Drawing Surrealism

“Surrealism is destructive,” explained Salvador Dali, an equally interesting raconteur as he was a painter. “But it destroys only what it considers to be out shackles limiting our vision.”
One way to understand surrealism is that it is the artistic incarnation of our deepest mysteries. There is logic in that understanding, realism also, but, most of all, and here is where the movement really stamps its authority, there is the most vivid and unusual reproductions of a frightening and enchanting world.
A new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York is attempting to survey the importance of drawing in the development of one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating artistic philosophies.
While the performance of drawing is very direct in transferring concepts from the vaults of the mind to the physical world, in studies of surrealism, the medium has not received the same sort of critical examination afforded to painting and sculpture. Additionally, surrealist drawings have tended not to feature in exhibitions.
This show, which has been organised in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is the first real and authoritative attempt to redress this imbalance. Made up of over 165 drawings by 70 artists from all around the world, the exhibition details how drawing contributed to the emergence and development of surrealism.
One approach to this is “pure psychic automatism”, explained by the movement’s founder André Breton as being the way in which one is able to express thought without any control “exercised by reason, beyond any aesthetic or moral control”. With a pencil in hand, the artist rests the nib on the piece of paper and simply lets go, absent of any definable impulse or idea.
Breton’s fellow artist André Masson, an extremely loyal discipline of surrealism, initially believed that for automatic drawing to really succeed in capturing the purest part of the untapped psyche, there had to conflictingly be some control – the act should be fast so that it is one step ahead of the conscious.
While this is a reasonable deduction, he later recognised it as restrictive. Although to be a purist is definitely an admirable quality with many advantages, to really appreciate the subconscious is to also let the conscious at least bring some conflict into an idea.
It is this scheme, which Masson later embraced, that is really at the heart of surrealism. Without some form of awareness, one cannot, for example, establish that there is a subliminal part of us shaping our actions.
The founding father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud proposed as much with his Id, ego and super-ego understanding of the human psyche. Every construct wants to have its day in the sun. None ever does, and it is this jostling that makes us tick.
Everything about the movement was pioneering, and surrealism marked a real breakthrough in not only how artists created works of art, but explored the reasons behind it. It sought to actively realise myth through observable imagery, and drawing, often the foundation to many works of art, was influential in making this so.
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” suggested Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. Surrealism was charged with this task and delivered more than was ever thought possible.
Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York runs until April 21st 2013.
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