I used to hate-hate-hate Surrealism. A bunch of navel-gazing process-oriented half-baked Freudian gobbledigook was how I described it. But then I took a semester in Paris in 2002, and the city was going through a maddening six month long celebration of Surrealism. Every museum was doing retrospectives and introspectives and lack-of-perspectives: I couldn’t think clearly with all the Oedipus complexes invading my very soul! I was annoyed. Like the time I visited DC and the National Portrait Gallery was closed, I felt stupid for not having planned my visit better.
And then, to make matters worse (better?), I was in mime class one day, and my new-found teacher/guru/god, Ella, was (as usual) dispensing pearls of wisdom with withering clarity, when, quite suddenly, she asked what the single most important cultural innovation had been in the twentieth century. The answer shocked me more than the so-assertive question: it was Surrealism. It had changed all the rules. Everything was permissible now because of it.
And it’s true. Once Ella pointed it out to me, I couldn’t stop seeing the influences of Surrealism in every aspect of society. For one thing, modern advertising often uses juxtaposition, the Surreal recombination of the everyday, to put products in a consumable light.
She’d convinced me: I would put away my natural dislike and take a closer look at this movement. I started with René Magritte’s work. Ever since I’d seen The Rape in an art history lecture, I had had a bit of a crush on the Belgian painter. He may have been a Surrealist, but this piece persuaded me that he was something more than his colleagues.
So I took special care when I came across Magritte’s work and I began looking into his theories about art. He said that “the real value of art is in its ability to provide revelations which free the viewer.” He grounded his work in the everyday things which he painted, but, by forcing those familiar objects to interact in strange or fantastic ways, he lent the commonplace an aura of mystery.* He made people look again at the world around them.
I could see that in his work, and I wasn’t the only one. Magritte is the best known of the Surrealists. In the US (specifically in Texas), where he earned his first real successes, he’s even better known than Salvador Dali. Magritte was actually a little too “pop” for his compatriots—his wide appeal shocked those elitists to their pansy core. Maybe that’s why I like his work so well!
And then, one way or another, I stumbled on Louise Bourgeois’ work. She’s an American artist, but born French, and she has only fairly recently been reclaimed by the land of her birth. Thirteen years Magritte’s junior in life and more like twenty years behind him in her career, Bourgeois doesn’t qualify as a Surrealist proper. She’s just like the rest of us, exploring the territory the Surrealists opened up. Something in this sculptor/printmaker’s work got to me, starting with her drawings (like the one above). I devoured her images and writings** along with Magritte’s.
And that’s when I started to notice this funny little thing about these two completely unrelated artists.
Their work was surprisingly similar.
They both worshipped at the church of juxtaposition.
Juxtapostion is their work.
And I couldn’t help but juxtapose the two of them!
It was an odd sort of match since the way that they talked about their work was so different.
Their influences and reasoning couldn’t have been more disparate in some ways, yet here they were producing eerily complementary work. (Note the title of Bourgeois’ piece.)
I was discovering all sorts of things in the space between their oeuvres. But, just as their visuals set my imagination on fire, their writings—the words in and about the work—were ruining it for me.
I became convinced that words and images were not a volatile mix: they were a cancellation combination. These artists’ words were stopping me from seeing their art as I wanted to see it.
I couldn’t get the opposite things they said out of my head, so their works stopped talking to each other for me.
I ended up writing a paper about this journey of mine for my art theory class at Paris VII.
And I expanded on the paper the next year for my senior thesis at Willamette University.
By the time I graduated from college, I was near-rabid about how words had no place in visual art, how they didn’t allow viewers to experience the work their own way but instead forced an interpretation on them. As Magritte himself put it, “if you must understand poetic images, you should know what it means to understand the work. It is to absorb the image or to take it into yourself—and not to explain it.”* I was so very tired of all the explaining and rationalizing.
In other words, just five years ago, I was adamant that an artist’s words harm her-his work, but, while I may still have some issues with words, I now blog! What gives?
I could try to rationalize it, to explain it, but that would be silly! Instead, I’ll leave it at this:
This is a painting I completed six months before leaving for Paris in 2002.
And this is a painting I finished just a few weeks ago.
I reserve the right to grow, change, and juxtapose.
*From René Magritte’s Écrits Complets (or Complete Writings), edited and annotated by André Blavier (published by Flammarion, Paris, 2001).
**Louise Bourgeois’ Deconstruction Of The Father, Reconstruction Of The Father: Writings And Interviews 1923-1997, edited and with complete texts by Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (published by the MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000).
***Translations of quotations and titles are my own.
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