Exploring surrealism

Exploring surrealism

By: Sabina Stent

I have a theory that those who align their work to Surrealism – whether artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, or academics - are born and not made. To give an example, if you look at David Lynch’s work, a director whose portfolio includes feature films, shorts and commercials, you will notice an ever present thread: consistent themes, colours, symbols, motifs frequently used and referenced.

When people ask what I do, I often say that I am a 'Surrealist' or 'Surreal Academic'. Please do not take offense if you favour the haunting screen Expressionism of Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari or the early magic of Georges Méliès, but Surrealism was an unconscious decision, not a ‘light-bulb’ moment when I consciously ‘chose’ this artistic subject and decided to make it my focus. As a result, I’ve been working on the movement for so long that I can’t bear to be too far, and when I recently stepped away, I was horrendously miserable. Maybe it’s part of my DNA…the path was paved a long time ago.

A Dalí admirer from a very young age, I would cite The Persistence of Memory (above) as my favourite painting - I even had the phone cover for my Nokia 3210. From then on the movement kept approaching me. My family loves the Marx Brothers, and over time I realised how much their humour, vaudeville roots and general schtick – particularly Harpo - was very much rooted in Surrealism. I was always drawn to what others believed to be the irrational, the madcap and the zany. It didn't matter if others believed it to be odd, weird or whatever; chances were that I loved it. The same can be said for certain film costumes - a particular accessory or an elaborate hat. I appreciated the movement’s flourishes, its ability to see beyond the rational and its appreciation for the madcap, the zany and the everyday lunacy of life’s routine situations. At college I watched Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1928) for the first time.

Even if you have never seen Un Chien Andalou you will surely have heard of the film, notorious for its (literally) ‘eye-opening’ scene. Picture this: a young woman sits in a chair as a man (Buñuel) holds a razor blade in his hands. We see the evening sky outside. As the cloud slices across the sky, the razor slashes the girl’s eye. The symbolism is notorious and very clear: don’t believe everything you see.

Rather than being repelled by the infamous ‘eye’ scene, I was enthralled, amused and captivated by the array of images crossing the screen: butterflies with skull faces, ants in hands, pubic hair that ‘moved’ around the body. I could see the humour in this film and could appreciate the narrative being woven despite the supposed absence of structure. There was beauty in each scene and humour in every frame.

The second encounter occurred when I was studying photography at University and an assignment called for us to replicate a particular photographer’s style. I was assigned to work in the style of Man Ray and produce a set of images in his style. This included recreating the effect of the rayograph (or solarisation) technique that Man Ray and Lee Miller - herself a prominent Surrealist and documentary photographer more frequently referred to as Man Ray’s muse and partner - discovered together.

From 2007 I started work on my MA dissertation about Women Surrealists. During a relaxed conversation with my supervisor I casually mentioned how much I liked the movement and was intrigued by a random quote about the activity of women in the movement. This spawned the dissertation, which in turn led to a PhD where I focused on a selection of women who I had not seen grouped, or discussed, with reference to my chosen themes before.

Like other writers before me, I wanted to explore how these women were not just muses or the artists’ lovers and wives, but independent painters, writers, film directors and sculptors who provided the some of the movement’s best loved and most notorious work. I wanted to show how they could be fun, provocative, mysterious, sexual and cheeky, pushing boundaries and inverting this patriarchal, misogynistic movement on their terms.

As I was writing my thesis I kept encountering Hollywood: the location, the mention of film stars, behind the scenes production or costume design. Although this would not necessarily fit within the overall theme of my thesis, I always thought that it would be another interesting angle of Surrealism to explore, and I am currently working on a short book called The Hollywood Surreal for The Critical Press. As with any historical discipline, it is a matter of discovering new and exciting information, images and films. This is what makes being an independent researcher so exciting: you are constantly finding new things to work on within and around your topic.

If you want to learn and discover more about Surrealist films, I recommend starting at the beginning with the first films. Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or (1929) – based on the Marquis de Sade’s scandalous 120 Days Of Sodom – and Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (1928) (The Seashell And The Clergyman), often cited as the very first Surrealism film. On an art-related note, why not explore the filmographies of Man Ray, Maya Deren, and Jean Cocteau? For a more mainstream perspective, Hitchcock is always interesting from a Surrealistic perspective, while Lynch takes the movement’s traditional themes and utilises them in a contemporary environment - for example, Blue Velvet and Mullholland Drive. On a separate note, for something more recent, dreamy and gorgeously oneiric, I highly recommend Peter Strickland’s beautiful entomology picture The Duke of Burgundy.

The world of Surrealism is all nightmare and weirdness. It’s a very beautiful, dreamy, funny place that is akin for falling down the rabbit hole and entering Wonderland. See for yourself. There is more to the movement than meets the eye.