The relevance of Surrealism, and pondering my own insecurities


In my pictures I show objects in situations in which we never encounter them. This fulfils a real but perhaps unconscious desire… to disrupt the order in which [one] habitually sees objects… to make everyday objects shriek aloud.

-Rene Magritte

Wandering around a retrospective of Magritte’s early work at the Art Institute of Chicago, I had a lot to ponder about Surrealism, and its effect on contemporary artmaking. As you no doubt know, Magritte was one of the most prominent artists of the Surrealist movement, not to mention the 20th century, and much of his work questions our preconceived perceptions of reality, our habitual ways of seeing, and our assumptions about art. His paintings and ‘Surrealist objects’ investigate the illusion of images, and their relationships with words and objects, their relationships with ourselves, and our expectations regarding what we see and experience in life and art.

Through his entire career, Magritte had a continued interest in making the familiar unfamiliar, a prominent theme amongst the Surrealists. His art was made to surprise the viewer into questioning their assumptions about the world around them. The idea of making the mundane into something strange is a theme that resonates strongly with me, but I have to question: does Surrealism still have a place in contemporary artmaking?

The Treachery of Images - Magritte

The Treachery of Images – Magritte

Surrealism was at its heart a philosophical movement, which used surprise, decontextualisation and juxtaposition to express and explore ideas and concepts from the unconscious mind. Their contributions to the fields of art, philosophy and psychology cannot be denied and 21st century artists are still using visual techniques developed by the Surrealists.

I have been fascinated by Surrealism for a long time, but recently this interest plays on my mind a little because there seems to be an entire generation of photographers (my generation of 20-somethings seen frequently on art blogs like MyModernMet) whose bodies of work have been labelled ‘Surreal’. I notice a strong tendency towards creating a certain type of romantic and mysterious image – often they are ‘dreamlike’ and wistful.

This kind of image is very attractive to make; I think both because of the personality type of many solo fine art photographers and also because it is a very achievable way of making art on a regular basis.  The accessibility of digital tools and tutorials means that unnatural images can be readily Photoshopped using whatever subjects and objects happen to be on hand.

What makes me uncomfortable is the fact that right now much of my work could conceivably fit into this category of photography. I have to question if I am making the work that I’ve making because I am trying to emulate these very beautiful dreamy images that I seem to see everywhere online, or if I am making work that is true to myself. I love many of the ones I see – there is a lot of very beautiful, evocative and well-made work out there – but after a while they start to seem rather similar and I can’t help but wonder about the intentions behind them.

Detail from Showerpothead - one of my own Surrealist works

Detail from Showerpothead – one of my own Surrealist works

What are the intentions? I am not one to deny the legitimacy of aestheticism, emotional expression, or art for art’s sake, but I would like to be able to find a way to explore philosophical ideas in my own work somehow. I read a fair amount of interesting non-fiction, particularly about psychology, neuroscience, data, light, and scientific history and theory, but I haven’t yet found a way to explore this content in what I’m making. I’m already feeling guilty about the lack of depth and consideration in what I’m making as part of my 365, and I haven’t been spending much time planning more involved projects recently.

Granted, I need to keep reminding myself that I am a complete novice at the world of visual art, and still learning my craft. I can’t help but think of Minkinnen’s Helsinki Bus Station Theory. …So perhaps this kind of photography is a gateway form of artmaking: an excellent practice kit and a good way of maintaining momentum. But I’m keen to attempt something more ambitious once I have the means. Alain de Botton tweets “The harder a task is to pull off – the more protected you are from competitors.”

Anyway, I digress too much into my own insecurities. Let’s go back to pondering Surrealism.

Surrealist imagery can be incredibly effective in expressing moods and creating strong, memorable impressions without words. The surprise of seeing completely unexpected combinations of elements induces the viewer to question their assumptions, review their world anew, or consider novel combinations of ideas. The Surrealists used juxtaposition and decontexualisation to create mysteries, generate questions and displace the viewer.

The Lovers - Magritte

The Lovers – Magritte

But is contemporary Surrealism still surprising? And is it used with same intellectual exploration that artists like Magritte had? Contemporary audiences would have a fairly implicit familiarity with Post-Modernism and its use of juxtaposition, and Photoshopped images are pervasive enough in the advertising that attempts to dominate our visual spaces to be entirely unshocking. Society has long outgrown the notion that a photograph is necessarily a ‘true’ image of reality, and most of us are aware of the ease with which images can be convincingly manipulated. So then, contemporary surreal photography probably doesn’t have Magritte’s intentions of highlighting the fallibility of images. I suspect they are predominantly used for emotional impact or because the appeal of mystery never goes out of date.

The original Surrealist movement still continues to have such a big impact – there is so much unforgettable imagery, and they even know provoke intriguing questions. Magritte’s imagery I find particularly inescapable – I have loved it since I first encountered it at a young age in the film Toys, long before I had any notion that it was the work of a particular artist. (Though there’s something a little ironic about the familiarity of his images, which were initially intended to be very unsettling. I suppose given fame and time, the mass production becomes inevitable.

So long as we are using them to continue questioning assumptions and exploring how and why the world works the way it does, then Surrealist techniques have a relevancy in 21st century artmaking. But perhaps we need to find a way of refreshing the disruption. I’m not advocating gratuitous shock value per se, but I think an important role of art is to continue to question beliefs and assumptions, and prime the viewer to be open to questioning their own.

In the meantime, I can’t help but continue to ponder:

“How do I make meaningful work?”

“What can I contribute?”

“Can I make an impact?”

But it’s important to not let such questions get in the way of what’s important: making art. Discoveries arise from doing the work… and soI should probably just stay on the fucking bus.

2 thoughts on “The relevance of Surrealism, and pondering my own insecurities”

  1. Stu
     ·  Reply

    Just a thought: as I understand it, the problem with the Helsinki bus is that you might end up following the same route as others for the first three stops, without knowing it. That could probably be avoided as most other artists would have their work available on the ‘net, couldn’t it? I know that staying on the bus also means you might end up going in a unique direction, but what if your whole route has been done before? So maybe you should stay on the bus but keep using your ipad to make sure it isn’t on a well worn route done by others. If it is, then you could always decide to get off the bus, turn right and go ahead on foot in a completely unknown direction.

    • jbknibbs
       ·  Reply

      Thanks for the reply (and for reading). That’s a point, but it’s just that there’s SO MUCH being made, and it’s entirely common for an artist’s early work to be somewhat derivative, I think. You know, we’re all kind of made up of everything we like, but maybe it takes a little time for us to make something totally ours? I’m not sure.
      There’s also a great book called Steal Like An Artist which talks about this topic. I think if you’re stressing about being original to the point where you’re not making work, that’s not helpful. Because really, a lot of the time, it’s the process that’s important in finding an interesting path.
      Eventually, I’d really like to end up making picture books or illustrating stories photographically which, to my knowledge, isn’t done a whole lot… It’s just a lot bigger project than I can tackle at the moment! 🙂

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