Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Oil on canvas, 24.1 x 33 cm, MoMA.

Braden Hansen, Katelyn Loucas, Ruoxi Jiang, Oh Hyeon Kim

Surrealism was born post-WWI as a cultural movement that focused on artistic exploration and expression. Artists wanted to revolutionize the human experience in a way that allowed for them to move away from more technical art practice. Surrealism was also influenced by the Dada movement. It pushed art further into a philosophical approach in terms of artistic expression. The movement was also very politically motivated. Artists were using the subconscious to challenge conventions and articulate transformations within then-current realities. Surrealist artists found beauty in the unexpected and unconventional, and it was evident in their practice. Surrealism encouraged artists to explore the value of the unconscious mind, especially through dreamlike scenarios. André Breton, a key leader in facilitating the surrealist movement, felt it was strange that so much emphasis was put on our waking lives while so much of life is also spent asleep, or dreaming. The movement also introduced the use of new technologies. For example, Man Ray’s use of light and photography influenced a new medium that became popular amongst surrealist artists. It encouraged artistic play with the use of technology. This practice was coined “techno-ludic”. Surrealism had a great influence on artistic movements to come. It encouraged artists to go beyond the conventional by thinking abstractly, and in ways that hadn’t been done before. It allowed for artists to escape from reality and “the real world”, and to delve into the complexities of our minds via emotions, dreams, and “what ifs”.

Surrealist artists tended to use language in several ways. Firstly, many artists would use language in a subconscious way, incorporating it in a way that does not necessarily reflect logical meaning or language structure. Joan Miró’s Snail, Woman, Flower, Star, for example, incorporates language into the composition, but the words do not connect into any traditionally meaningful sentence. Others, such as René Magritte, used language to force the viewer into interpreting pieces in a non-literal, non-representational manner, such as in his painting The Treachery of Images. Here, the audience is challenged by the text to accept that a painting of a pipe is not actually a pipe, but is an imagined representation. Some surrealist works also used fragmented bits of language as symbols to represent objects or scenarios in a subtle way. Man Ray’s Untitled Rayograph of 1924 employs this technique by using individual letters scattered amongst the page to represent bullets.

Man Ray, Untitled Rayograph (Gun with Alphabet Stencils), 1924. Gelatin silver print.
11 5/8″ × 9 1/4″. Collection unknown.

Man Ray’s Untitled Rayograph (Gun with Alphabet Stencils) of 1924 is a gelatin silver print portraying a near black-and-white representation of a revolver circled with various alphabet stencils and its cylinder, which is separated from the gun. The letters on the stencils read S, H, C, K, M, U, E, and N. There is a high contrast occurring visually between the gun and alphabet stencils as well as the black ominous background, which makes for a bold impression upon first glance. The image almost resembles an X-ray. Ray also included two circular shapes within the composition that appear as shadows along with another object that likely represents the cylinder that is missing from the gun. It is also worth noting that Untitled Rayograph is able to almost immediately instigate an emotional impact through the intimacy fostered by its surrealist approach. Ray utilizes expressive stylistic techniques via language to create unconventional imagery that serves as visual emphasis to engage viewers. The nature of surrealist communication forces viewers to consider subject matter from an entirely different perspective. Rather than simply viewing the work literally, Man Ray compels viewers to interpret it on a subconscious level.

Untitled Rayograph depicts a unique relationship between image and language that feels unconventional due to its ambiguity. While some of the contents of the piece are recognizable, Ray uses imagery in conjunction with language to create an imaginative narrative that could be interpreted in a number of ways. By having the illuminated revolver and stencil lettering as the only identifiable objects, a connection between the two is born. While the significance of the alphabet stencils is unclear, it is certain that the use of language is more symbolic than literal. The letters are not connected, and when put together, they don’t form any cohesive words or meaning. They’re scattered amongst the page in a way that still feels calculated – almost like bullets shot around the revolver. I found myself playing “word scapes” with the stencils in an effort to make sense of them. I enjoyed the way Ray forced me to think about the letters and their correlation to the gun. It is evident that Man Ray did not intend for the dispersed letters to form any specific words. The language truly serves to function as a visual motif and visual metaphor for bullets disseminated around the revolver. In conjunction with the other visual elements, this analogy is used to enhance the Russian roulette narrative Man Ray hoped to achieve.

The composition is hypnagogic. The tone of the work feels almost like a fever dream – very sinister yet obscure. This same effect is common throughout surrealist works, which characteristically aim to explore the subconscious mind through dreamlike play. That philosophy encouraged many surrealists to make work that was less traditional and more experimental. His use of light exposure also adds to the tone and narrative of the piece, and compels viewers to step out of reality when interpreting the work. Man Ray juxtaposed disparate elements (letters and imagery) in this piece to tell a story and generate meaning; in this case, to represent a game of Russian Roulette. Man Ray’s work in Untitled Rayograph is inventive and allows for new ways of seeing. Viewers are forced to go beyond what the eye can see to truly analyze what is happening in the piece. It is evident in the way he boldly presents different forms of language in conjunction with powerful objects to further his “roulette dream”. By using powerful surrealist aesthetics, Man Ray exhibits a strong exploration of word and image and their relationship to one another.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940. Oil on canvas. 15 3/4 × 11″. MoMA.

This piece by Frida Kahlo, produced shortly after her divorce with Diego Rivera, is a fifteen and three-fourths inch by eleven inch oil portrait on canvas depicting a seated Kahlo in a suit surrounded by her own hair. Above her sits an excerpt from a Spanish song, which talks of having loved someone for their hair, and no longer loving them after it was cut. We see that Kahlo holds a pair of scissors in her hand, showing herself to be the one who cut her own hair. Her hair seems to writhe about the canvas, twisting and tangling itself around the chair and the floor in a rhythmic, almost living manner. Together, these visuals create a work that acts as a reflection on Kahlo’s experience with her divorce, as by showing that she chose to cut her own hair, she tells us that she severed herself by choice from Rivera in favor of a self-determined, independent existence.

Kahlo’s use of language is vital to the culmination of these visuals into a cohesive image. Were the visuals to be isolated from the context of the lyrics, the relation of them to her experience with loss of love would not immediately be evident, and the self-sacrificial nature of her having cut her own hair regardless of the loss of her lover would likely be lost completely. However, by providing the lyrics, Kahlo contextualizes the imagery, giving her actions in the piece significance and meaning to the audience. Interestingly, Kahlo also included sheet music along with the lyrics, furthering the influence of the words on the piece. By including the melody of the words, Kahlo also controls the way in which they are heard. The audience is able to reproduce the exact cadence and sound of the words, regardless of their familiarity with the song. In this way, Kahlo is able to control the tone of her language, furthering her control of the piece by making the words have meaning not just in their written definition, but also in the way in which they are heard and read.

Beyond this, the way in which Kahlo depicts the strands of hair mimics the structure of language in many ways. The hair feels less like a form than it does a mark, written on the canvas rather than existing in any tangible space within it. This is especially seen in the strands in the back, which, rather than conform to the horizon line, seem to float above it, flattening the overall look of the hair as a whole. This flattening causes the hair to appear less an object to be seen and more as a symbol to be read, as if her hair is now speaking for her and her feelings. 

Frida Kahlo, though not one to personally categorize her work, is widely associated with the movement of surrealism. Her works as a whole pull often on the autonomous, subconscious imagery utilized by the surrealists, expressing herself and her emotions through personally resonant visuals rather than through a recreation of any realistic environment. Unlike most of her works, however, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair instead pulls its visuals from an existing, tangible source, the song written along with the piece serving as the inspiration for what is depicted below it. Despite this, the work still remains deeply rooted in surrealist ideology; rather than depict any visible reality of her turmoil, Kahlo opts to use emotionally resonant imagery which flees from reality in search of something stronger, the precise thing which surrealists like Andre Breton were trying to find through their explorations of the subconscious mind. 

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929, Oil on canvas. 23.75 x 31.94″. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1929, a surrealism piece, we see a quite realistic looking depiction of a pipe that is done with oil on 23.75 x 31.94” sized canvas. The depiction of a pipe in the piece is very realistic. The stummel of the pipe is in dark brown and the stem is in black, and in between, there is a golden ring piece connecting two parts together. What makes this pipe more realistic are the light and the texture of the piece. There is a hard light hitting the pipe from the left creating a bright reflection and a very smooth brush work creates very refined wooden texture which all lead to a realistic depiction of a smoking pipe. Other than the painted pipe, there is a phrase under the image in French. The phrase says “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” which translates to “This is not a pipe.” in English.

When you are first introduced to this art piece and realize that the phrase means “This is not a pipe.”, you will be confused and think “what does Rene mean by this is not a pipe when this is clearly a pipe in the painting?”. Even the title might confuse you if you look at the painting without knowing its original title, because you would assume the title of the piece to be something like “a pipe”, or “a smoking pipe” since there is just one single pipe in the piece. This contradiction between the image and the phrases creates confusions and make the audiences think about what this piece is trying to say.

Rene was a surrealist artist that enjoyed painting our surrounding objects realistically with other elements that are completely different than what he is depicting which is known as dépaysement. Therefore, his artworks often were mysterious and were out-of-box thinking. Here in this piece, he is challenging his audiences to break away from old habits of thinking of art or how we view art by causing confusions of understanding of the audiences. Normally, if we saw this painting, we will say the pipe in the paint is a pipe. To break that away, he purposefully put the phrase “this is not a pipe”, because the pipe in the image is not actually a pipe. It is just a mere painting of a pipe that is done with oil. I think Rene is trying to say that the object that is depicted is named ‘pipe’, but the word ‘pipe’ does not share the same properties of the pipe. People would not be able to pick up the ‘pipe’ and use it to smoke since it is not a real pipe. But as the audience, we recognize the shape, color, and texture of a pipe which lead us to think the ‘pipe’ in the painting is a pipe. This piece is a great representation of the gap and the relationship between the word and image, and how the two play out in our head. The language, the words, represents and resembles image to us. No matter how realistic paints look, they will be just re-creations of the objects that are being depicted. They are not real.

Max Ernst, Les Filles La Mort Le Diable, 1970, gouache, watercolor, pencil, and paper collage on paper, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches, 31.8 x 23.5 cm.

As one of the representative person of Dada movement and surrealism, there are rich imaginations in Max Ernst’s art work. In Les Filles La Mort Le Diable, which is an art piece crated by Max Ernst in 1970, that has a sense of absurdity for the world and an illusory atmosphere. Max Ernst uses multiple medias on this art piece, such as gouache, watercolor, pencil, paper collage on paper and the dimension of it is 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches. This art work is like a view from inside of a room, the “door” separate the inside and outside into two worlds. Inside of the room is more realistic, there are luggages and boxes on the ground, posters and form on the wall and the little map on the form, and roman columns on the each side of the wall, these objects makes this space looks like a train station. The outside of the the room is more like surrealism, there is a spider, which is like a symbol of Le Diable in the title of this piece, on a rock, giant leaves with a ladybug on it, part of flower with a wired perspective. The color tone in the inside is yellow and worm color, in the outside is fog like pale and cold color, which also reflect surrealism feeling in this work. 

Max uses different fonts in this image. For example, the words on the posters on the wall are some words that have an entertaining feeling, such as concert, champag. So, the font of those words is loosely and random, which together with the picture on the posters crate a relax atmosphere. Under the posters, there are two notice board on each side of the wall. Because of the wood frame of the board, these boards is more formal than the posters. The font Max uses there is more formal. He uses print type on it. There are also some small types on the bottom which are on the boxes, the font of them are more like hand-written types, which makes these objects more like belong to some passengers. Texts in this art work are not concentrated, they dispersion in different parts of the art work, which makes this image more readable. Different fonts makes it more interesting.

The depressed emotions caused by war need a way to relieve. Surrealism, as a trend that was born post-WW1, focuses on artistic exploration and expression, which also reflects European younger’s fear of reality and the frantic state of mind. Surrealism pursuit of the unity of dream and reality, there might not have a specific explanation of the content in a surrealism art piece, no rules, no reasons. To some extent, it is a way for artists to escape from the real world. Just like Max Ernst’s painting which mentioned in the former paragraphs, he combines dream like space and reality like space together into one piece. There could be many different understanding to this work, for example, the gap between two walls could be a way for Max to escape from the inside world and arrive at his dream world which shows as the outside world in this work. The formal font of the texts and the loosely and random font also can be seems as representative of reality and dream.