After Kurt Seligmann (1900 – 1962) settled in Paris, his sinister, biomorphic compositions gained the attention of Andre Breton, who invited him to join the Surrealist group in 1937. With the outbreak of World War II, Seligmann became the first Surrealist to arrive in New York, and he was instrumental in the emigration of most of the movement’s leading figures. Transformed by contact with new cultures, Seligmann’s work continued to evolve, and as the Surrealist’s acknowledged expert on magic, he infused his paintings with mythology and esotericism. Indeed, the year he made this work, Magnetic Mountain(1948) he published The Mirror of Magic, a history of the occult. The winding forms and mystical quality of this canvas would influence a new generation of American artists, including his student, Robert Motherswell.
He Did What He Wanted (1927) was included in Yves Tanguy’s first solo show at the Galerie Surréaliste, Paris, in 1927. Before the exhibition opened, Tanguy and Surrealist leader André Breton invented titles for the paintings based on a 1922 book called Treaty of Metapsychics by Charles Richet, a Nobel Prize winner for medicine, which explored mysterious forms of cognition — a subject that resonated with the Surrealist interest in the unconscious and in dream states. The title of this work refers to a phenomenon Richet describes in which hypnotized subjects refuse to obey external commands. In early works, such as this one, Tanguy defined his signature style: a vaguely geological, otherworldly terrain strewn with symbols and enigmatic creatures. His biomorphic forms, rendered with a painterly treatment of surface that approaches abstraction, had a profound impact on postwar painters such as Matta and Arshile Gorky.
According to artist Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) relates to “A period of 6 months passed in the presence of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night — a very fragile palace of matches. At the least false movement a whole section would collapse. We always began it again.”
The woman in question is often identified as one of Giacometti’s lovers, known only by her first name, Denise. In the summer of 1933, Giacometti told Andre Breton, the leader of the surrealist movement, that he was incapable of making anything that did not have something to do with her.
This Surrealist object was inspired by a conversation between Meret Oppenheim, (Swiss, 1913–1985) and artists Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a Paris cafe. Admiring Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet, Picasso remarked that one could cover anything with fur, to which she replied, “Even this cup and saucer.” Soon after, when asked by André Breton, Surrealism’s leader, to participate in the first Surrealist exhibition dedicated to objects, Oppenheim bought a teacup, saucer, and spoon at a department store and covered them with the fur of a Chinese gazelle. In so doing, she transformed genteel items traditionally associated with feminine decorum into sensuous, sexually punning tableware.
Fur-Covered Cup, Saucer and Spoon (1936) is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.