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Surrealism in America During the 1930s and 1940s: Selections from the Penny and Elton Yasuna Collection

November 23, 1999 - March 12, 2000


American art arrived on the international scene during this little-studied, yet pivotal period. Influenced significantly by the metamorphic movement of European Surrealism, American artists including Joseph Cornell, Man Ray (Emanuel Rudnitsky), Alexander Calder, and Dorothea Tanning played an important role in defining a new American avant garde. Their work, along with that of 50 other artists, is featured in this unique exhibition that explores American Surrealism and the consequent development of Abstract Expressionism. Works by Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb are included, as are works created by European World War II refugees living in the U.S., such as Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Yves Tanguy and Kurt Seligman. This exhibition is organized by the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Images from top to bottom: Dorothea Tanning, Untitled, 1939; John Atherton, Invasions of Heads, 1941)

Surrealism: European Origins

Surrealism began in Paris in the early 1920s, as Europe emerged from the devastation of World War I. A group of writers, artists, and filmmakers led by poet André Breton adopted the word surréaliste (meaning, roughly, "super-real") as a label for their artistic activities. Influenced in part by Freud's psychoanalytic theories, the group explored the irrational, unsettling, and marvelous aspects of their surroundings and their own minds. By breaking free of rationality, they sought to create a "revolution in consciousness." Many surrealists were affiliated with communist, socialist and anti-fascist politics, and one important strand of their ideals was the hope that surrealism could lead to social transformation and a world free of nationalistic wars. The group met regularly in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s and sponsored manifestoes, journals, performances, and exhibitions. By the early 1940s, as Nazi aggression spread, most of the surrealists had fled Paris to join thousands of other Europeans in temporary exile. Surrealist activity continued among the émigrés, and resumed in Paris after World War II.

At its inception surrealism focused on literature, but visual arts (including painting, drawing, collage, photography, sculpture, and filmmaking) became an important part of the movement. Surrealists embraced chance; one technique involved trying to write, draw or paint with as little conscious control as possible. They often tried to jolt themselves and their audiences out of everyday modes of perception, using tactics such as combining elements in jarring ways, creating shocking images, or depicting dream-like environments. Visual artists involved with the official Parisian group before the onset of World War II included filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Spanish), Salvador Dali (Spanish), Max Ernst (German), André Masson (French), Joan Miró (Spanish), Man Ray (American), Kay Sage (American), Kurt Seligmann (Swiss) and Yves Tanguy (French).

Surrealism in the United States

Instead of becoming surrealists--at least in the sense that the word would have been used by members of the Parisian group--most American artists put surrealism to idiosyncratic use. This was in part the result of learning about surrealism from a variety of sources, some far removed from the original movement. Beginning in the 1930s, Americans could learn about surrealism in newspapers, lectures, books, journals, and exhibitions. (The movement also inspired more light-hearted treatment in fashion magazines and New Yorker cartoons.) Such sources provided early inspiration for many artists, including James Cornell, Dorothea Tanning and James Guy. (left above: Joseph Cornell, Celestial Navigation, c. 1950s)

Most American artists paid little attention to the European surrealists' revolutionary ideals. Instead, they focused on surrealist techniques, content, and attitudes, and combined bits and pieces of surrealism with other elements to create a wide range of hybrid forms. During the 1930s and early 1940s, for example, some artists combined surrealistic imagery with the representational style and socially conscious subject matter of social realism (which was one of the strongest forces in American art of the time). During the 1940s, Americans were able to learn about surrealism more directly, from surrealists including Breton, Ernst, and Tanguy who sought refuge from war by moving to America. These artists added an infusion of creative energy into their new environments while making important work of their own. Their presence provided New York-based artists such as Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock with a closer knowledge of surrealism, which in turn became an important influence on the development of abstract expressionism. As these wide-ranging examples demonstrate, although surrealism never became a coherent movement in the United States, its influence had a significant impact on American art. (left above: Peter Busa, Original Sin II, 1946)

The Museum will be closed through late fall 1999 for renovation and reinstallation of the permanent collection.

rev. 12/18/99


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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10

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