self-gina-reed

Surrealism

Art from the Depths of the Unknown: A New Way of Perceiving Gender and Sexuality

by: Gina Bonelli

Surrealism provided a new perspective on gender and sexuality through art. With the focus having shifted from provoking response from the viewer, in earlier art, to evoking interpretation of imagery of the subconscious mind, the idea of sexuality and gender evolves into something new. Andre Breton began leading the surrealist movement in 1924.[1] The idea was to challenge society’s way of thinking. This was done by exploding the art scene with irrational images, thought up by the subconscious. This origin of thought was considered superior against the art at the time, as it came from one’s own deeply hidden mind.[2]

The pre-surrealist movement consisted of art that came from the conscious thought. Such art included pieces centered on a focus of the sexual or gender descriptive attribute. Concepts of plays on sexuality can be found with Gauguin’s The Spirit of the Dead Watching,[3] where a nude is painted in a manner to entice the male viewer to use his imagination.[4] The position of the nude and the look in her eyes is described by Foster et al, as Olympia, the nude, looks in the direction of the viewer in such a way as to imply she is a prostitute staring at her client.[5] The beauty of the female body is shown in ways that can be seen as her being objectified, feared and celebrated. Perspective is key though, as not all would see such art in this manner.

Some artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner created art that would also attempt to show the beauty of a nude, in a manner as to relay a focused thought. An example of this is with Kirchner’s Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella, in which the nude is painted with soft lines and tones that depict the subtle beauty, as well as deliberate placement of her arms, and convention of her stare.[6]

Surrealism transformed nudes into ways unthinkable, at the time. The art of the surrealist movement warped whole bodies and parts of bodies, as oftentimes the images came from a dream-like state. The movement also provoked deeper thought about sexuality and gender. Christian Schad’s Self-Portrait with Model,[7] is a painting portraiture which brings discomfort to the viewer. This painting has the nude looking in a different direction, other than the viewer or the painted man. The nude has scarification representing being of property of men.[8] This adds a further element for the viewer to think about. It provides potential in seeing the possible consequences to this woman for being with men in this manner.[9]

The deeper provoking perception that Surrealism provides can be seen in such photographs as Emmy Hennings with Doll,[10] and Hannah Hoch with Doll[11], as the interpretation can be that of a way for women to act out the many modes of femininity.[12] The viewer can delve into the psychology of women by viewing such images, and see the many layers a woman has. Surrealist art provided this same outlet of the male, as well, through portraits, and sculptures. Brancusi’s Princesse X,[13] caused much controversy as the sculpture was phallic in nature to the viewers. The many interpretations, which can be read, span from the masculine and feminine as a combined unit, to genitalia merging in erotica.[14] The most controversial aspect of this piece, from 1915-1916, is that it can represent bi-genderism[15], a concept that was far too taboo to speak of, let alone create art for. Others were taken back by this piece, as this beautiful bronze sculpture could represent hermaphroditic form, as it embodies both the male and female organs.[16] In reading further about this content and seeing the art, one can understand the leap of change between abstract art of 1900-1910’s to Surrealism. The contrast of the content holds the largest degree of change.

Such change not only included the notions of deeper thought about sexuality and gender, but also of fears. As surrealist art was initiated by subconscious thought, it allowed for the artists’ fears and anxieties to surface as well.  Foster, et al describes these types of fears as, “some of these reflect psychoanalytic concerns, such as castration anxiety (which produces a fear of female genitalia and imagery cycling around the idea of the vagina denata) and fetishism,”[17] which shows the varying degrees that were surfaced. Surrealism allowed for the artist to vent out such fears without trying to stay in the confines of what was socially acceptable to discuss at the time. Although such proclaimed artists as Ernst, Rene Magritte, and later Salvador Dali, dove in and embraced surrealism, Andre Breton could not convince Frida Kahlo that her art is surrealist in nature. Frida Kahlo painted extraordinary, bizarre and sometimes horrifying works of art. She argued that her art came from reality and was more of an autobiography of her real-life experiences, and not of dreams.[18] A possible argument that could be made in favor of Breton, is that Kahlo’s art is a form of surrealism as, although her art was of real life nightmares, it was in a manner stored in her subconscious mind, where it could undergo a form of warped visual transformation. The Surrealist movement came about as a form of psychoanalysis, a similar type of analysis that delved into dreams, much in the way Sigmund Freud did.

The portrayal of portraiture, landscapes, photographs and sculptures prior to surrealism, with the exception of DADA, were structured, ordered, and rational to the degree of conscious thought. Surrealism had no rules of consciously structured realization upon creation. It was the things of dreams and the unknown of the subconscious that spoke out through art. Surrealism challenged artists, art and viewers, and opened the doors to a new way of thinking about sexuality and gender.


 

 

Bibliography

 

Brancusi, Constantin. Princesse X. 1915-1916. Polished Bronze. In Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism. Second Edition, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2011. 231.

Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism. Second Edition, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2011. 196-197.

“Frida Kahlo”. In Artists.  “The Art Story: Modern Art Insight”. 2016: The Art Story Foundations. July 3, 2016. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kahlo-frida.htm.

Gauguin, Paul. The Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao Tupapau). 1892. Oil on burlap mounted on canvas. In Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism. Second Edition, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2011. 67-68.

Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig. Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella. 1909. Oil on canvas. In Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism. Second Edition, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2011. 68.

Photographer unknown. Emmy Hennings with Doll. 1917. Photograph. In Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism. Second Edition, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2011. 215.

Photographer unknown. Hannah Hoch with Doll. 1921. In Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism. Second Edition, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2011. 215.

Schad, Christian. Self-Portrait with Model. 1927. Oil on Canvas. In Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism. Second Edition, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2011. 212.

“Surrealism.” in “MoMa Learning”. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art: 2016. July 3, 2016. http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/surrealism.

[1] Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011), 196.

 

[2] Surrealism, in “MoMa Learning”, (New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art: 2016), July 3, 2016, http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/surrealism.

 

[3] Paul Gauguin, The Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao Tupapau), 1892, oil on burlap mounted on canvas, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011), 67.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Gauguin, The Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao Tupapau), 1892, oil on burlap mounted on canvas, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011) 68.

[6] Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella, 1909, oil on canvas, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011), 68.

[7] Christian Schad, Self-Portrait with Model, 1927, Oil on Canvas, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011), 212.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Photographer unknown, Emmy Hennings with Doll, 1917, Photograph, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011), 215.

[11] Photographer unknown, Hannah Hoch with Doll, 1921, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011), 215.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Constantin Brancusi, Princesse X, 1915-1916, Polished Bronze, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011),231.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Post Modernism, Second Edition, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc.: 2011), 197.

[18] Frida Kahlo, In Artists, “The Art Story: Modern Art Insight” The Art Story Foundation, 2016, July 3, 2016, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kahlo-frida.htm.

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