This is scholarly essay wrote in 2012 for an Art and NY class. I went into the class with major trepidation but came away from it with a stronger love, appreciation, and context for Art and Art History.
By: John Longo
Surrealism vs. Minimalism
Art has many different functions in our lives, from the aesthetically beautiful, the mundane, to the avant-garde, and the downright weird. Each style of art is a unique representation of an artist’s vision and more often than not an exclamation point painted directly over an era or movement in a society’s collective thinking. Surrealism and Minimalism were two movements that originated in the 20th Century yet share vastly different qualities of expression. Both styles are valid art movements each developed at an instance of great social and world unrest and thereby showcasing how artists reacted to the ever evolving landscape around them. In this essay I will examine the merits of each art style, and discuss in detail several works we have seen and visited in person, what they mean to me, what they mean to the movement they represent.
We’ll start this examination chronologically with Surrealism, which emerged roughly in the 1920s and lasted, until 1945, though you can argue the legitimacy of those dates as the artists involved lived long past the 40s and 50s. As a movement Surrealism began as a type of European expressionism, a coping mechanism by many artists who were now dealing with the ravages of Post World War I society. If you take a look at the unofficial end of Surrealism which according to the book Art Speak came during the mid-40s, that too was an era of great strife as the second World War was just coming to an end and European nations once again found themselves in tatters and worse yet the world had now discovered the most powerful weapon known to mankind, the Atom Bomb which sparked new fear and worldwide paranoia.
The definition of Surrealism, as found in the book Art Speak is:
Its meaning was articulated by French poet Andre Breton in the first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)… Breton defined it as “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express … the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.” (Atkins, 181)
Essentially this definition breaks down to simply identifiable ideas about the movement which are that it is able to express bizarre, dreamlike images, and paranoia. The book goes on to talk about the two distinct styles of surrealist painting, one of which was done by Salvador Dali whose work we will examine in greater detail later and the other style which came before Dali which was more abstract, presenting, “loosely drawn figures or forms in shallow space that evoke Native American pictographs” (182). The book uses Dali as one pure example, his work was everything I said before, “bizarre, hallucinatory dream images” (182). Dali’s style developed directly out of the earlier style with him eventually all but dominating the popular thought of the Surrealist movement.
The two Surrealists I plan to go in more depth about throughout this essay are Dali and Yves Tanguy, who like Dali used these bizarre dreamlike states of human paranoia in his work. The first work we will examine is from Tanguy entitled, Rue de la Santa (Figure 1.1), painted in 1925 on 19 ¾ x 24 1/8 board. I love this painting, I’ve seen it a few times at MoMA but the first time I saw it I did not appreciate it or understand the meaning behind the work and the movement it was a part of it.
This piece is a clear cut example of what Surrealism represented to the arts during that period. It was painted in 1925 a few years after the war. Tanguy was born in France, a country that was directly impacted by the Germans during that time. Like most Surrealist painting, this work is chromaphobic, lacking bright colors with the mild exception of the small white home which sits directly in the middle of the piece, as a reward or an analogy for a pot of gold on what is an endless rainbow. When you really take a long view at this piece you can see two diametrically opposed sides, one side seems like the old country, warm and inviting but its perspective completely skewed, the buildings are tilted backwards, to the left of the viewer, as if they are falling down away from the center of the street after being pushed by the school yard bully, which in this case is the large black iron fisted like building on the right side of the portrait. Here we see power in action, we feel the dominance and the menace this building is bringing with it. This represents to me the uncertainty of the time; the war had just ended, Europe was in tatters, their economy was failing, and the world economy on the precipice of collapse.
If I was to guess Tanguy’s intention in this piece, I would say that this black building could be seen as the rise of Communism in the Eastern parts of Europe and some locations in East Asia. This totalitarian idea of a part for all represented by this black emotionless building whose windows equal tiny vents in the uppermost portion of the structure. Even the door is almost completely unnoticeable when you first look at it, your eye is only drawn there thanks to the flag which flies in arrogant glory of the government power it represents. The black building completely dwarfs the opposite side of the street, towering over the buildings that are falling backwards. This is a fantastic example of Surrealism, especially considering it is not a work done by someone named Dali.
Speaking of which, I will now shift focus to Dali because any conversation about the Surrealist movement would be null and void if not at least discussing his contributions. Dali, a Spanish born painter, was the master of Surrealism. His works defined the movement, essentially making all others after him an afterthought. For the purposes of this essay I will only focus on two of his works, both depicting Jesus Christ, however I have only seen one in person. Crucifixion Corpus Hypercubus (Figure 1.2), is the painting of Dali’s that we saw at the Met, depicting Jesus Christ hanging on a three-dimensional cubed shaped cross. The other work, one that I only recently viewed via a classmate’s excellent oral presentation, is titled Christ of St. John The Cross (Figure 1.3).
Both of these works depict Jesus Christ hanging on the cross but each represents the event via diverse methods and I believe says something different about the figure of Christ as a symbol as well as the man Dali was. The Crucifixion, painted in 1954 oil on canvas with dimensions 76 1/2 x 48 3/4in., is a post WWII depiction of Christ which is very sexual in nature. As we know Dali was a sexual deviant and I believe some of this behavior leaked into his work. The idea of sexual deviance which is not something we attribute to the idea of Christ is on exhibit in this work. Here Christ is depicted as a beautiful, young man, perhaps an analogue of Dali himself (as he has also painted is wife in the bottom of the frame). There are no scars on this Christ, no blood stains, he simply hangs on a perfect geometrical depiction of the cross hovering above a checkerboard. Again this work like most Surrealist pieces is chromaphobic, painted with heavy blacks, thick shadows and muted sandy hues which actually give the figures some depth. In the background you can see cliffs, bathed completely in those shadows but with a glimmer of light peaking through the horizon, another motif of Dali’s works, these cliffs are near his California home and are seen in other Dali works such as the Persistence of Memory.
The Crucifixion is a beautiful display of Christ hanging almost in defiance of the way he was depicted by the early Renaissance painters, who more than captured the brutality and suffering Christ is known to have endured, according to religious doctrine. This painting is a display of Dali’s passions at the time, his wife obviously, his ideas about his sexuality if you consider Christ to be an analogue for himself, as he hangs nearly nude, vulnerable for all to see in a small barely there loin cloth. This painting also shows Dali’s penchant for not just the Surrealist ideal of the dream world but also his own personal curiosities for Catholicism and Mathematics. I love this piece, the essence of it, this approach to the three dimensional figure as well as the thought it can provoke, however as powerful as this piece is, the other painting of Christ hanging on the cross is even more thought provoking especially if you take into account everything we know from history, religion, and paranoia.
Christ of the Saint John of the Cross is a very different view of the same event, again dreamlike in its essence this work really spurned on a thought provoking discussion in class last week, and hit me personally as I have not been able to get it out of my mind since. This was painted 1951, again right after World War II ended and directly in the middle of the Red Scare, where fear of Communism was sweeping across America and its Democratic compatriots. Here we see Christ from an angle we have never seen before the viewer seeing him hanging birds eye. Many of the colors here remain the same as the ones used in the Crucifixion, with blacks completely engulfing the cross, giving Christ’s image even more depth as he sun bathing in a soft yellow hue representing light; which reminiscent of the type used by the impressionists (like Rembrandt) to give their subject’s faces a focal color. He hangs above the world, not completely in heaven, the clouds eerily reminiscent of a freshly scattered mushroom cloud remaining active after a nuclear explosion. This work again is a perfect example of Surrealism, Dali taking many of the fears of the time, post WWII and the rise of the Nuclear Age where the threat of the A bomb being dropped on the United States was as real as ever.
Christ hangs over us watches this world he gave his life for and almost looks disgusted with it as if he was saying “this is what I suffered and sacrificed for?” This piece is very political in nature if viewed in that way but from a purely objective point of view it once again shows Dali’s strange interest in Catholicism and religious symbolism. Dali cheats as a painter though, in two places. One he shows a long shadow between Christ’s head and the Cross, but for that shadow to be present the light source used must come from a different angle than we see. The main source of light is really above Christ’s head, the idea of heaven opening up perhaps? This light when applied to Christ’s body cannot possibly make that shadow. The second cheat is that same light source above Christ, which is to say what is it? Why is there and where are the realistic shadows? Now I say this is a cheat but really in Surrealism I don’t believe there can be such a thing. Surrealism is about the blurred line between reality and the dream world, and in a dream anything can happen, the world is fluid the idea of lights, darks, shadows are all skewed. This work fascinates me, and if it was not for the fact that it currently resides in Glasgow, Scotland I would gladly see it personally.
When you compare the style of Surrealism to the something like Minimalism you see a completely different picture and different aesthetic tastes in art movements. Where Surrealism came out of post WWI expressionism in all forms of media from poetry, writing, film and art, Minimalism came directly from the Cold War Era and free love, social activism years of the 1960s to the mid 1970’s. Minimalism was an American movement born from Constructivism. The art created by the Minimalist artist is really about breaking down the concept of art to the bare bones essentials, removing the plastic flavor, the surrounding borders and letting people just experience the work as a living breathing abstraction of reality, allowing the observer to determine how the piece truly makes them feel.
From Art Speak:
Minimalist painting eliminated REPRESENTATIONAL imagery and illusionistic pictorial space in favor of a single unified image, often composed of smaller parts arranged according to a grid. (116)
Minimalist peeled away the layers of pretention and allowed the artist to express him or herself with purely animalistic simplicity. Most of the common Minimalist work was in the form of sculptures which as I said take on a three dimensionality, allowing the viewer to take part in the experience of seeing the work as a living breathing entity andinteract with it allowing it to become a different experience.
The first Minimalist I’ll examine is the work of Richard Serra featured at MoMA. Richard Serra’s Cutting Device Basic Plate Measure (Figure 2.1) caught my eye at first because it looks like a construction site. This work was made in 1964 out of lead, wood, stone, and steel, While not a true Environmental Sculpture it can be considered a quasi hybrid, since it’s not large enough to be physically entered but it’s positioning on the floor allows the spectator to become a three dimensional object moving along with the piece, rotating your position so that you never truly see the work the same way over and over again.
Personally I found this to be remarkable for the simple fact that at face value it’s so unremarkable. All this time later this is one of the only features that have stuck out in my mind vividly from our first visit to MoMA and objectively speaking I am not a fan of this movement but I understand its place in art history and a work such as Serra’s allows me to understand the merits it has. Serra’s work epitomizes the theme of Minimalism and can be used an exact definition of what the style of Minimalism is. Personally it captures the fundamental nature of the movement even if you are like me and do not completely agree with its classification as “fine art.”
Another work by a Minimalist that we saw at MoMA was John McCracken’s The Absolutely Naked Fragrance (Figure 2.2) completed in 1967. Plywood covered with fiberglass and resin, 10′ 1/4″ x 20 3/8″ x 3 1/4″. Unlike Surrealism this piece showcases how Minimalist embraced bright chromaphilic colors. This piece is essentially a long plywood piece of wood that stretches from floor to ceiling painting completely in bright, almost prep school style pink. From MoMA’s website they have a brief description of this piece as well as a quote from McCracken on its meaning for him:
The work’s interaction with both the floor and wall is meant to call attention to the space occupied in the gallery by both viewer and object. “I see the plank as existing between two worlds,” McCracken has said, “the floor representing the physical world of standing objects, trees, cars, buildings, human bodies, and everything, and the wall representing the world of the imagination, illusionistic painting space, human mental space, and all that.” (MoMA.org)
For me this means nothing. In all honestly what this piece represents to me is a piece of wood sitting off the floor leaning against a wall. It could be art or the removal of some type of outdoor home fixture in Barbie’s dream house. It’s a fantastic depiction of the Minimalist style but it also proves furthers my distaste for the movement as art style since it holds absolutely no artistic merit. It represents nothing. It is nothing, and I guess in a sense that is purpose of Minimalism but it is a purpose I object to.
When you compare the Minimalist vs. the Surrealist you see two uniquely different styles diametrically opposed. Surrealists painted as a form of expressionism, articulating their inner most feelings of horror, dread, fear, and paranoia. Minimalism though was all about breaking down art; it’s almost emotionless, empty finding the core of a work and viewing that as its simple essence. Surrealists were Chromaphobic, color was the enemy of the fear and the gray pastel world they lived in where as the Minimalist enjoyed bright lively colors, their one true expression while stripping away the layers that engulf typical art work. Each style is so unique and so different from one another, yet on a quick tour of MoMA and you can find both are merely a few galleries apart.
Surrealism and Minimalism are both considered to be works of modern art, hence why each are represented at MoMA. Both styles exhibit personal views and behaviors of their generations, the Minimalist living in a world pushed the brink of world war but never able to cross it, a time of greater freedom for civil and feminine rights, and age of flowery sexual expression. The Surrealism movement was a cold, emotional example of human fear being brought to the surface, a living breathing manifestation of the dream world which is still an influence today via all forms of artistic media. Surrealism and Minimalism are both children of the 20th Century but their relationship to one another ends with their shared millennium mother as each style is so unique from one another. Both are artistic styles with their own merits even if in my opinion only one can truly be considered “fine art.”
Artistic Works Gallery:
Atkins, Robert. Art Speak. 2nd Ed. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers. 1997.
Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Realtion Books. 2000.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Books. 1972.
“Collections.” TheMetropolitianMuseumofArt.org The Metropolitan
Museum of Art. Web. 23 May. 2012
Dali, Salvador. The Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus). Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dali, Salvador. Christ of Saint John of the Cross. 1951. http://www.patheos.com. Web. 29.
Feldman, Edmund Burke. Practical Art Criticism. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1994
Hughes, Robert. Nothing if Not Critical. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc. 1987.
McCracken, John. The Absolutely Naked Fragrance. MoMA
Serra, Richard. Cutting Device Basic Plate Measure. MoMA
Tanguy, Yves. Rue de La Santa. MoMA
“The Collection.” Moma.org. Museum of Modern Art. Web. 23