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The Cage of the “Surreal” – Post 1 of 2

“The Locust,” “Tauromachia,” and “Mantis” by Germaine Richier

In my last post, I made some remarks about the falsity of calling certain artworks “surrealistic.”  I want to pursue that further here.  Am I saying that we should never use the words “surreal” or “surrealistic”?  No, but. . . .

An art critic for The New York Times wrote one of the most aggravating pieces of art criticism that I’ve read in the last decade:  it was a review of an exhibition by the half-forgotten sculptor, Germaine Richier, whose work was clearly shaped in part by her experience of the horrors of World War II.  I was initially heartened that her work was being exhibited in America and receiving attention in the mainstream press.  That was before I read the piece.

The dismissive premise of the commentary was that Richier’s sculptures, which are often half-human, half-animal (or half-something-else) figures (and which I’ve found moving and powerful since I first bought a book of them in college), are no good because they are, according to the critic, just retreads of an old “Surrealist technique” — namely, the combining of the human figure with the figure of a non-human animal, as in a “Modernist” work like Picasso’s “Minotauromachy.”

“Minotauromachy” by Pablo Picasso

Surrealist technique?  What about the half-human, half-non-human figures in the prehistoric caves of Europe, thought to represent shamans?  What, in fact, is it about the shamans of many cultures throughout the world that has made them believe that they absorbed special powers from their connections with certain animals, and that led them to wear hides or feathers or bones in order to enhance those connections and powers?  What underlies the beliefs of Native American tribes in “power animals” associated with an individual’s date of birth and individual spirit, also believed to be sources of strength and inspiration?

Do all these consist of “surrealist techniques,” or do they reflect some living truth that can be experienced, but not truly named or produced by mere intellect or will?  Something beyond any particular person or culture, beyond history.  You might want to read — and I would love to be responsible for your discovering — Richard Wilbur’s poem “Advice to a Prophet,” even more telling and resonant now than when it was written, during the 1950s days of the atomic bomb scares.

Let’s say that Germaine Richier’s sculptures are not “surrealist,” and even Picasso’s “Minotauromachy” is not “surrealist.”  If only to humor or follow me here.  What if their reality is not the reality only of dreams?  (As I wrote in my last post, my “Dream of the Playground Melting into Night” wasn’t something that came to me in sleep, nor did it remain unchanged as I worked on it while I was awake.)  What is it, then, that such works evoke about reality, about us, about life?  So often the things that we call “surreal” are likewise not the products of sleeping dreams, or of the kinds of artistic games of “chance” that the French self-styled “Surrealists” played, or of other willful attempts to provoke the “unconscious” to appear in daylight.  What then do we mean by “surreal” when we use it to describe waking realities or works of art that weren’t born in sleep? 

There is a real problem with people thinking that what they call the surreal is different from or above or below the real.  If they knew what the real is, many people who consider themselves “liberals” would not have so blindly underestimated the 2016 candidacy of Trump and its appeal to hundreds of thousands of voters.

“The Bat” by Germaine Richier

But the characteristic problem with liberals lies just there, that many of them think that what the world needs for its salvation is better ideas, better programs.  So many liberals believe in education and innovative ideas, things that may be good as far as they go, but are hopelessly inadequate to cure mankind’s deepest, most eternal problems, or to cure their own hidden vices.  Their view of reality excludes so much that they and others might call the “surreal,” so much of the demonic, so much of the divine.

(The characteristic failing of many who profess themselves to be “conservatives,” on the other hand, is essentially a belief in the propriety and power of sin:  of canny pride, territorial selfishness, institutionalized fear – all too often called “religion” by conservatives, who have, at various places and times in history, programmatically separated children from their parents, or burned incinerated the children of “heretical” parents, all in the name of God [God help them!], as William Blake observed and described more than 200 years ago.)

And the truth is that all of us, to one degree or another, have the prideful, varying vices of liberals and of conservatives, myself included, although I don’t acknowledge my self a member of the one political group or the other (insofar as there is reality to those labels), but rather as a radical, an aspiring Christian (not a communist or anarchist), however I fall short of that radical aspiration – which is essentially not a matter of politics, philosophy, or theology.  And the Bible itself is a grand “clue” to the true nature of man and reality, with all their non-naturalistic, “surreal” dimensions — more than any political philosophy could be — as is the play from which the following, most pertinent lines are taken:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

— Hamlet to Horatio, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 187-188)

This post first appeared on Lawrenceruss | Photography And The Other Arts In Relation To Society And The Soul., please read the originial post: here

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The Cage of the “Surreal” – Post 1 of 2


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