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Amy Dempsey's guide to surrealism

Posted on 04 Jun 2019

There's more to this movement than melted clocks and bowler hats. We sat down with 'Surrealism' author Amy Dempsey to discuss one of the most popular art movements of the 20th century.

Jindřich Štyrský, From My Diary, 1933 Oil on canvas 135 x 205 cm (53 1/4 x 80 3/4 in.) Trade Fair Palace, National Gallery of Prague, Prague

In Amy Dempsey’s book Surrealism, part of the Art Essentials series, readers are invited to take a fresh look at the ubiquitous movement.  Surrealism has become a synonym for ‘bizarre’, and we each may have some specific, immediate ideas of the movement as a result of the most familiar, popular works it produced, but it is made clear right from the beginning that Dempsey is going to take us beyond the headliners. “Writing this book allowed me to present a much broader range of images and artists – to show that there is much more to Surrealism than melted clocks and bowler hats!”  She guides us through the essential elements of the Surrealist movement covering what it is, who the Surrealists were, and exploring the broad range of methods and forms that artists employed in creating some of the most recognisable art of the twentieth century.

As a movement it was grounded in, and indeed a reaction to, the specific and tumultuous events of the early twentieth century and we get plenty of insight into how this informed the Surrealist ideology. “Surrealism was definitely a reaction to the horrors of the First World War. It was a continuation of Dada, whose artists expressed in no uncertain terms their disgust and anger with the status quo and believed that society had completely discredited itself. It was also a move away from Dada, as the Surrealists sought to find a more positive, active role for art that would aid in the renewal or transformation of society.”

Wolfgang Paalen Pays Interdit, 1936-37, oil and candlesmoke (fumage) on canvas, 92,7 x 59,5 cm

It is this positivity at the heart of Surrealism that can be overlooked, but Dempsey reveals the ways in which liberation was so important within the philosophy of the movement.

“The fact that Surrealism was as much an attitude or way of life as it was an art movement must have been very liberating and exciting. Its utopian aspirations place the artist in a very important, pro-active role and I imagine that Breton’s enthusiasm must have been very infectious.

The democratic and universal aspects of Surrealism (think of the way that everyone has dreams, an unconscious and the potential to appreciate the marvellous in the everyday) must also have been very appealing. This sense of freedom and the experimentation that it fostered allowed for a whole array of styles and techniques which could then be drawn on and adapted to express individual or local concerns, desires and interests.”  The diverse ways in which artists were engaging with the Surrealist attitude in their art are exemplified throughout the book, and encountering new work on every page is a voyage of discovery.

The Evil Eye Enrico Donati, American (born Italy),Date: 1947 Medium: Mixed media Dimensions: 9 3/4 x 11 3/8 x 7 inches (24.8 x 28.9 x 17.8 cm)

While it is generally easy to name the white, male Europeans artists in most art movements, just think of Dali and his melting clocks, there were a breadth of artists from around the world producing art under the Surrealist principles.  “I try to give a voice and presence to as many of those who participated as possible, be they women or those outside of the dominant accounts previously available. There are always interesting artists to discover who might be well known in their native countries, but have not had much of a presence in other art worlds. Finding out more about them and giving their work exposure provides a richer experience for all of us.”  The Index of Surrealists, which is broken into three categories of key male, key female and key Surrealists around the world, is a clear sign of the success of the coverage.

Lajos Vajda ( 1908-1941) Monster in Blue Space, 1939 JPM Inv. No.:79.413 paper, pastel, pencil,water-colour 630x945 mm

Surrealism succeeded in becoming a worldwide phenomenon, and the familiarity of some of the key tropes of the most successful artists are testament to this.  The ways in which it became part of the popular culture of the early and mid-twentieth century demonstrates the popularity of Surrealist ideas and art, and Andre Breton is clearly a catalyst of a leader, standing at the heart of the movement and one of the reasons that it spread so widely.  “I imagine that Breton’s enthusiasm must have been very infectious… [he] was a charismatic, passionate leader who was committed to spreading his conception of Surrealism and its revolutionary possibilities through manifestos, publications, exhibitions, lectures and festivals. He promoted the artists that he admired tirelessly and travelled around the world spreading his vision and gathering new recruits.”

Having explored Surrealism through Dempsey’s fresh look, a global art movement for current times that embraces the philosophies at the heart of Surrealism, would be refreshing in the here and now.“Today, we seem to be living in an age when reality is stranger – or more surreal – than fiction. In our media-saturated age, we are constantly bombarded by horrific images of man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps what we need in these troubled times is art that furthers the aspects of Surrealism that were positive, life-affirming and poetic?”

Words by John Iona.

Surrealism (Art Essentials)

Dr Amy Dempsey