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Lost and Found: Surrealism and the Roots of Change by Mary Phan

10 July 2022

Illustration by Sasha Dunn


Often associated with the machismo bravado and drama of the likes of Salvador Dalí or Man Ray, surrealism evokes a strong popular cultural image. An artistic movement of the interwar period and onwards, the term surrealism was coined by the French writer Guillaume Appolinaire in 1917, combining the Latin root sur-, meaning beyond, with realism or, in the original French, realismé. Beyond realism was first described by writer Andre Breton as ‘pure psychic automatism’ in his 1924 'Surrealist Manifesto’. Largely influenced by the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, such concepts as dreams analysis, the subconscious, and unconscious feature prominently in surrealist work. Taking surrealism as its theme through the work of maverick female surrealist Leonora Carrington (b. 1917, England; d. 2011, Mexico), the 59th Venice Biennale reconceptualises the surrealism of the Lost Generation to issues, some long withstanding and some completely contemporary, of our own times. The title of this year’s Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, is taken from Carrington’s book of the same name, an illustrated collection of children’s stories featuring fantastical, anthropomorphic, and amorphous characters. Cecilia Alemani, curator of the 59th Biennale, asks in her curatorial statement: ​​How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates animals, plants, humans and non-humans? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and the different organisms we live with? And what would life look like without us? Many of these questions have been floating around in the cultural stratosphere for a number of years, weaving themselves into the work of contemporary artists. Nearly a hundred years after the declarations of the Lost Generation surrealists, the world still challenges terror, violence, hunger, and illness, among other seemingly endemic human tragedies citizens of the early twentieth century may have fantasized extinct by now. However, we have also made unimaginable societal, scientific, and creative progress, much of which may have only existed in the most fantastical dreams of the last century. The questions presented by Alemani in her curatorial statement offer an inquisition into the price of our progress, and moreover an invitation to formulate an artistic stance on the ever-popular Anthropocene, or rather, end-of-the-Anthropocene. Historically, surrealist art and literature advocated for and explored the concept of varied realities existing within and around mankind – especially pertaining to emotional power, mysticism, and the poetics of the psyche. For many of the movement’s most celebrated artists, these deep inquisitions were rooted in childhood, authority, and sex. Oftentimes, analysis of the surrealists critiques the conservative racial and gender structures of the time, and more specifically, its tense and often regressive regard of the feminine body and psyche. However, the cultural memory of the surrealists is experiencing an appropriate and necessary revival to celebrate its renegade female practitioners. Leonora Carrington headlining as a ground-breaking surrealist for the 59th Venice Biennale is a striking break from the traditional, mainly male artist centric, conversations surrounding the surrealists. Carrington, who died a decade ago at the age of ninety-four, left a large portfolio and fascinating legacy. Born to a wealthy English family, Carrington rebelled against the debutante life and pieced together her own esoteric passions and interests into a prolific artistic craft. Though she has long been associated with surrealism through her relationship with the German painter, Max Ernst, a more holistic analysis of Carrington’s life and career casts a light onto Carrington’s own communion with surrealism that far overshadows her relatively short association with Max Ernst. Though Ernst undoubtedly influenced and shaped her practice, Carrington also developed her own brand of philosophy and expression—the ideas of which are coming to the fore of today’s art world. The Milk of Dreams formed through the bedtime stories and characters Carrington would create for her children. The surrealist fascination with childhood is rooted in imprints. As Alemani posited, how is the definition of human changing? The amorphous clay of a child’s mind, especially evident in Carrington’s writings for her children, holds the potential for nearly infinite instantaneous ontological shifts. The characters in The Milk of Dreams are constantly evolving and warping on their grand adventures and live in a world that continually recreates itself. This moment of the Anthropocene sees many worries arising for the fate of future generations. Faced with the threat of losing much of the earth’s bounty and biodiversity, never has there been a more imperative time for a reimagining of mankind and our place in the community of the earth.


Illustration by Sasha Dunn

In a more academic and philosophical consideration of the Biennale’s theme, the mind-bending tenets of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) have recently taken the art world by storm. The concepts of OOO call for the abandonment of anthropocentrism into a radical objectivism of objects, matter, organisms, and space. To join the popularity of OOO with the revival of surrealism in the art atmosphere, seems to invoke an image of a collective conscience, one of great concern towards the current trajectory of climate crisis. Met with the possibility, and more pessimistically, the inevitability, of mass species extinction and the loss of a multitude of habitats, the jarring reality of ecological despair met with deaf ears by world leaders manifests into an appropriate revival and interest in the surreal. As the historical movement is seen as a rejection of conventional artistic formulae seen as deferent to the madness and horrors of the First World War, perhaps it is productive to view its resurgence as a response to the tragedy of the Anthropocene. Surrealist literature is often understood solely through its artists’ interest in the work of Sigmund Freud. Though certainly an unobjectionable fact of the movement since its inception is its associations with Freud, another school of surrealism found inspiration in mysticism and alchemy. Being part of the latter, Carrington’s work offers a peek into a realm that considers the world and environment outside of ourselves. Regarding issues of biology, geology, and other natural sciences, mysticism and alchemy seem a disjointed comparison, but in the case of history and their fascination to surrealists like Carrington or the pioneering abstract painter, Hilma af Klint, we observe here perhaps an invitation to utilise our knowledge of empirical disciplines to delve further into our abilities to adapt and morph as organisms in tandem with the life and habitat around us. Moreover, to specifically note our failures and commit to reconciling our culpability and responsibility to the manifold lives within, around, and without us. The 59th Biennale, in channelling the transmuting and magical through The Milk of Dreams, commits itself to an optimistic, transformative, and intentional mode of existence. Mary Phan is an MA student at The Courtauld and Literary Editor for The Courtauldian.

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