René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films” at the new ArtisTree:

-       Why did Magritte often choose to obscure his subject’s face in portraiture?

-   How did Magritte’s trademark experimentation with scale and perspective influence his photography?


The new ArtisTree and Ludion, in collaboration with The Magritte Foundation Belgium, present René  Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films from 19 January to 19 February 2018.


See the programme page for more details.


Follow @artistreehk on Instagram for all the #Magritte_Artistree action


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