Framing the Subconscious


              Sometimes something comes along with the course of time and changes everything as it has been known thus far. 1870 onwards the scenario in the field of visual arts in European countries changed by the rise of radical movements like Impressionism preceding by Post-Impressionism and so on. However, 1900 onwards the turns changed quickly in succession of rapidly spreading “Art Movements” in a matter of no time. Within decades of 20’s and 30’s, the whole world witnessed the genius of radical movement like Fauvism, Cubism and henceforth Dadaism. As a matter of fact, the Fauvists by and large emancipated the ‘Colour’ and the Cubist showed the world viewer a whole new fragmented reality, and the anti-art and nihilistic attitude of Dadaism challenged the representational Institute of’ ‘Art’. In midst of this a new ‘Art movement’ emerged in 1920’s and changed the way ‘Art’ was defined. Combining both the ideas and intellect of Cubism and Dadaism, ‘Surrealism’ came into being to cater the world with a whole new approach towards ‘Art’.

With its nucleus in Paris and roots in Dada, Surrealism started its journey after the World War I in 1920’s. The influential force for Surrealism was the newly developed Psycho-analytical ideas of Sigmund Freud. Initially a Neurologist, Freud conceived the ideas of Psycho-analysis and compared the human mind with an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is actually the conscious being of oneself and the rest of it refers to the unknown realm of the subconscious. However, he also talked about the existence of the ‘Unconscious’ part of a human mind. At a very advanced level, he also proposed the idea of ‘Dream Theory’. Our very notion about dreams is more inclined towards pleasant dreams. However Freud suggested that Dreams can be an excellent tool to understand various aspects of one’s personality and behavior- nothing one does occur by chance, every action and thought are motivated by one’s unconscious at some level. As we all live in a civilized society we have a tendency to hold back our urges and repress our impulses. However, these urges and impulses must be released in some way; they have to have a way of coming to the surface in disguised form of Dreams. And that is where the dream theory comes.

The French poet, André Breton, who was known as the “Pope of Surrealism.” wrote the Surrealist Manifesto to describe how he and the ‘surrealist’ minds influenced by the hidden aspects of human minds thanks to Freud and wanted to combine the conscious and subconscious into a new “absolute reality”. It’s that reality that exists but we cannot see it or rather say do not want to see it. He wrote, I believe in the future resolution of these two states — outwardly so contradictory- which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a Surreality, so to speak, I am aiming for its conquest, certain that I myself shall not attain it, but too indifferent to my death not to calculate the joys of such possession.” But the important question was how to get this ‘Super-reality’- the unconscious part of the mind that is always guarded by the conscious efforts. Initially, with the aid of drugs or alcohol, Surrealists poets and writers tried to play games to bring the unconscious mind to the surface.  The surrealist artists tried to draw “automatically” to be free of the constraints of traditional representational art and they drew exquisite corpses or composite drawings to create new thoughts for the resulting figures that could not be imagined under ordinary circumstances.  There is much in Surrealism that is manifested exercise of free association derived from Sigmund Freud but the artists like Joan Miro, Max Ernst, and several others tried to incorporate that free association into the realms of visual arts practices.


Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

As a precursor of the Surrealist artist, the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico produced empathetically ambiguous works of art in late 1910 that can be related to the later Surrealist works. Chirico painted series of cityscapes and shop windows that were a part of the movement called Pittura Metafisica; his ambiguous cityscapes flooded with the strange sunlight of autumn afternoons with long shadowy characters placed in vast open squares with public monuments that manifested his works with mystic reality. His vision can be read in one of his painting, “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”, 1914. This simplistic representation of a steep street across the buildings filled with sinister air- small silhouetted girl with her hoop in the foreground, the empty van, the ominous shadow of a man emerging from behind the building- all of these elements make the painting more mysterious and creepy. Thus his ‘Metaphysical Towns’ had been a great deal of influence for both the Dadaists and, later, the Surrealists. The eerie mood and the visionary quality of the paintings of Chirico inspire later Surrealists who sought to portray the worlds of Dreams.


The Robing of the Bride”,1940

Initially a Dada activist, Max Ernst Became one of the early adherents of the surrealist circle of Andre Breton. Before joining Surrealists, Ernst incorporated found objects in his works and explored various other experimenting ways to bring innovation in the language of visual art. Working under the banner of Surrealism, Max soon began making paintings that shared the mysterious dream-like quality that cannot be experienced in the real world we know. In one of his later painting, “The Robing of the Bride”,1940, he created this dream-like atmosphere by painting some mere mystical composite creature: half-men, half-bird. The center in occupied by a mighty owl-headed caped naked female figure that directly stared back at viewers. In the left, sleek bird-men, perhaps Ernst himself, pointed an arrow towards his red-caped companion. The arrow, however, symbolizes the phallic sign; and the second nude female figure, eyes closed, brushed aside to the right while a many-breasted, pregnant hermaphrodite is seated in the right hand lower corner. The whole composition represents an unnatural combination of thinking but that was the field of exploration for the surrealists. Ernst own words can explain it further: “..Thus I obtained a faithful fixed image of my hallucination and transformed into revealing dramas, my most secret desires”.



The Harlequin’s Carnival, 1925


Categorized as ‘the most Surrealist of all’ by Andre Breton, Joan Miro’s works contained elements of fantasy and hallucination. Miro achieved this devising an innovative method: he started his paintings by scattered collage composition and the shapes of the colleges became motifs for his thoughts. Miro himself described his process as a back and forth switch between conscious and unconscious image making:”…I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush. The form becomes a sigh for a woman or a bird as I work…..the first stage is free, unconscious….the second stage is carefully calculated.” His words echoed in one of his works, “Harlequin’s Carnival”- a party of imagery beast takes place in a room that opened to the sky by a small window to the right. It shows the abstraction that he was led by his calculated ‘unconscious’ mind to create something absurd looking creatures. He carefully used primary colours in this painting that are set off by the thin, mid-tone wash of the floor. This painting is in the truest sense, spontaneous expression of the little known submerged unconscious part of life.


The Treachery of Images, 1929

How do one relate a rational image to its irrational title that suggests the exact opposite, defying the norms of meanings? The image that we can see is the meticulously rendered depiction of a briar pipe by one of the celebrated Surrealist painter Ren  Magritte, done in late 20’s. This work is called” The Treachery of Images”. However one would not justify the title as long as he or she observe the caption beneath the image, contradictory to the obvious: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ means ‘this is not a pipe’! Magritte thus gave disruptive shocks to the viewers by challenging their expectations based on logic and common sense. Indeed, a treachery of the image!



Personal Values”, 1952

The interesting aspect of Magritte’s works is that his paintings take the form of a dialogue with the world and question the reality of real phenomenon and their relation to the painted image. One of his other works, “Personal Values”, 1952 depicts realistically rendered some toiletry objects in a closed room. But the disrupting scale of the realistic objects thus transforms this banal harmless painting into something very puzzling and annoying. The bed, the wardrobe is true to life-size whereas the comb, the shaving brush, the match-stick or the wine glass is depicted in such scale, way beyond our logical understanding of the objects. This trick was his trademark to reach to a certain level of reality that exists but cannot be seen: the unconscious. A similar approach is echoed in his own words: “The true art of painting into conceive and realize paintings capable of giving the spectator a purely visual perception of the external world.”The surrealist works of art that successfully evokes the most difficult questions about the possible realization of dreams in canvas and the symbolic functions of imagery are referred to the most celebrated surrealist painter of all whose “paranoiac-critical” method (in which


The surrealist works of art that successfully evokes the most difficult questions about the possible realization of dreams in canvas and the symbolic functions of imagery are referred to the most celebrated surrealist painter of all whose “paranoiac-critical” method (in which one thing is seen in terms of another) marked his sense of Unconscious and Subconscious in more complex manner: Salvador Dali. The most important thing to remember that the dream for Freud and Breton was a direct path to the unconscious, the way in which a dream deals with its subjects, distorting and allowing contradictory facts. The manifestation of a dream, what one remember when woke up, possibly masks hidden meanings which may be revealed by the dreamer’s association by complex analysis. Salvador Dali presented his complex paintings whose contents were the truest manifestation of the dream world. Dali described his creative process: “to materialize the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialistic fury of precision…in order that the world of imagination and of concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident…as that of the exterior world of phenomenal reality.” His words are best reflected in one of his most celebrated works, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, a haunting space filled with allegorical elements where time has ended.


The Persistence of Memory,1931

Dali brought his visions and fantasies to life by achieving meticulously detailed realistic rendering of objects, as he stated, ‘ hand-painted photographs’. It’s this realistic representation of something irrational and absurd that added the dimension of the unconscious. In ‘The Persistence of Memory’ Dali created an alien landscape filled with allegorical elements, tinted in bright and gloomy colours with detailed objects in logical explanations. The clocks are melted, one hanging from a lone olive tree, other lying dead on a raised platform on the left. The depicted Horizon is based loosely on a landscape near Portlight, northeast Spain and an absurd looking limped head lies in the middle upon which the fourth melted watch rests. A single and apparently dead olive tree signifies the dreamlike characteristics of the painting and also refers to that fact that olive groves were available in the region Dali came from; however traditionally, olive branch is the symbol of peace, purification and plenty. The clocks over the platform and the grotesque looking creature are melted and softened and no longer appears to be familiar or rational to our preconceived ideas and also defines the fact that time has stopped in that strange place. The red clock at the foreground that heavily filled with insects, insects that usually associated with decay resulting in death. A kind of representation referring memento mori. On the other hand, a dormant head lies slumped across a small stone ridge. Interestingly, it is often thought to Dali’s self-portrait in profile. However its shape derived from a large standing rock near the coast at Cadaques. Although this particular absurd looking creature had already appeared in his other works like, ‘The great masturbator’ and ‘ The enigma of desire’, both from 1929. The long eyelashes and the protrude tongue-like shape also add a dimension of eroticism. Dali rendered every detail of this dreamscape with precise control to make the world of his painting as convincing as possible although the subject is somewhat irrational that come from his unconscious.

Movements like Surrealism stems directly from the effects of modern age warfare. As Europe was left devastated and disillusioned after years of fighting in World War I. The effects of the war were visible everywhere in Europe as populations became stagnant, economies plummeted, buildings remained in ruins and many survivors suffered from depression. The general population had a feeling of utter destruction at the hands of man.  Emerging from this chaos, however, new artistic, political and scientific ideas developed in Europe. Surrealism influenced by these factors too, however, the realization and discovery of unknown Subconscious and Unconscious by Freud fueled the Surrealist ideas.   Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, Surrealism enjoyed widespread acclaim culminating in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. Surrealist theory embraced the irrational in human thought and behavior and practiced in the visual arts by the most complex minds that framed the Unconscious. Thus the biomorphic forms of Jean (Hans) Arp and Joan Miró and the realistic visions of Salvador Dali referred to the inner fear and unknown feelings of oneself that can only be encountered without being conscious. As we the viewer engages ourselves with the imagery of Unconscious, at such times we probably agree to what Edgar Allan Poe once wrote:

                                      “All that we seen or seem

                                  Is but a dream within a dream.” 


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Hello folks, I'm an Art History major from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (2017). I've done my graduation in History of Art from Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University. My Master’s research project deals with issues concerning about historiography, Narrativity, and stylistic formulation of Bengal Pata painting tradition. I have done a self-funded research work on the Terracotta temples at Surul, Santiniketan; focusing on the confluence of Indo-European cultures in the terracotta fringes at the temple walls. My other research interest lies in the field of Folk and functional art of India, advent of modernism in Indian art, contemporary art scenario and the discourse of the theories of social science in visual art. You can contact me directly on :

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