Parallel with the revolution in form effected by the modern movements occurred a revolution in imagery. Just as there was a liberation from naturalism in form and design, there was also a liberation from the naturalistic representation of actualities. The objective facts of the external world were transformed by the subjective fantasies of the inner world of the mind. We all know the inexhaustible profusion of imagery which rises to consciousness in dreams and half-waking states--a creative activity of the subconscious mind, without conscious volition. Such imagery, embodying our deepest desires and conflicts, has an affinity to art; as Nietzsche said, in his dreams every man is an artist. This hidden world, drawn on by much great art of the past, had been lost in nineteenth-century naturalism, and its rediscovery has been one of the fundamental achievements of our century.
In Europe the process began almost simultaneously with modernism, and was allied with modern psychology, particularly the exploration of the subconscious through psychoanalysis. Then in 1916 came Dada, product of the disillusion and despair of war and postwar years: an iconoclastic assault on all accepted values. Though primarily destructive, its antirationalism nevertheless sowed seeds for the future. Out of it grew surrealism, a serious, systematic movement using the subconscious as the fundamental source of art.
One root of Dada had originated about 1915 in New York, where Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia lived during the war, and where together with the American Man Ray they launched a protoDada movement. But Dada remained an exotic; the United States was not as shattered by the war as Europe, nor did we have the burden of a great artistic past to revolt against. Similarly, surrealism, founded in Paris in 1924, did not become acclimated here until several of its European leaders arrived in the late 1930's.
But long before that, spontaneous native manifestations of the trend toward free imagery had appeared. These Americans were not connected with the highly organized movements of Dada and surrealism; they were individuals, unconnected even with one another. They had neither Dada's destructive motivations nor surrealism's link with psychoanalysis; they were responding to the general spirit of the time. There was Eilshemius, with his naïve fantasies, first idyllic, then tragic. There were Charles Burchfield's watercolors of 1916 to 1918. There was Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, who by the middle 1920's was creating his compelling images of age and dissolution, with their intense macabre realism. There was Yasuo Kuniyoshi, whose work from 1921 on revealed an instinctive fantasy, basically Oriental in its fascination with all forms of organic life, down to the most minute--human beings and cows, snakes and birds, weeds and flowers--pictured in free, dreamlike associations, and with clear sexual symbolism.
Equally individualist, Edwin Dickinson presents the phenomenon of a highly skilled traditionalist whose subject matter is far removed from academic conventions: a visionary world of ambiguous figtires and objects. He avoids verbal explanations, but of The Fossil Hunters he has said that it resulted from his interest in certain fossils he had himself found. This motif seems revealed in the whole concept: figures lying on rocks in trancelike sleep, beneath folds of drapery partly pulled back to disclose them, and enshrouded in darkness pierced by dim light as in a cave. The sense of immobility and silence, of a buried world, is intensified by the deep night colors. But under the subdued light the forms are completely clear, painted with sure command, sculptural largeness, and rich substance. Building his pictures slowly, Dickinson has produced only a few on the scale of The Fossil Hunters, which took a hundred and ninety-two sessions extending over two years.