Surrealism in the Unites States

The Chess Queens.jpg
Photo: MNBAQ

Muriel Streeter, The Chess Queens, 1944, oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, gift of David E. Austin

Two distinct artistic events introduced Surrealism in the US: The 1936 Fantastic art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition presenting more an avant-garde than Surrealism specifically, the visit of Salvador Dali during the New York 1939 World’s Fair where he created an underwater ballet, part of the Dream of Venus (see images on a pavilion which was a monument celebrating Surrealism.  However,  the flowering of Surrealism only happened when Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Roberto Matta, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Seligmann, Leonora Carrington, Yves Tanguy and of course André Breton came to New York in the early 1940’s.  A special issue of the magazine View, dealing with Surrealism, VVV, a publication dedicated entirely to Surrealism, the 1942 Surrealist exhibition and its catalogue, contribution of artists like Salvador Dalí and Man Ray in fashion photography, advertising and film, all of these factors taken together have played an important role to giving Surrealism a wider audience.  However, if taken individually, these factors have influenced different artists in different ways.  The result is that we saw American artists focusing on surrealist techniques, content, and attitudes, combining elements of Surrealism with elements that were more in tune with their realities, thus giving birth to a great variety of hybrid forms.

The foremost appeal of Surrealism was that it allowed and even encouraged a generation the use of pictorial forms, exploiting freely methods of modern psychoanalysis, in order to release personal fantasies and crisis.  This fulfilled “a need”, as Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) expressed it, to paint in a creative way, emptying one’s mind of preconceptions.  Motherwell, for instance, took up the concept of automatism and, with Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, became instrumental in the development of Abstract Expressionism.  Equally, and may be more important, was the interest expressed by American artists in the more academic approach of a Salvador Dali, more in tune with the American tradition of landscape paintings.   If indeed many did not reach the virtuosity of a Salvador Daly and his trompe l’œil effects, their imaginary landscapes conveyed a romantic and introspective vision like we can find in the work of Muriel Streeter.

In spite of the fact that Surrealism never became a real coherent movement in the United States, its influence had a significant impact on American art and today still, hints of Surrealism can be found in the work of contemporary artists. It is interesting to point out that an artist like Salazar Jorge (born in Mexico in 1951 and living in New York since 1973) has clearly created the link between American, Mexican and Caribbean Surrealism.