American Art of Our Century

By Lloyd Goodrich; John I. H. Baur | Go to book overview

17 fantasy and surrealism

Surrealism, born in Paris in 1924, was defined by its founder, André Breton, as "pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing or by other means, the real process of thought. It is thought's dictation, all exercise of reason and every aesthetic or moral preoccupation being absent." It is apparent that surrealism is less a style than it is a program and a method. Its program is a serious search for the material of art in the subconscious mind, in dreams and hallucinations, in the irrational and atavistic layers of being. Its method is the most spontaneous possible transference of the images uncovered to canvas without consideration of form or design (automatism). Surrealism is an artistic parallel to Freud's researches, though on an intuitive rather than analytical level.

Surrealism did not reach America until the early 1930's, and its orthodox followers on this side of the Atlantic have never been numerous. Nevertheless, its influence here has been pervasive, not only on the painters of fantasy discussed in this chapter, but also on many realists and expressionists, who have made use of its irrational juxtapositions, and on the founders of our abstract-expressionist movement, who adopted its theory of automatism. Surrealism has, in short, been an important fructifying force in our mid-century art without ever becoming a very widespread movement in itself.

In Paris, the expatriate American Man Ray was an early adherent to surrealism, while in this country, Joseph Cornell and Federico Castellón were among its first followers. Castellón's The Dark Figure, done in 1938, is an orthodox example of the "realist" phase of the movement, already exploited by Salvador Dali (who arrived in America the same year). Despite its dismemberments and its gruesome distortions of shape, proportion, and texture, Castellón's picture deals with recognizable things and figures, painted with the utmost faithfulness--a method which heightens the sense of vivid hallucination. Its irrationality need hardly be pointed out; it is of the same order that the Comte de Lautréamont (patron saint of the surrealists) had in mind when he wrote "beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table."

The movement gained impetus with the outbreak of World War II, which brought a number of European surrealists to America for asylum: Yves Tanguy, Kurt Seligmann, and Matta in 1939, Max Ernst in 1941. Of these, the first two made their homes here since, and contributed their very different and personal interpretations of surrealism to American art. Seligmann's painting is rooted in an extraordinary fusion of present and past, the spontaneous fantasy of the moment enriched by his memories of fantastic elements in earlier art, particularly the baroque. Of The Balcony, I he wrote: "The impulse to this painting was given when visitors gathered on the terrace of my studio in Sugar Loaf. Seen from below, the upper part of their bodies appeared as silhouettes against the sky, reminding me of the various 'balcony scenes' of the masters of the past, of certain statues on churches in

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American Art of Our Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Part One - 1900-1939 7
  • 1 - American Art in 1900 9
  • 2 - The Whitney Museum of American Art 12
  • 3 - The Eight and Other City Realists 20
  • 4 - Primitives 29
  • 5 - Pioneers of Modernism: Post-Impressionism and Expressionism 32
  • 6 - Pioneers of Modernism: Abstraction 42
  • 7 - Precisionists 50
  • 8 - Sculpture, 1910-1939 58
  • 9 - Representational Painting 67
  • 10 - The American Scene 84
  • 11 - The Social School 98
  • 12 - Fantasy 104
  • 13 - The Trend toward Abstraction 109
  • Part Two - 1940-1960 119
  • 14 - Romantic Realism 121
  • 15 - Traditional Sculpture 133
  • 16 - Precise Realism 138
  • 17 - Fantasy and Surrealism 148
  • 18 - Social Comment 157
  • 19 - Expressionism: Painting 169
  • 20 - Expressionism: Sculpture 190
  • 21 - Semi-Abstraction 197
  • 22 - Free-Form Abstraction: Painting 208
  • 23 - Free-Form Abstraction: Sculpture 230
  • 24 - Formal Abstraction: Painting 239
  • 25 - Formal Abstraction: Sculpture 252
  • Whitney Museum of American Art 265
  • Whitney Museum of American Art 266
  • Catalogue of the Collection 267
  • Index by Mediums 298
  • Exhibitions, 1914-1960 301
  • Books Published by the Whitney Museum of American Art 306
  • Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1956-1960 307
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