2009 legacies of surrealism


legacies of surrealism

Although the Second World War is often taken to signal the decline of surrealism as an avant-garde movement, surrealism continued to exist after the war not only as an organized movement but also as a historically decisive experience. It has continued to influence a broad range of endeavours from critical theory and psychoanalysis to contemporary art and gender studies. This session addresses the contemporaneity of surrealism and invites contributions focused on surrealism’s legacy of as an aspect of our modernity. Topics can range from surrealism’s influence on contemporary art and theory, surrealism as an interlocutor in cultural dialogue, surrealism and the question of gender, to the re-reading of surrealism after modernism, etc.

Convenor: Raymond Spiteri

1. Bernard Smith’s Brave New World (Dr Sheridan Palmer)

Bernard Smith was briefly seduced by Surrealism in 1939-1940, before rejecting it and committing himself to Social Realism, which he saw as a superior visual language with which to support socialist doctrines and contest the pessimism of ‘war-time defeatism’. This paper considers certain literature, political and cultural events that influenced Bernard Smith during this extraordinary period of flux prior to and during the initial phase of World War Two.

Fertile modernist philosophies, art and cultural reverberations were flowing into Australia from Europe and the threat of totalitarian regimes made any formation, either artistic or political more urgent and exciting. Surrealism, in Smith’s view, was ‘the last wave of the romantic vibration’, and appeared to answer a number of his emotional tendencies at a critical time in his life. He had joined the Communist Party, which he considered a ‘secular religion’, and had encountered the 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art. Surrealism’s revolutionary values challenged the old world and the ‘bankruptcy of art-criticism … Cézannism, neo-academism, or machinism’, and embraced the psychoanalytical processes of Freud, as well as deriving its philosophical justifications from Hegel. Aesthetically, Surrealism was an extension of the knowledge of human consciousness as well as the ‘fringes of the subconscious’ and from this period of personal, political and intellectual change Smith produced a number of surreal, expressionist paintings, (recently acquired by the National Gallery of Australia) before abdicating his role as an artist and emerging as one of Australia’s most serious, progressive and aggressive intellectuals.


Dr Sheridan Palmer is professional art curator and an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. She is currently writing the biography of Professor Bernard Smith and her book ‘Centre of the Periphery. Three European Art Historians in Melbourne’, 2008, documents the establishment of art history as an academic discipline in Australia.

2. Dusan Marek, Gibraltar (Zoja Bojic)

The painting Gibraltar by the Czech émigré artist Dusan Marek was created on board the ship, SS Charleton Sovereign, headed for Australia, in August 1948. Upon his arrival in Australia, Dusan Marek first settled in Adelaide from where he moved to Tasmania, then Sydney in 1951, and further afield in 1954. In Adelaide, Dusan and his brother Voitre worked and exhibited together with several of their fellow émigré artists such as Ludwig and Wladyslav Dutkiewicz from Poland and Stanislav Rapotec from Yugoslavia, thus forming the Adelaide cluster of émigré artists of Slav cultural background.

Dusan Marek’s Gibraltar, as well as several other works he created on route to Australia and immediately upon arriving, is perhaps best described as a surrealistic work that blends the European and Prague surrealist iconography with the elements of Czechoslovakian visual arts traditions, folklore and mythology. It is representative of Dusan Marek’s unique visual language imbued in the artist’s cultural memory.

This paper contextualises the work of Dusan Marek with that of émigré artists from Europe working in Adelaide in the late 1940s and early 1950s and also touches on the impact these artists’ presence has had on the evolution of art practices in Australia. However, the primary focus of this examination is the significance for Dusan Marek – and his fellow émigré artists – of experiencing the very process of migration, belonging and re-territorialisation. This examination of the question of cultural transition allows for a deeper understanding of Dusan Marek’s work and the possibility of cross-cultural readings of previously unexplored elements of his work.


Dr Zoja Bojic is a Visiting Fellow, Art History, ANU, and a lecturer, COFA Online, College of Fine Arts, UNSW. Zoja’s books include: Stanislav Rapotec, a Barbarogenius in Australian art, Andrejevic Endowment, Belgrade, 2007; Imaginary homelands, the art of Danila Vassilieff, Andrejevic Endowment, Belgrade, 2007; and Sunce juznog neba, pogled na umetnost u Australiji danas, Srpska knjiga, Ruma, 2003.

3. Journey to the Interior: Russell Drysdale’s Surreal landscapes (Elena Taylor)

While the years of the Second World War were the heyday of Surrealism in Australia, arguably Surrealism’s most significant and longest lasting manifestation was in its transformation of the Australian landscape tradition in the post-war period. In his iconic 1944 to 1950 paintings, Russell Drysdale depicted the Australian outback as a Surreal landscape, employing Surrealist devices and approaches to present the interior of the continent as a strange and desolate place inhabited by unfamiliar beings. While Drysdale did not identify himself as a Surrealist, as an artist coming to maturity in the late 1930s Drysdale was very familiar with Surrealism, his travels to England in 1938-39 bringing him into direct contact with the works of British Surrealists and his friendship with Peter Purves Smith another important influence.

When Drysdale’s outback landscapes were first exhibited they were immediately recognized as a new and authentic vision of Australia, a challenge to the pre-war image of Australia as a pastoral arcadia epitomised in the late works of Arthur Streeton. These works brought Drysdale national recognition and became an important part of the shaping of a new post-war Australian identity, locating the ‘true’ Australia in the arid interior of the continent. This conception of Australia influenced Australian landscape painting throughout the 1950s and still finds resonance in the work of contemporary artists.


Elena Taylor is Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. From 2000 to 2008 she was Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture at the National Gallery of Australia where she curated the exhibitions Australian Surrealism: the Agapitos Wilson Collection and the retrospective Grace Crowley: Being modern.

4. Robert Klippel’s Sculpture Despite Surrealism (Ryan Johnston)

In 1949 the Australian sculptor Robert Klippel arrived in Paris where he was enthusiastically welcomed by André Breton. At the time Breton was busy trying to shore up Surrealism’s depleted status following its dispersal during World War II and, in the months that followed, helped arrange Klippel’s largest solo show to date (at the Gallerie Nina Dausset) while encouraging his participation in the activities of the new Centrale based at Gallerie La Dragonne. Yet for reasons that remain unclear Klippel’s participation in post-war Surrealism was both reluctant and short-lived, and by 1950 he was back in Sydney working as a salesman in order to fund his planned move to the United States later that decade.

While the literature on Klippel has long loosely associated his art with Surrealism, the precise nature of this connection has never been closely examined. In this paper I will retrace the artistic and intellectual origins of Klippel’s best known works, the small junk metal sculptures he produced from the late 1950s, and map their intersection with Surrealism. Focusing specifically on Klippel and Breton’s shared interest in the French writer Raymond Roussel, it will be argued that Klippel’s little sculptures need to be understood on the one hand as a rejoinder to Breton’s attempt to resuscitate Surrealism in a post-Holocaust and post-nuclear world, and on the other as a manifestation of the catastrophic unreason he identified as a void at the very heart of modernity.


Ryan Johnston is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, where he is researching the relationship between mass culture and history in Eduardo Paolozzi’s art of the 1950s. His recent publications include “Marks and Remembrancers: Alison and Peter Smithson’s Architectural Memory” in J. Anderson (ed.), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration, Convergence, Melbourne University Press, 2009; and an article on Robert Klippel forthcoming in the Art Bulletin of Victoria. He is also an editor of e-maj: the electronic Melbourne art journal.

5. Insects, Hybrids and Biomorphic Sculpture: Lenton Parr’s Surrealist Imagination (Jane Eckett)

As Hal Foster has argued, for the surrealists, hybridity was an extension of Freud’s notion of the uncanny, triggered by the trauma of World War One. However, the idea of hybridity has retained its potency for subsequent generations of artists who have continued to explore incongruous couplings of forms, often as a vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction or alarm, prompted by a sense of humanity in profound crisis. This paper will look at the trope of insect and crustacean – or more generically, arthropod – hybrids that appeared in the late 1950s in the sculpture of Lenton Parr (1924-2003). It will consider two key texts regarding insects and hybrids in the surrealist imagination: Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution of 1907, wherein it was argued that humans represented the evolutionary pinnacle of intelligence, whilst insects represented that of instinct, and Roger Caillois’ ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’, which first appeared in the surrealist journal Minotaure, 1935, and prompted a veritable plague of works based on the form of the praying mantis. Whilst Parr was never associated with the surrealists proper, he was, it will be argued, indirectly influenced by their ideas, as transmitted via Henry Moore, in whose studio in Hertfordshire he worked in 1955-6. Parr’s welded steel sculptures of the late 1950s exploited the ambiguities of insect morphology, building on the legacy of the surrealist imagination, and stoked by the fears of genetic mutation, hybridity and uncanniness that were presaged with the advent of the nuclear age.


Jane Eckett is a doctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne, engaged on a PhD thesis titled ‘Modernist Sculpture in Australia: Group of Four, Centre Five and the Europeans’. With degrees in both science and arts from the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney, she worked in Ireland for the past nine years as a director of Whyte’s fine art auctioneers. In 2007 she completed a Masters by research (MLitt) at Trinity College Dublin and since then has tutored in the history of sculpture at University College Dublin.

6. Cancelled

7. Surrealism, Sublimation, Paranoia (Raymond Spiteri)

This paper discusses the role of the psychoanalytical theory of sublimation in the theory and practice of surrealism circa 1930, focusing on the nexus between André Breton, Salvador Dalí and Georges Bataille. Breton’s critique of Bataille in the “Second manifesto of Surrealism” was a response to the threat he perceived to the political position of surrealism in Bataille’s ‘dissident’ surrealism, in that it threatened the carefully maintained rapprochement between creative endeavour and political action that Breton had sought to sustain since 1925; to delineate the relation between creative endeavour and political action Breton advocated that artists and writers explore the Freudian notion of sublimation from inside – that as specialists in the exercise of the imagination, artists and writers were better qualified than doctors or psychiatrists to theorize the character of creative endeavour. Breton’s call was itself a response to Bataille’s writings, particular his demand to explore psychological states without ‘transposition’. The artist who would respond fully to Breton’s call was Dalí, who would initially seem closer to Bataille; yet Dalí answers indirectly in La Femme visible, a short book published in 1930, that represented his first major contribution to surrealist theory. Dalí introduces paranoia as a specific mechanism in La Femme visible – a theme he would develop in his later writings as an alternative to automatism – but at this point paranoia functioned less as an alternative than as a supplement to automatism. Sublimation and paranoia constitute the matrix shared by surrealism and psychoanalysis, and a discussion of their vicissitudes promises to illuminate this moment in surrealism’s history.


Raymond Spiteri is a lecturer in Art History at Victoria University of Wellington. His research addresses the culture and politics of surrealism, and he is currently working on a study of the Breton-Bataille polemic.

8. Surrealism, Science and the Everyday: The Paintings of Remedios Varo (Natalya Lusty)

In Varo’s work material objects and elements from the natural world take on an anthropomorphic dimension, disturbing our everyday sense of order and equilibrium. In her paintings we are confronted with the secret life of things, to borrow Bill Brown’s well worn though aptly surrealist phrase, as they come to be animated by the world of physical laws and imaginative possibility, revealing a kind of hypervisual unconscious. This seems to question not only the privileged status of the subject (as Baudrillard would have it) but also to reveal the poetic possibilities inherent in our relationship to objects and space. Varo’s representation of the prosaic and poetic nature of scientific invention and engineerial fabrication, evident in many of her paintings from the 50s and early 60s, demonstrates a fascination with the dynamic interrelation between art and science and the natural and material worlds. As the daughter of a hydraulic engineer, Varo was early trained in mechanical draftsmanship, and on the many trips with her father, across Africa and Europe, she would have witnessed first hand the hubristic creations of a modernity intent on transforming the physical landscape with its geotechnical mastery. While critics have emphasized the magical or mystical elements in her work, Varo’s fascination with laws of physics, the world of science, the feats of engineering as well as the intricate skill of domestic craft are, I would argue, equally prominent themes in her mature work. In many of these images an inventive modernity clashes with archaic architectural forms, medieval cloaked and hooded figures, and pre-modern scientific laboratories, conveying a powerful sense of Surrealist disjunction and shock. I argue that Varo’s images thus register an attempt to reconcile mysticism and science in a way that refigures the surrealist journey as intimately bound to everyday space and objects.


Natalya Lusty is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Ashgate, 2007).