Contrary to its title, this intriguing and enigmatic self-portrait, The Artist Looks at Nature (1943), shows the artist ignoring the brightly lit landscape in front of him. Nature, as depicted here, is surreal, with inexplicable discrepancies of scale and perspective. The fields suggest the terrain around Sheeler’s Connecticut home, while the massive walls recall Hoover Dam, which the artist photographed in 1939. In the painting, Sheeler works intently on a monochromatic drawing of an antiquated stove, which is based on a photograph he took in 1917. Yet despite these deliberate references to his own work, the painting’s meaning is ambiguous. Perhaps Sheeler wished to evoke the many vistas open to an artist, the literal and figurative landscapes of the mind.
Giorgio de Chirico’s work represents an unexpected form of classicism in early avant-garde painting. The Philosopher’s Conquest (1913 – 14), one of six in a series, combines a Mediterranean cityscape with familiar still-life objects that appear in many of the artists’s paintings, including a classical arcade, a cannon and cannonballs, a clock, chimney and a train. The stage set is an Italian piazza, virtually deserted except for the menacing, shadowy figures outside the edge of the scene. Rendered with a matter-of-fact — though intentionally crude — precision, de Chirico’s paintings seem rife with meaning but are resolutely enigmatic. Indeed, by juxtaposing incongruous objects, he sought to produce a metaphysical art, one that “resembles . . . the restlessness of myth.”
This illuminated diorama-like construction contains eleven, parallel painted-glass panels. Both pictorial illusion and actual depth produce a sense of receding space, from the proscenium arch of the front panel to the sky on the furthest, with various bizarre objects, figures and scenarios sandwiched in- between.
This unusual work may have been Dali’s attempt to recreate “a large, square box” he had seen as a boy: “It was a kind of optical theater, which provided me with the greatest measure of illusion of my childhood. I have never been able to determine or reconstruct in my mind exactly what art was like.
Salvador Dali’s The Little Theater (1934) Was Photographed in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.
The first of dozens of boxes Joseph Cornell made in honor of famous ballerinas, Taglioni’s Jewel Casket (year) pays homage to Marie Taglioni, an acclaimed 19th-century Italian dancer. According to legend, Taglioni kept an imitation ice cube in her jewelry box to commemorate dancing in the snow at the behest of a Russian highwayman (a traveling thief). The box is infused with erotic undertones — both in the tactile nature of the materials (glass cubes, velvet, and a rhinestone necklace purchased at a Woolworth’s dime store in New York) and in the incident itself, in which Taglioni reportedly performed on an animal skin placed across the snowy road.
Although he spent his entire artistic career living and working in Queens, New York, Cornell drew inspiration from the European art he saw at the Julien Levy Gallery — the first in the United States to exhibit Surrealist work — and he often inspired the European Surrealists in turn. In a press release for a 1939 exhibition of Cornell’s work at the Levy Gallery, Salvador Dalí heralded it as “the only truly Surrealist work to be found in America.”
Photographed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Surrealism was identified by its proponents as a way of reuniting the conscious and unconscious realms of experience so that the world of dream and fantasy could be joined to the everyday rational world — or what one critic called “an absolute reality, a surreality.” René Magritte accomplished this by merging dreamlike imagery and naturalistic detail, as in his iconic canvas Time Transfixed (1938). He also worked carefully on his titles, and he was ultimately unhappy with the English translation of the title of this painting. The original French, La Durée Poignardée, literally means “ongoing time stabbed by a dagger.” Magritte hoped that when his patron Edward James purchased this painting, he would install it at the bottom of his staircase so that the train would “stab” guests on their way to James‘ ballroom. In an ironic twist, he hung it over his fireplace, to Magritte’s great dissatisfaction.
One of Surrealism’s most important patrons, Edward James, was a willing collaborator whose sense of play initiated commissions for his homes from such artists as Salvador Dali and Leonora Carrington. James was impressed with the work of Rene Magritte, which was displayed in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, so he invited the artist to paint three decorative canvases for the ballroom of his London home. Magritte painted On The Threshold of Liberty during his stay there in 1937, as the centerpiece of the three works. Originally set behind two-way mirrors, the works would become visible when James changed the lighting, provoking what he called “a profound sensation.”
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.
In line with other surrealist artists’ engagements with the ready-made, Wilhelm Freddie’sobjets-mannequins, such as Sex-Paralysappeal (1936, shown here as a 1961 artist’s copy) were scandalous in their day for their explicit references to sex. With a prominently painted penis, both the 1936 and 1961 versions of this work were confiscated by the Danish authorities soon after they were exhibited.
In Sex-Paralysappeal, Freddie transforms the classical bust into a surrealist object by treating it like a mannequin head and adorning it with various accessories. Placing the head inside an incomplete picture frame, he indicates the desire for the image to become dimensional, more lifelike. The work’s composite title vacillates between sex appeal and paralysis, amplifying the incongruity of its constituent elements.
Photographed in The Met Breuer as Part of the Exhibit, Like Life: Sculpture Color and The Body.
The diminutive nude female figure in the upper right area of The Nymph Echo (1936) is often identified as Echo — a mountain nymph of Greek Mythology. Far more dominant, however, is the monstrous green vegetal creatures — or is it creatures — in the foreground. This wildly imaginative hydra-headed creation may represent Narcissus, whom Echo loved. Famously, Narcissus fell in love with his own beautiful image reflected in a pool and wasted away from unsatisfied desire, whereupon he was transformed into a flower. The various delicately colored floral effusions in Ernst’s painting recall this moment of metamorphosis.
Trains play a prominent, reoccurring role in Paul Delvaux’s surrealist imagery, including this eerie depiction of two locomotives leaving their terminus at night. Unpopulated, the composition of Small Train Station at Night (1959) invites the viewer to imagine inhabiting the space, this evoking a sense of loneliness and vulnerability. An unnaturally large moon casts the scene in a cool, still light that produces protracted, ominous shadows. These features betray Delvaux’s debt to Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, who likewise explored the train as both subject and symbol in his work.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.