Surrealism explores human experience

Surrealism is embedded in the everyday, in the daily experience.”

Not a lot of people would agree with Dartmouth professor Katharine Conley’s view of the surrealist art movement — after all, it’s not every day that you spot a woman with a fish body or a giant eyeball looming over skyscrapers.

When it comes to surrealist art, the weird reigns supreme. As artists delve into their subconsciouses and bring strange visions to life, their art becomes something that is at times disturbing but always fascinating.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Drawing Surrealism” captures the alluring, sometimes puzzling nature of surrealist art in a show that traces the movement’s influence on artists around the world. These artists do not hesitate to manifest even their most complex, fantastical ruminations into works of art for the world to see, and the artists’ risk-taking makes them veritable role models for today’s artists. The show recreates the feeling of adventure and whimsy these artists exemplified, down to small curatorial decisions, such as decorating the wall outlets with thin lines that branched out in all directions.

Spanish surrealist artist Adriano del Valle’s collage “Dompteur d’éléphants (Elephant Tamer)” particularly demonstrates this adventurous sensibility. The work shows two hands on the right hand side, the only hint of the rest of the anonymous person indicated by a bit of shirt material showing by the right wrist. The hands lead the viewer’s gaze right into the work, which feels like a snapshot of a strange circus dream. In the middle of a rocky landscape, seven elephants engage in a variety of absurd movements reminiscent of a circus show. Three pose on what look like decorative stands, two balance themselves on a plank and another two frolic on either side.

The scene seems funny and frivolous at first glance, but it very much summarizes the approach of surrealist artists. Through their works, they construct their own worlds where anything goes. The tamer in this work perhaps fails at controlling the elephants — or perhaps the animal actually serves as his own creation. Just as the trainer uses only his hands to direct the elephant in their tricks, surrealists use their hands to project personal musings onto the canvas. In the space of a single work, they can bring to life images that perhaps supersede any real or concrete explanation. Every work leads the viewer into another world, defying the need for order and especially reality.

“Dompteur d’éléphants (Elephant Tamer)” can serve as guidance for today’s artists for transforming the canvas into a completely different world. Even today, the works of the surrealist artist still take viewers out of the present, catapulting them into something inexplicably tangled. Relatively small and mounted within a simple frame, “Dompteur d’éléphants (Elephant Tamer)” beckons the viewer to look more closely and, when doing so, forget about the reality around them. Artists should take that as inspiration; when a canvas manages to pull the viewer in so they forget about their surroundings, something special occurs.

Though surrealism might seem like one of the most difficult aesthetics to understand, it comes from a very basic desire to explore human emotions that speak to a range of viewers. “Dompteur d’éléphants (Elephant Tamer)” could be seen as the illustration of a person’s desire to create a completely new world. Perhaps one viewer or another also wishes, in a sense, that he or she could control a few elephants in their lives. The piece, then, beckons the viewer into a strange alteration of reality that ultimately portrays a very universal emotion: the desire to control one’s life.

It’s difficult to know exactly what a surrealist artist intends by his or her piece. Ultimately, these open-ended questions left behind by surrealists should also inform today’s artist. For the most part, today’s most popular and commercially viable works of art live off recognizable and easy-to-digest images. And though being commercially successful doesn’t make an artist any less talented at his or her craft, sometimes the more impactful works of art go beyond being simply aesthetically pleasing. Even if artists already possess the ability to create stunning pieces, they can take a leaf out of the surrealists’ book to create more mentally engaging, emotionally vibrant works.

On the surface, “Dompteur d’éléphants (Elephant Tamer)” seems visually clean, but it ultimately manages to raise questions that get viewers thinking. Just the right combination of imagery, along with a thought-provoking title, makes the piece worthy of conversation among viewers and becomes inspiration for artists in any era.

In a way, “Dompteur d’éléphants (Elephant Tamer)” feels like the manifesto of the surrealist movement. Through collage, drawing and more, surrealist artists created timeless images; they took the canvas and used it to their own aims just as the elephant tamer manages to get his elephants to perform a variety of tricks. The fact that a group of artists looking to get more connected to their subconscious became some of the most influential figures in art history speaks volumes. When artists truly put parts of themselves on the canvas, something complex takes place. In the space of the canvas, they manifest their identity. Surrealist pieces might seem completely strange on the surface, but, when viewed as a connection between the artist and observer, they ultimately speak to the most normal of human experiences.


“Drawing Surrealism” runs until Jan. 6. LACMA is located at 5905 Wilshire Blvd.


Eva Recinos is a senior majoring in English. Her  column “Two Cents A Piece” runs Tuesdays.