The concept of dark surrealist art has been a major aspect of surrealist work from its very beginnings. Surrealism (or “above realism”) has its dark roots in the aftermath of World War I and the Dadaist’s response.
Its outlook was an anti-rational, apolitical and social response to a world that allowed a horrific disregard for humanity. Whatever the reason surrealists rejected any degree of rational explanation. Instead they embraced chaos and unconscious desires, and Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.
Surrealists believed that the adoption of these principles would help in discovering the true world – through the unconscious mind and interpretation of dreams. So what does this mean for dark surrealist art?
Psychoanalytic desires and unconscious thought was central to producing surrealist art. Chaos, unconscious desires, the interpretations of dreams, our repressed desires were important to their works. These superior thoughts and processes trumped all rational thought.
No longer shackled by society and its rules, surrealists were free to tap into their unconscious and paint whatever floated to the top. The unconscious meant that artists could tap into the sexual and violent thoughts and desires that were otherwise repressed.
This often meant that works had dark surrealist themes, and overtones, in the artworks of these early painters.
Freud’s interpretation of Dreams influenced surrealist work and still does. It legitimized the use of dreams and the secrets our unconscious hold. Surrealist artists painted dark themes of fantasy, violence and desire. As a result, artists painted works that forced viewers to think, without providing them with a definitive answer.
Characteristics to look for:
Certain characteristics can be found in almost all surrealist work. When engaging with dark surrealist art always consider their use of:
- Distorted realities
- Unexpected juxtapositions – objects at odds with others
- Elements of surprise – objects that don’t normally align or discovery of things you don’t automatically see.
- Dream like imagery – depiction of the world of dreams, nightmares and desires and imagination
- Magical and instinctive elements including backgrounds and objects within the space
- Realistic details combine in very odd and unrealistic ways
- A blending of fleeting images for the unconscious to deliver a fantasy, just like a dream
- Illogical uncensored thought
- Use of spontaneous techniques like automatic drawing, frottage and decalcomania (folding painted paper surface then unfolding after adding pressure)
Look also for some of the following devices:
- Levitation – suspended objects in the space
- Changing scale – objects presented in different scales, not possible in the rational world
- Transparency – seeing through particular objects
- Repetition – repeating an object in interesting ways within the space
- Juxtaposed objects – objects placed in interesting and contrasting ways
- Chance objects – elements that have no real link to each other
- A reversal of natural laws – promoting a lack of rationality
Dark surrealist themes can be found in the artists’ dreamscapes where their memories, fears and neuroses go berserk across the canvas. Looking at the great artists of the 1920s and 1930s, you can find traces of many of their fears and anxieties.
Dali had pathological fears he carried from his childhood. He feared grasshoppers and blushing. He was profoundly fascinated with erotic fantasies, death and decay, feeding into Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Evidence in his work:
Paintings infested with insects that terrified him…
- Ants-black and swarming are frequently used by Dali and often signify decay and his fear of death
- Floating (levitating) butterflies
- Oversized grasshoppers – reflecting his childhood when children threw them at him for fun because of his fear.
- Use of crustaceans signify protection – tough outer shell protecting the soft, vulnerable inside (lobster and hermit crabs)
- Eggs – hard shell also signifies protection, but also seen as cracked and cooking.
- The Vagina dentate – his fear of castration during intercourse (explains his aversion to sex but obsession with masturbation)
Dali was both scared, yet compelled, by death. The skull acted as a symbol for human mortality in his and other dark surrealist artworks.
In this work Dali uses his “paranoic-critical-method” to appeal to his hero, Sigmund Freud. This “dual concept” painting has no rational link between the images. Dali exploits this to show how the irrationality of the brain spontaneously links the skull and ballerina.
The result – an ambiguous image that can now be interpreted in multiple ways. Dark surrealist features include: levitation of the skull, element of surprise, unrealistic scales, hidden images.
War had a major impact in the first half of the 20th century –with two world wars and the Spanish Civil War, death was all around. In this painting completed in 1940, the theme provides dark surrealist content.
The main focus is the horrible face of war, captured in the horror of this painting. The skull presents a view of war against an unfertile landscape. Its withered, miserable appearance, suggests a corpse in extreme misery.
The repetitious identical skulls that make up the eye sockets and mouth, implies a doomed sense of infinity. Surrounding it are serpents, biting at the skull and its abject misery. Key surrealist features: repetition of images (the skull), dream-like background, cooler colours, unrealistic scale,
Magritte’s work is seen as lighter than other surrealists’ work. However, this is a simplistic overview and he too has a darker surrealist side lurking. Magritte watched as his mother was fished from the river after she committed suicide when he was just 14.
He remembered her dress floating over her head and several works include a cloth that covers his subjects’ heads.
Works like Le Voil, (The Rape), would knock Magritte’s bowler hat fans from their safety perch, given its explicit subject matter and form. Other darker surrealist works include murder scenes that hint at violence and perversity.
Two of his works that present this darker, more violent side of humanity, are The Menacing Assassin and The Titanic Days. Dark surrealist art explores these themes, exposing extreme and repressed desires.
L’Assassin Menacé / The Menacing Assassin
This is s sinister scene that has at its centre, a dead naked woman, strewn across a bed, while the murderer packs up ready to flee the scene. Men stand outside ready to capture.
This is a banal scene, but its perversity is a rare glimpse into the mind of the artist.
The Titanic Days
A disturbingly dark painting. The Titanic Days is erotically charged, violent and disturbing. The scene depicts a man attacking a woman, an attempted rape. His hand forcefully pushes against her leg, and the terror of fear grips the female who is pressed up against her attacker’s shoulder.
André Masson was traumatised by what he witnessed during WWI, WWII and the Spanish Civil War. He was injured himself, and this left an indelible mark on the man, who used his art to express his disdain for the absolute violence he witnessed.
While his palate is bright and full of colour, this painting explores dark surrealist themes.
Ernst’s use of decalcomania highlights the devastation of war, scorched worlds, rotting corpses and the remains of people from the scourges of war. In The Eye of Silence, the distant horizon represents the lost world the subject grieves for.
The irony of the “great European New Order” Hitler promised is not lost here. Calcified bodies anchored to barbarous landscapes places this work in the realm of dark surrealist art.
Today there are still many examples of surrealism being produced across a range of mediums. Here are a selection of painting and digitally rendered dark surrealist artworks. Under each caption are Surrealist characteristics found in the work.
(Transparency, element of surprise, reversal of natural laws, juxtaposition, a contradiction in images, reassertion of Dali’s skulls.)
(Cooler colours, dreamlike, fantasy landscape, hyperrealist imagery/photography, exaggeration, free uncensored thought)
(Repetition, the egg shell as protection (albeit cracked), cooler colours, dream-like landscape, levitating objects, unrealistic scales)
(The element of surprise, Dali skull motif, darker cooler colours, juxtaposition of the skull with head shot, photo=hyperreal)
(Juxtaposition of images, repeated image, dreamlike imagery, element of surprise, free uncensored thought, a contradiction in images)
(Dream-like subject matter, repetition of images, no guidelines, cooler colours, element of surprise)
(Juxtaposition of objects, dream-like landscapes, unrealistic scales, contradictions in images, element of surprise and uncensored thought)
(Levitation, cooler colours, contradiction of images, element of surprise, reversal of natural laws, repetition of an image, dreamy landscape)
(Levitation, hidden images, elements of surprise, dream landscape, reversal of natural laws, uncensored thought, juxtaposition)
(Cooler colours, juxtaposition, element of surprise, contradiction in imagery)
(Levitation, transparency, dream-like fantasy backgrounds, repeated image, cooler colours, hyperreal, element of surprise, water fall from painting into room with the floating boat, reversal of natural law)