PRINT September 1966

Surrealism as Art

Form today is significant enough, significant of incapacity. Some hope I see in Surrealism; for the surrealists are showing, together with much silliness and indecency, a renewed respect for their materials, for some beauty of surface and a return to inventiveness in their paintings.

—William Rothenstein in Since Fifty, Vol. 3 of his memoirs, Men and Memories, 1940

THE HOPE OF A RETURN to illusionistic1 art is as old as modernism itself. It was a hope before art became fully abstract and it has sometimes been the hope of the most advanced art as well. In fact, abstract art encountered considerable resistance from the modernist camp in general. In his famous book on Picasso, Alfred Barr tells us that Picasso’s monumental nudes of the early 1920s were part of a general reaction against the “excesses” of “Cubism, Expressionism, and Primitivism.” Leger’s geometrical-figurative style was an expression of the same “reactionary” impulse; ultimately (1948–49) he paints a Homage to Louis David. Actually, all Cubist art after 1911–12, including collage and Synthetic Cubism, invokes nature in varying degrees of realism precisely in order to preserve connection with appearances. “There is no question,” Clement Greenberg has written, “but that Braque and Picasso were concerned in their Cubism with holding on to painting as an art of representation and illusion.”2 It was also Mr. Greenberg who coined the phrase “homeless representation,” by which he meant "a plastic and descriptive painterliness that is applied to abstract ends but which continues to suggest representational ones.”3 The style that he had in mind was Abstract Expressionism.

Still, the sense of illusion in most of this was not particularly strong; and, in fact, it has proven singularly difficult to create major, fully illusionist art in this century. Cubist illusionism was hardly a full illusionism. By a full illusionism I mean a representational art which maintains certain conventional attributes regardless of what other stylistic imperatives dictate its particular modernity: a sense of deep space, credible volume, modulated color, a feeling for structure (the abstract basis of three-dimensional form) and a subject matter appropriate to its formal function and vice versa. Modernist art has developed exactly opposite features: the reductive rendering of volume, flattening it in order to preserve the so-called “integrity of the picture plane,” the radical schematization of form and structure, a general insistence on unmodulated color and, of course, ultimately the exclusion of recognizable imagery. And it would be idle to pretend that such illusionist art as has asserted it self, or perhaps more accurately, reasserted itself in the face of the inevitability of the abstract has equalled in sheer profundity of ambition the best abstractionist art of our time. I exclude the art of the present, illusionist and abstract, for reasons that should be clear later; but until now there has been no modern representational painting that has possessed the power and authority to convince history, as it were, to change its mind.

But apparently we can’t be kept from trying. Just now Surrealism is very much in the air. This means less that historical Surrealism still lives than that the illusionist impulse which it dramatized is reasserting it self once more. Surrealism received credence then, and is receiving it again now simply because the hope for illusionism was, and is, quite unrequited. After all, iconoclasm didn’t last forever. The present situation in art resembles that of the twenties, when reform swept the avant-garde, when various factions developed and when Surrealism seemed to embody the desire for change. Surrealism, then, epitomizes both the spirit and the era and curiously ratifies the modern reconstruction of the avant-garde. With the authority of history behind it, Surrealism confers respectability upon a new “reactionary” generation.

However, the extent of reform in just the past four years plus the number of contenders for the “mainstream” (where for fifteen years prior to 1962 there was only one) make the situation just as equivocal now as it was in the twenties. The formal conflict raised by Cubism’s effort in the twenties to modulate space a bit more than it had, ultimately produced a situation polarized by Dadaism and Surrealism, favoring reform, and Neo-plasticism, favoring a “pure plastic” reality, or ”life“ style versus De Stijl. The alternatives to day, extremely simplified, can similarly be read as ”illusionism“ versus ”purity.“ But today ”illusionism“ can be abstract and ”pure" abstraction can be illusionistic. The former insists on pattern, the latter acknowledges depth. We are perhaps moving toward the deepest synthesis since Romanticism and Classicism developed autonomous identities almost two hundred years ago, announcing a schism in modern sensibility which has not entirely healed yet. An understanding of Surrealism as a hope and as illusion is obviously a prerequisite to understanding our own era and anticipating something of the future as well.

Surrealism was by far the most “reactionary” attempt, before the late 1950s, to create a viable new illusionism. It began with a manifesto in 1924 and by the late 1930s its peak years had passed. Seemingly without precedent and with a vengeance deriving as much from innocence as conviction, Surrealism introduced both deep space and an aggressively literary subject matter. Perspectival depth reached Mannerist extremes while subject matter developed an exceptional and frequently impenetrable eccentricity. Even Miró, the most plastic of Surrealists and probably the most resourceful artist of the thirties cultivated the fantastic in his designs. Subsequently a manner among lesser Surrealists, the taste for the fantastic evolved in to the cult of “brutal art.”

Surrealism proclaimed itself, and was, the modern incarnation of Romanticism. The theory of “pure psychic automatism” proposed by André Breton and his literary friends in the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 represented a “psychologization” of the “imagination” which Romantics have always held sacred, as opposed to the intellect which is presumably cold and unfeeling. Thus the “unconscious” as a source of inspiration and subject matter, was to the Surrealists what “romances,” Dante, Shakespeare, etc., were to their 19th century counterparts, the difference being that the stories told by Surrealist painters referred to incidents “as in a dream.” Surrealist pictures are therefore not intelligible in the ordinary sense, but have to undergo, as it were, a kind of psychoanalysis. And psychoanalysis is exactly to what Marcel Jean subjects Dalí’s famous painting of limp watches, The Persistence of Memory. Among other things, the soft watches turn out to be symbols of fears of sexual inadequacy which M. Jean is able to confirm as he seems privy to Dalí’s innermost secrets.4 (I should have said that the watches represent time which in certain circumstances becomes an embodiment of authority. Thus to anyone who has a problem with authority, time, or the pressure of time, is capable of inducing impotence—as anyone who has constantly to meet deadlines knows.) And could not Magritte’s Empire of Light, which represents day and night in the same picture, be interpreted as reflecting the anxiety of a man for whom the difference between day and night, and therefore time, is meaningless (or ambiguous) because of his endless self-preoccupation? Suddenly I recall the lines from a popular song: “I didn’t know what time it was ’til I met you.” Love—i.e., relating—obviously takes a man out of himself; but the lover probably referred to his beloved in the words of another pop hit: “You’re just out of this world . . .” No cure here. The difference, in other words, between highbrow and lowbrow “surrealism” is the difference between dream and fantasy; the former contains its own fulfillment. Consequently, Surrealist paintings are more authentically “romantic” effusions, which, whatever their failings as art, nonetheless convey a “psychic” authenticity. It is in this general sense that the “best” of Surrealist paintings are probably understood.

But the dream in Surrealist art tells another story as well, that of style. Surrealism sought a new illusionism but had difficulty in formally organizing its vision. In the absence of immediate formal precedent it was compelled to devise pictorial conventions as best it could. None of the Surrealists deeply under stood form, especially in relation to color which, as they used it simply indicated an absence of feeling for shape and, by extension, structure. This may have been due to Surrealism’s inhibitions with respect to the art of the past. Being a modern movement, its out look on art was essentially “futurist,” and in futurist philosophy the past is the enemy, the hated authority. Thus Dalí’s soft watches may be interpreted not only as expressing a fear of sexual inadequacy but artistic inadequacy as well. The forms sag from the exhaustion of a conflict between an inability to acknowledge the “classic” past and a reluctance to accept the “romantic" future. Dalí’s constant evoking of masters such as Zurbaran and Vermeer in recent years confirms this anxiety, and his tongue-in-cheek admiration of Meissonier and Fortuny has a serious side—to rationalize Dalí’s own inadequacies as an artist.

It is possible, in fact, to interpret most Surrealist pictures as “anxiety dreams” brought on by a lack of formal support from the immediate artistic environment and by ambitions that they sensed were actually beyond their capacities. The Surrealists, that is to say, had nightmares because they couldn’t paint too well. Dalí only fell into the arms of the Church and gave in to an academician’s fantasy of old master technique when he despaired of achieving a coherent modern illusionism.

Specifically, Surrealism’s anxiety as art arose from the exceptional difficulty it had in achieving coherent form and structure, of, in other words, relating figure and ground. Dalí’s device of the double image—figure in a land scape also forming the bust of Voltaire—and Magritte’s similar device of a painting within a painting sharing the same perspective are attempts to achieve a flattening out of the unrestrained and therefore unstructured perspectives of Surrealism. This was a kind of Cubism via optical illusion that tried to rationalize a “trick” by making it seem part of the content—exactly what Op art, a latter-day issue of moribund Cubism, does today. Matta got around the problem by getting rid of the horizon and establishing a fluid space which simultaneously touched foreground, background and middle distance, a technique which influenced Gorky who checked its theatricality with the structured planarity and plasticity he learned from Cubism.

Interestingly, nay, significantly, the “mainstream” was meanwhile experiencing pretty much the same problems as Surrealism. It was just a difference of degree. Very generally speaking, modernist art around 1920 was concerned with a deeper depiction of space than had hitherto seemed either desirable or defensible. The aforementioned neo-classic reaction against Cubism, Expressionism and Primitivism was also a reaction against the shallow space in which these styles deposited their forms. But after Analytical Cubism had been abandoned, the devices employed by the Cubists to restitute illusion failed to produce either the desired degree of illusion or the desired degree of structured form, or both. Indeed, the reason why Picasso and Braque did not finally go all the way in their reaction against the reductive flatness of Analytical Cubism was that they could not achieve the structured monumentality implicit in the formal analytical style. In his neoclassic period Picasso attempted to compensate by making the figures sculpturally very massive; but no corresponding power of pictorial design developed. Furthermore, the “return” to Synthetic Cubism was dictated not only by demands of structure but by a desire for color, the use of which it encouraged through a greater degree of realism. Both Braque and Picasso, however, used color traditionally, that is, in terms of dark and light rather than in the newer terms of the contrast between colors themselves. Neither artist appreciated the significance of Matisse’s experiments with color as a simultaneously spatial and structural element. In truth, Matisse him self did not understand it entirely either. For at best, the space created with color (and line) by Matisse was an unstable solution of two- and three-dimensional elements. The illusionist forms had to be modeled somewhat, they had to “turn” even when pressed thin, in order to avoid mere decorativeness. It remained for certain post-painterly abstractionists to divine the power of color to create “illusionist” abstractions without recourse to representation. Though it may be suggested that the problem has led to the elimination of almost everything customarily understood as painting except colored paint and canvas, the fact is that this “reductiveness” is indicative of how fundamental the formal equivocation of the art of the twenties, Surrealism included, has been to the development of modern art since.

Surrealism was then merely the extreme form of a pioneering attack on the tendency to reductive abstraction in modernist art. If reductive abstraction developed anyway, it is because neither Surrealism nor Cubism could propose an alternative that had as much completeness and consistency of vision and eventually security of scale. In Cubism the idea of structure was too strong to permit illusion to fully assert itself, in Surrealism the demands of illusion were so great that structure was at best makeshift.

It was probably inevitable that given this momentary impasse in modernist style, a profound eclecticism would become the originality of an artist like Joan Miró, as indeed it was simultaneously that of Fernand Leger. Miró, whom I would exclude from most of the reservations I have voiced about Surrealism, is not readily thought of as a Surrealist, nor can he be completely grasped as one, since his work has always acknowledged a level of taste well beyond that of his polemical contemporaries, just as his raw talent exceeded theirs as well. Miró’s allegiance was always dual; and he always had a consequent freedom of mobility. Cubism enabled him to generalize his forms without depriving them of their narrative function. At the same time his affiliation with Surrealism enabled him to propose a synthesis which differed markedly from “proper” Synthetic Cubism in shape and movement. Literary subject matter inspired invention less dominated by geometry for being geared to sentiment, which in turn gave his feeling for movement a purpose other than formal. This sounds like an older kind of painting in that the idea of complexity had not yet reached the metaphysical pretensions of “less is more.” Indeed Miró endangered his style with excessive ornamentation rather than risk the “reductiveness” which struck him as meaningless, since he had not yet equated color with feeling. After the high point of a work like the Museum of Modern Art’s Dutch Interior of 1928, Miró’s synthesis showed itself to be as fragile as it was subtle. Gradually his forms began to detach themselves from the picture plane which deepened into an illusionistic background that no amount of eventual ornamentation could retrieve as structure. In the forties a linear, pictographic style extended even further Miró’s formularization of Surrealist impulses by an acquired taste. Thus the eclecticism that defined his originality also contributed to a crisis of his style. In the early sixties, however, Miró seems to have confirmed the prescience of American artists who in the forties were as impressed by his formal values as by his literary ones, though, prompted by a lugubrious necessity, they failed to appreciate the irony with which Miró dealt with a fundamentally volatile imagery. For in a painting like Bleu II (1961) Miró developed a new openness that may have been inspired by Abstract Expressionism. Bleu II, in fact, seems to anticipate the “window shade” color paintings of Jules Olitski with its monochrome field of blue, a bolt of crimson and twelve variously-sized pebble shapes of black stretched out in single file over two-thirds of a canvas almost 12 feet wide. Its illusionist effect never becomes wholly plastic; that is, it does not achieve the characteristically singular effect of true over-all type composition and I did not care too much for it when I first saw it. But now it strikes me as nonetheless marking a possible recovery of impulse and a revitalization of taste by the Catalan master who had been seeking to regain his lost impulse by working in more “earthy” ceramics instead, an affectation which produced more taste but no impulse.

Miró is the only “Surrealist” to achieve anything even approaching meaningful large scale, and it is note worthy too that to achieve it he had to reduce illusionism to virtually an abstract formulation. In Bleu II a symbolic echo deprives his forms of their full visual immediacy; but all things considered, and in retrospect, it is a pretty amazing picture. On the other hand, Dalí’s failure in terms of scale suggests that a fully representational illusionism must honor an abstract bias if only to distinguish between feeling and morbidity. (Which reminds us that Dalí’s failings go much deeper than the picture plane.)

For psychological and esthetic factors by themselves do not account either for the Surrealist phenomenon or for its failings, or for what appears to be its prototypical sensibility. “Surrealism” seems to be what happens when a mainstream tradition or style loses its authority or where no strong tradition exists. Somehow it encourages the development of precious marginal style sects—which may explain the hero-worship by modern Surrealists of such obscure figures as Böcklin and Moreau. Nor, for that matter, is the psychological and esthetic picture itself complete with out one further consideration, namely that none of the important Surrealist painters were French. Dalí and Miró are Spaniards, Magritte is Belgian, Ernst, German, and Matta is a Chilean.5 This cultural, if not provincial, factor alone guaranteed that their approach to the problem of illusion and depth would contrast sharply with the more cautious, graduated approach of the Cubists, since it meant that the Surrealist painters were not bound by either a responsibility or loyalty to French taste, which they knew to be experiencing difficulties anyway. (But in its prime, of course, Cubism had easily assimilated eager outsiders like Picasso and later Gris; but at the time there was still room for originality in the style.)

There is a further consideration. Like any outsiders, the Surrealists were ambitious, but their ambitions had an individual dimension, whether they were conscious of it or not. Dalí was, and put it almost succinctly (for him ): “For me,” he said only recently, “the essential element was to tell our life by any mythological means.”6 It is a serious remark by a man whose seriousness is open to question, and while not exactly clear, it is obvious that no ordinary kind of illusionism figured in the Surrealist prospectus. The result was a kind of genre painting of the unconscious. This however promulgated a profound and ultimately fatal irony; no one was in a better position than the Surrealists to conceive of a modern illusionism, since they were independent of a mainstream taste that had begun to dictate even to Cubism; yet no one was less able than they to execute it, because in their provincial innocence they failed to intellectually grasp the issues that were at stake. The result was an irrevocable gap between their ambitions and their capabilities. The provincial over simplifications that enabled them to act, also isolated them from their own times. Only some one with unusual resources, like Miró, escaped the corrosive effects of the conflict; otherwise very real distortions of sensibility occurred. The outstanding example of such distortion was, of course, Dalí who, contrary to widely held belief, is neither a great draftsman nor a brilliant craftsman. On any given day at the Prado one can find ten copyists who easily surpass him as an impersonator of old master technique. Dalí actually believed he could reconcile his essentially regressive sensibility with the modern by “concretizing” their rational condition induced by what was in fact his reluctance to recognize the real problems of his art and craft. For a while it seemed he might. Dalí’s early pictures, those between 1928 and 1937, while vulgar in execution and banal inform, achieve a kind of hallucinated reality that is all the more authentic when one contrasts them with the results of his efforts, since the 1940s, to cross a now utterly regressive naturalism with the Catholic Baroque, with results so pornographic and saccharine that it is impossible to believe that he is aware of it; and obviously Gala won’t tell him.

Magritte, on the other hand, seems to have had a distorted sensibility to begin with. In itself his technique is pure kitsch, but he managed to abominate the provincial banalities it compelled him to honor by the simple expedient of denying that things were what they were, e.g., Ceci n’est pas une pipe. All the elements in a Magritte—form, color, structure, motif—are banal except the effect produced by the way he combines them. Thus he obviously provides a catharsis for people who feel similarly oppressed by their environment or who remain provincials down deep, affectations of worldliness to the contrary. But the most profound catharsis is style.

I cannot consequently ignore the implication that the illusionist impulse today is similarly alienated from its immediate tradition, and is thus bound to experience similar distortions of sensibility. But out side of the fact that an illusionist impulse is ascendant today and that it too repudiates provincial realism, all similarity ceases. Artists today are simply not as deprived visually as it was still possible to be forty years ago. Provincialism remains a spur to ambition, otherwise the lessons of the main stream have been considerably implemented and are available to all. Even a marginal art has to aim for a large audience. For the main stream has lived out enough of its destiny to have restored to style the formal values repudiated by art after the French Revolution. Admittedly, in Pop art, for instance, formal values are not a reflection of “content” with which they are compatible only insofar as both are the parties to the same problem—structured illusion; but obviously the Pop artists are aware of them. Meanwhile, consciousness of abstract values “reduces” the scope, yet establishes the modernity, of more fully illusionist painters such as Philip Pearlstein and Jack Beal. As for abstractionist art, through color it has so completely embraced illusionist properties that the resulting stasis of structure and depth has compelled other artists to project illusionistic values into the virtual dimensions of shaped canvases and “primary structures.” The degree of sophistication all this implies was simply inconceivable in 1924. Modernist art, in other words, has educated itself and self-education is the secret of modernity.

Inevitably, one of the difficulties in assessing Surrealism today lies in the apparent disparity between its importance as an “impulse” and its trivialization by marginal art. In fact, I am compelled to re-evaluate its generally assumed importance to Abstract Expressionism, an importance about which I have agreed in the past. The only Surrealist whose paintings had any impact was Miró, and he affected Gorky principally, arid through him de Kooning. Pollock and Motherwell were doubtlessly affected by Breton’s theory of automatism. But in every case the ultimate benefit of Surrealism was not ideological; rather it made possible, in a wholly unexpected way, certain liberties in the handling of paint. Pollock could drip, Motherwell could splash and Gorky could stain, the idea in every instance being the “opening” of their own hand-me-down versions of Cubism. However the price of “liberation” was what in these pages last year I called “contraband representationalism.” The Abstract Expressionists absorbed illusionism by a kind of osmosis and it emerged, as in the later paintings of Pollock and the “women” paintings by de Kooning, when a sheer painterliness became unsupportable. And this eventually caused what Mr. Greenberg has described as “homeless representation.” Consequently I believe the greater part of Surrealism’s impact on Abstract Expressionism to have been more indirect than hitherto thought. The previous appraisal was perhaps encouraged by the fact that, over and above the formal issues at stake, the Americans identified with a sensibility that was as eager as its own to both outgrow its provincialism and to breach Cubism’s imposing picture plane. In fact, Surrealism seems more worldly now for what Abstract Expressionism made of it.

The tragedy of Surrealism, both as principle and art, was that it embodied but could not visually develop precisely what modernism had begun to lose, its sensual pressure and erotic force. Even the best Synthetic Cubist paintings show a brittleness for which texture and color were compensations of a sort. But that art was compensating at all confirms the suggestion that at bottom modernist art in the twenties, restive from the “classic” restraint of, successively, post-Impressionism and Cubism, lusted after a juicy bravura. Surrealism was largely a record of the anxiety caused merely by the desire; and by the time Picasso finally breaks loose in the thirties cohesive structure is largely a memory and his art consists of a dialetical antagonism between an objectless bravura and a contradictory linearity. Thus it fell to Americans to work out a synthesis of sensuous pressure and intellectual grace. We are still living out the history of that obligation.

Sidney Tillim



1. I have adopted this word as being more precise than realistic, representational, figurative, etc., although after establishing my meaning of the term, I employ the others occasionally for the sake of style. I first heard it used as a surrogate for realism, etc., by Clement Greenberg during his lecture on Matisse at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, May 8, 1966.

2. Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, pp. 70–71.

3. “After Abstract Expressionism,” Art International, Oct. 25, 1962, p. 25.

4. The History of Surrealist Painting, Grove Press, 1960, p. 278.

5. I exclude de Chirico who as an Italian requires special considerations which do not materially implement nor detract from my thesis. His “metaphysical painting” is generally regarded as a precursor of Surrealism, and in fact he quite graphically encapsulates the basic Classic-Romantic dichotomy that gave rise to Surrealism, and this a decade before it officially announced itself as a movement. He too left something to be desired technically and showed his repressed lust for bravura in an exaggerated Caravaggesque chiaroscuro. What is special is that he was confronted by Classicism in the form of Italy’s neo-classic past rather than its much-removed form of primitivist Cubism. And it proved stronger than he in the end. Meanwhile, Tanguy and Masson, who are French, are also excluded because Tanguy was too soon seduced by mere facility to be interesting and Masson, who se relationship to Pollock Is a controversial matter, simply used Surrealism to become a kind of abstract painter. Furthermore, it is no contradiction to my thesis that literary Surrealism is mostly French. Like Dadaism, Surrealism was basically another attack on French taste. Also, when artists get tired of waiting for the old guard to die out, necessity suddenly becomes ideology and a will to power is hidden behind a “crisis.” Actually no one was more appalled at this time by French taste than another Frenchman—Duchamp. So when I refer to Dalí, Matta, Magritte, etc. as “provincial” I mean partly inexperience. But I also mean that in respect to the extremely cultivated French tradition, they were all provincials, as most of us were until recently.

6. From a caption by Dalí himself in The world of Salvador Dalí, by Robert Descharnes, New York, 1962.