George Grosz and the Coming of Surrealism
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Another German, George Grosz, who belonged to no school, as a pacifist fought the war spirit in a series of satirical grotesques not unlike the style of Klee and the Dadaists. Forced into the frontline trenches, he retaliated by storing up in his mind nightmarish visions of the holocaust, so powerful that their expression after the war led to his banishment by the Nazis. His most powerful cartoons link him closely with the Gothic artists Breughel and Grünewald.
The persistence of the disintegrating nightmarish visions in the artist's mind can be seen in his canvas, Piece of My World ( 1939). This shows the effect upon human nature of a war so long that only corpses remain to carry it on. Through dirty-gray gaseous mists stumble a number of tattered grisly forms among fragments of a ruined world, accompanied by an army of enormous trench rats, who may have fattened upon the dead.
Any efforts toward self-analysis through the medium of art lead eventually to the lowest childhood levels of the subconscious mind, where expression reaches the condition of almost complete unintelligibility. Suggestive scraps of symbolism composed of nonsense rhymes like those in Alice in Wonderland, formless ethereal figures, or such playful diagrammatic constructions as the birds in The Twittering Machine characterize Klee's art. From it and similar subconscious experiments by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, the Russian Chagall the Spaniard Salvador Dali, and the Frenchmen Miro and Masson arose that art known as surrealism.
Salvador Dali, most widely publicized and probably the most talented, inventive painter of this school, as well as its finest craftsman, suggests in his small book, The Conquest of the Irrational, that surrealism attempts to show the seemingly irrational dream images of the subconscious mind painted so that they appear real.
The surrealists accept as definitive that illusionistic technique employed by the primitive Alaskan Indian, who drew the bear so that one might see both the front and profile views and the element in Picasso's painting which likewise unites two symbols in one.
They paint, as can be seen in the example by Dali, pictures that reveal, when studied, not a single impression of life but a double image. So the African kraal on the desert with a number of savages seated about it, studied intently, becomes a face lying on its side. The leaning figure second from the left in the front row forms in silhouette the bridge of the nose. The jug slightly off the center is the chin of the woman whose hair appears as the trees. A number of such creations appeared in the American humorous magazine Life around 1905.
Most surrealist paintings supply rather boldly images readily available for interpretation by the psychiatrists. Unlike the pictures of the insane, they are the issue of a conscious desire on the part of the mind to free itself from its soul-destroying fantasies by objectifying them. Usually the pictures are very high in associational value and exceedingly low in formal, aesthetic value. In this way the painting records a return on the part of the artist to literary interests, although those interests, like the poetry of Gertrude Stein and the writings of James Joyce, lose somewhat in effectiveness because of their tedious quality. Almost everyone knows now that the world is capable of going into periods of murderous insanity. The need is for an art which suggests that something can be done about it. Surrealism merely records the status quo.
Modern Art Masters
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