Art of the 20th Century

A Revolution in the Arts



Art Styles in 20th century Art Map



The Great Avant-garde Movements



Surrealist Art









Conquest of the marvellous


Surrealism and painting


Towards a revolutionary art


Across the world


The object


Festivals of the imagination


In the United States


Surrealist architecture


The post-war period






see also:

Surrealism - 1924

Max Ernst
"A Week of Kindness" (A surrealistic novel in collage)

Rene Magritte "Thought rendered visible"

Salvador Dali

Surrealism  "The Dream of Revolution"


March, 1942 in New York: (l. to r.) Matta, Ossip Zadkine, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger.
(back row:) André Breton, Piet Mondrian, André Masson, Amédée Ozenfant,
Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchev, Kurt Seligmann, Eugene Berman.






In the United States

Dorothea Tanning
Wifredo Lam
Alexander Calder

Morris Hirshfield



Surrealism burst on the United States between 1941 and 1946. In America the surrealists redefined their course of action and established a climate of opinion which had an influence on a number of native American artists. The American public had in fact an opportunity of becoming aware of the surrealist experience before this, when a touring exhibition - 'Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism' - was organized in 1936 by the New York Museum of Modern Art. This eclectic collection of almost seven hundred works went beyond its chosen theme by including work by many abstract or constructivist painters, such as Malevich and Moholy-Nagy; the show was essentially an evocation of avant-garde art in general. But, at all events, it was the first exhibition in which any attempt was made to form a section devoted to the 'Forerunners of Surrealism'. This was a rather random selection ranging from the Grotesques by Wenzel Jamnitzer (1563-1618) to the fantasies by Grandville (1803-47), from architectural drawings by Oronce Fine (1494-1555) to costumes by Larmessin (who died in 1694), and which included allegories, rebuses, and paintings of anamorphoses.

Despite the merits of the range of 'Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism', which gave an important place to Picasso, Chirico, Duchamp and other major pioneers, it could be no substitute for an exhibition arranged by the surrealists themselves. Salvador Dali had indeed come to the United States as a surrealist ambassador, but his only influence had been on publicity. He was asked to arrange one show-window for a store, and in 1939 at the New York World's Fair he was allowed to stage only a part of The Dream of Venus, an underwater ballet performed in an aquarium with girl swimmers incarnating symbols of pre-natal life. So it was only the presence in America during the war of artists in exile, among them Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Matta, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Seligmann, Leonora Carrington and Yves Tanguy, which allowed surrealist art to establish a firm foothold.


Man Ray, Juliet and Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning


Andre Breton arrived in New York in August 1941, and two months later the magazine View, run by the poet Charles Henry Ford, brought out a special number on surrealism. This was followed by several instalments which were evidence of the movement's newsworthiness. The surrealist review VVV was founded in 1942. The three Vs of the title represented the triple Victory, 'over everything which stands in the way of the emancipation of the spirit, for which the first precondition is the liberation of man', the triple View, which results from a synthesis of the view of the inner world with the view of the outer world to create a 'total view' which should interpret all the reactions of the eternal on the actual, of the psychic on the physical, and take into account the 'myth' which is being formed under the veil of events. The chief editor of VVV was David Hare, who made strange photographs using a technique which consisted of warming up negatives after development so that the gelatine melted. When he later became a sculptor, Hare moved from the fantastic to abstraction.

The New York Surrealist Exhibition, in October and November 1942, held under the sponsorship of the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, was designed by Marcel Duchamp. Throughout the exhibition halls he stretched a network of white cord covering the works on show, which could only be glimpsed through the meshes. This also formed a kind of labyrinth which constantly obliged the visitor to stop and retrace his steps, passing work which he had already seen.

The front cover of the catalogue, First Papers of Surrealism, showed a wall with five bullet holes, and the back a piece of gruyere cheese. Breton wrote in the catalogue : 'Today more than ever to speak abstractly in the name of freedom or to praise it in empty terms is to serve it ill. To light the world, freedom must become flesh and to this end must always be reflected and recreated in the word.' Breton outlined the repertory of myths which he believed to be significant, and illustrated them by associating each of them with a surrealist painter : the Philosopher's Stone with Matta : the Artificial Alan with Seligmann; the Soul-Sister with Leonora Carrington; The Regicide with Masson, etc. The difficulty of getting hold of photographs of some of the exhibitors inspired the idea of 'compensation portraits', in which the names of painters were placed under anonymous photographs chosen for a real or imagined likeness to their nominal subjects.


The activity of the surrealists brought to light the work of some painters who would probably otherwise never have been discovered. The most outstanding of these was Morris Hirshfield, a naive painter who had started life as a shoemaker in New York. Then in 1902 he had established a shoe factory, the E.Z. Walk Manufacturing Company, which eventually had almost three hundred employees. Ill health forced Hirshfield to retire from business in 1917, and in 1937, at the age of 65, he took up painting; from then on until his death in 1946 he painted naked women surrounded by flowers or animals. Less often, he did landscapes from picture postcards. Hirshfield was adopted by the surrealists because of the extreme ingenuousness of his inspiration, and the luxuriant imagination with which he embroidered exterior reality.

Morris Hirshfield
The Tiger

Morris Hirshfield

(b Russian Poland, 10 April 1872; d New York, 26 July 1946).
American painter of Russian–Polish origin. He claimed to have carved wooden ceremonial objects as a young boy, but ceased to create until he retired from his clothing manufacturing concern and began to paint. When Sidney Janis was arranging an exhibition of American folk art for MOMA in 1939, he saw Hirshfield’s naive works in a gallery in New York. He exhibited two in the show and organized a one-man show for the artist in 1943; he also purchased two works, including Beach Girl (1937). In such paintings Hirshfield based large areas of the overall design on the fabrics with which he worked during his years in business, and his outlined forms on the art of patternmaking. In this and slightly later works, such as Inseparable Friends (1941), an ambiguous treatment of young female sexuality is played off against the patterns and the repetition of forms.



Morris Hirshfield
The Artist and His Model

Morris Hirshfield
Girl with dog



Morris Hirshfield
Home with water fountains


Morris Hirshfield
Garden stand and birds



Morris Hirshfield
Girl in a Mirror

Morris Hirshfield
Two Women in Front of a Mirror



Morris Hirshfield
Dog and Pups

Morris Hirshfield
Mother Cat With Kittens




Max Ernst, who had arrived in New York in July 1941, now began to make paintings by using the 'decalcomania' technique; then he invented 'oscillation', which consisted of swinging a pierced can of liquid paint on the end of a string over a canvas laid on the ground, and interpreting the trace of the paint marks so obtained. He showed this process to Jackson Pollock, who turned it into the 'drip' technique.

In 1942 Ernst met Dorothea Tanning, whose artistic personality was to blossom as a result of her contact with him. Dorothea Tanning had come to New York from Chicago in 1935, set on making a career as a painter. She had been deeply moved by an exegesis of Picasso's Guernica which she had heard Arshile Gorky deliver in a New York gallery. The influence of Max Ernst hastened her development towards surrealism. She held her first one-man show in New York in 1944, and in 1945 designed the sets and costumes for Night Shadow, a ballet by Balanchine to music by Rieti. Ernst and Dorothea Tanning were married in 1946, and went off to live in Sedona, a small township in Arizona. Initially her painting showed a universe of little girls in revolt against a puritanical education, a prey to nocturnal fears, or unleashed in wild games.

Max Ernst
A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil,
 New York: George Braziller 1982

Originally published in Paris in 1930, translated by Dorothea Tanning.



Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning
Beyond the Esplanade



Irving Penn
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning



Lee Miller
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning
Arizona, 1946

Dorothea Tanning
Eine Kleine Nachfmusik



Her memories of her own childhood with her two sisters in Illinois helped her to give these scenes a feeling of authenticity. Her perverse little heroines tear drapes off a wall, while the inanimate body of a companion lies nearby (Children's Games, 1942); they watch a giant sunflower creeping towards them in a corridor (Eine Kleine Nachfmusik, 1946, London, Roland Penrose collection); and yet again they form themselves into a human pyramid by climbing on one another's shoulders right up to the ceiling (Palaestra, 1947, New York, William N. Copley collection). Always they move in an atmosphere of anguish and pleasure. Max Ernst acquired a bitch, Katchina, who soon became the main character in Dorothea Tanning's paintings. She made it into the Beast which has become divine, and who embraces Beauty for a symbolic Waltz (The Blue Waltz, 1954). The surreal power of animals is exploited also in the perverse 'Annunciation' of 1951.

Navajo Indian Kachina Doll.
Dolls are carved to represent men who dances in costume, mask and paint as Katchina spirit. Katchinas are the essence of animated and in animated objects who are of great benefits of the Hopi. They bring moisture and the fertility of crops, animals and man.

From Arizona katchina doll.
In Hopi culture, a katchina is an ancestral being who comes to the village to assist with crop growing, fertility, and health. There are hundreds of different types of katchina. They are represented during dances by costumed men, and are also depicted as carved dolls, which are given to children.




It was only on his arrival in the United States that the painting of Matta came to its full brilliance, and burst like a storm into a world which he constantly thereafter explored. Matta had first joined the surrealists in 1937, when he arrived in Paris from his native Chile to study architecture with Le Corbusier. He showed some work to Breton at the Galerie Gradiva; Breton bought two drawings from him and invited him to take part in illustrating Les Chants de Maldoror, published by Editions G.L.M. In 1938 Matta painted six big canvases, Psychological Morphologies, which were the point of departure for his whole development. These spaces choked with matter in fusion show the interior of the conscious mind as a vitreous mass, full of glaucous glows and sparkling brilliance. As a result of his stay in the United States from 1939, with the added advantage of some travelling, particularly a visit to Mexico in 1941, Matta was able to broaden his experience, and to bring it up to the scale of the civilization which he found before his eyes. He unfolded huge galactic panoramas, and studied the life of the psyche as if he were prospecting the surface of a planet, in The Earth is a Man (1941, New York, William Rubin collection), The Disasters of Mysticism (1942), Elinonde (1943), The I'ertigo of Eros (1944, New York, Museum of Modern Art), Space and the I (1944). His paintings became screens on which he projected his mental film. Monstrous, tentacled, clawed figures, like giant anthropomorphic insects soon moved into his crackling universes. In The Players of Heart (1945), The Pilgrim of Doubt (1946) and To be with (1946), a mythical, cruel and anxiety-ridden people engages in panic brawls and scuffles.



A Grave Situation

In New York Matta became a disciple of Marcel Duchamp, whose imperturbability was the opposite of Matta's effervescence. Like Duchamp, Matta formed an intellectual attitude based on word-plays. As he believed that the reconstruction or disintegration of the world was connected with a reconstruction or disintegration of language, Matta invented a vocabulary of neologisms to stimulate his pictorial inspiration. He claimed to be engaged in 'Conscienture' (the painting of the consciousness), and said, in his own idiom : 'I am going to make a tour of the I, from the South to the Rmis'. To show that some of his pictures were explorations of the depths of the ego he entitled them Je m'honte and Je m'arche (punning titles, turning je monte, 'I ascend', or je marche, 'I walk', into reflexive verbs). There is a temptation to see his pictures in terms of science fiction, with extraterrestrial battles and galactic flights, but this is too simple an interpretation. There was a period in which Matta launched into fantastic epic; in his Paris exhibition in May 1949 he showed a mythology which included Ermala the Scepticide, Marzana the Llium of envy, the Oigu of peace, Atyarth insolent, Icrogy fecundated, Rghuin monstrous triumphs, episodes of a chronicle worthy of the novels of H.P. Lovecraft.




Matta had another aim : the destruction of what Duchamp had called 'retinal painting'. At this time, Matta said to me, in a private conversation, 'I want to make pictures which leap to the eye'. And with his hands raised like a tiger's claws, he made as if to seize an invisible spectator. The figures in his paintings are not necessarily inhabitants of a parallel universe; they are men, or rather the distorted reflections of men in the mirror of a disturbed, frightened or aggressive unconscious mind. Matta is a cosmic painter, who tries to interpret the human condition face to face with infinity, and not as it nestles in the bosom of day to day reality.





In 1942 and 1944, Wifredo Lam had two exhibitions at Pierre Matisse's gallery in New York, exhibitions which definitively established his personality. Lam, a Cuban, had worked for a long time in Spain, where he had painted tragic Mother with Child groups. In
Paris in 1938,
Picasso gave his pictures a warm, enthusiastic reception. Lam can indeed be regarded as the only true continucr of Picasso's work; he was not an imitator, for he was able to re-create the Spanish master's freedom of form for his own use. Lam left France in 1941, on board the ship which was taking Breton to Martinique, and returned to Cuba. The mastery of technique which he had acquired enabled him to confront the world of nature which he found there without any fear that his hand would betray him.

Wifredo Lam
Helena Lam with Fish in Head and Breasts

Lam painted totemic landscapes, where amid the luxuriant bush, trees uproot themselves, plants come to life, lianas stretch or contract, and divinities of light or shade come and go.
In Melembo (1943, New York, Pierre Matisse collection), The Jungle (1943, New York, Museum of Modern Art), Song of the Osmoses (1944, Indiana, J. Cantor collection), and The Watching Spirit (1946), he formed the obsessive style to which he was thereafter to remain faithful. His art is a visual incantation; he acclaimed the jungle as if it were a person, giving plants the appearance of animals, and animals a lapidary form. In his painting, plants have breasts like women, fruit is a round head with horns, bamboo has feet which look like hands, the insect blossoms, the wild beast has roots, and man is hewn from wood or from the rock of the earth which gave him birth. During a stay in Haiti,
Lam studied the Voodoo cult, drew inspiration from the vevers, the symbolic patterns drawn in flour around the central pillar where the rites take place, and began to make allusions to deities such as Ogoun Ferraille, the god of war, or Papa Legba, master of the crossroads. Yet there is no exoticism in Lam, no geographical limitation. Although he was a passionate observer of the jungle and the rituals which he evokes in his paintings, they do not remain in their aboriginal form. The primitive earth as a whole, the primeval world, with its virgin forests, arises in his paintings like a challenge to the civilization of the cities.

Wifredo Lam

The Jungle

Wifredo Lam




The retrospective show of the work of Alexander Calder at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943 established his role and his importance in modern art. Since 1933 Calder had lived on a farm at Roxbury in Connecticut. In 1938, he built, next door to the house, a huge studio where he tamed metal into geometric shapes, doing it all by kindness. Like Arp, Calder belongs to abstract art as much as to surrealism, and he is attached by bonds of friendship to both schools. His wit, which always retained a child-like freshness, his humour, and his longing to give life and movement to the inert and non-figurative, assured him a place of honour among the surrealists. It is easier to understand what Calder was about if one knows that as a young man, after he had got his engineering diploma, he spent every evening for a year at Barnum's circus, making sketches of the show. He was enchanted by the animals, and the quality of his observation of them is proved by his collection of drawings Animal Sketching (1926) and his illustrations for Aesop's Fables (1931). Calder conceived the idea of making a circus in miniature from pieces of wire, corks and scraps of wood. His dual talents as engineer and artist enabled him to create a miniature world of acrobats, jugglers and tightrope-walkers, who ran, jumped, and performed tricks. In Paris in 1926-7, he gave highly successful private shows of his circus to audiences of writers and artists.

Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder

Subsequently Calder moved on to geometrical sculptures - the 'stabiles' - made of discs and spheres painted black, white, blue and red in the spirit of neo-plasticism. Next he did animated sculpture; in his 'mobiles', which in their initial form were put into motion by hand or by a motor, several elements are set moving in a burlesque way, almost like an animated cartoon. His first wind mobile dates from 1932-3. From this time on, contraptions with metal leaves, trembling and spinning at the slightest breath of air, flowed from him like joyful songs. 'My dear old Sandy, the tough guy with the soul of a nightingale', was Miro's affectionate description of him. He was always to be a man of the circus, but on the scale of the Universe, reproducing abstract circus turns with lyrical toys. Calder returned to the stabiles in 1942 with Morning Star, and gave them the lightness of his mobiles. Then he did Constellations, stabiles fixed to the wall or ceiling. These were arrangements of elements of different materials, colour and shape. Thus, during this period in his Roxbury studio, Calder established all the factors in the evolution which he was to pursue after the war in France, in his studio in Touraine.



Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born July 22, 1898, Lawnton, Pa.,U.S.
died Nov. 11, 1976, New York City

U.S. sculptor best known as the originator of the mobile, a type of kinetic sculpture, the delicately balanced or suspended components of which move in response to motor power or air currents; by contrast, Calder's stationary sculptures are called stabiles. He also produced numerous wire figures, notably for a vast miniature circus.

Calder was the son and grandson of sculptors, and his mother was an accomplished painter. Despite growing up in an atmosphere of American academic art, he seems to have had little inclination to become an artist himself. Aside from an unusual amount of travelling and moving around, necessitated in part by his father's health, Calder's youth and interests were typical of middle-class American boys growing up in the early years of the century. His reminiscences of his early activities—which are remarkable for their completeness—have to do largely with family affairs, sports, and relations with his classmates. Perhaps the only indication of his subsequent career lay in his facility for making things and his enjoyment of gadgets.

After study at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., he was graduated in 1919 with a degree in mechanical engineering. For a time he travelled widely and held various engineering jobs. In 1922 he took drawing lessons at a night school in New York City and in 1923 entered the Art Students League, where he was influenced by painters of the New York scene, the so-called Ashcan School, of which the painters John Sloan and George Luks were among the leaders. At this point, his aspirations, like those of many American artists of the time, did not extend much beyond securing a well-paying job in illustration or commercial art. In 1924 he began doing illustrations for the National Police Gazette, for which he covered prize fights and the circus.

After several other routine commercial illustrating jobs, Calder decided in 1926 to go to Paris, the world centre for modern art. In Paris, while working on sculpture, he began, for his own amusement, to make toy like animals of wood and wire. Out of these he developed a miniature circus (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City), performances of which were attended by many of the leading artists and literary figures in Paris. The little circus figures, as well as his interest in continuous line drawings, led Calder to the creation of wire sculptures, such as the figure of a woman seven feet high, entitled “Spring,” and “Romulus and Remus,” a group that included a she-wolf 11 feet long.

Among the artists he met in Paris through his circus exhibitions, perhaps the most crucial for his subsequent career was the Spanish Surrealist painter Joan Miró. AlthoughSurrealism was reaching its first major peak in the late 1920s, Calder does not seem to have been conscious of the movement; in fact throughout his career he isolated himself from the “art world.” With Miró, however, he established an immediate rapport, and a lasting friendship was formed.

In 1930 Calder met the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and visited his studio, an event that made him suddenly aware of the modern movement in painting and that influenced his work in the direction of the abstract. In the winter of 1931–32 he began to make motor-driven sculptures, consisting of various geometrical shapes. The name mobile was given to them by Marcel Duchamp. Aesthetically, movement, because of the changing relationships among the various elements, gave the sculpture a continually changing composition. The following year, when Calder exhibited similar works that did not move, Jean Arp described them as stabiles, a term that Calder continued to use. Beginning in 1932 most of his mobiles were given their movement by air currents.

In 1931, while fashioning a wedding ring for his marriage, Calder formed an interest in making jewelry. Also in 1931 he produced illustrations for an edition of the Fables of Aesop. Illustrations for a number of other books followed in the 1940s.

During the 1930s Calder further developed the concept of the mobile. The first major manifestation of his work was at the Paris World's Fair of 1937, where he created his so-called mercury fountain for the Spanish pavilion. In this sculpture, movement was introduced by a stream of mercury striking a plate that was attached to a swivelling rod. From this point, Calder's reputation expanded continually through annual exhibitions in Europe and America, climaxed by a showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1943.

Although Calder's early mobiles and stabiles were on a relatively small scale, he increasingly moved toward monumentality in his later works. One very large stabile organization was an acoustical ceiling, which he designed in 1952 for the auditorium of the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. In 1961 an exhibition on motion in art, which originated at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, emphasized the work of Calder and his followers. During the1960s his accomplishments were recognized through major exhibitions in Kassel, W.Ger.; at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City; and at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

In 1931 Calder was married to Louisa Cushing James, and after their marriage the Calders travelled continually, not only between France and the United States but also to South America and Asia. In 1955 and 1956 they visited India, where Calder created 11 mobiles.

In the 1970s Calder's studio was at Saché, near Tours. Therehe designed his major stabiles and experimented with free-form drawings and paintings. His normal method with large-scale works was to create a small model, the enlargement of which he supervised at a foundry in Tours. Although Calder lived most of the time in France, he maintained a home and studio in Roxbury, Conn.

H. Harvard Arnason


The painter who profited most from the presence of the surrealists in the United States was Arshile Gorky. When he came into contact with them, ail his genius, which had already passed through a number of successive phases, was unleashed in a lyrical explosion. Gorky was born by Lake Van in Turkish Armenia, and he had spent his childhood in a landscape of mountain and forest. At the outbreak of war in 1914 his mother died, and the family lost its wealth. He went to Georgia and became a student at the Polytechnic Institute in Tiflis. In 1920 he emigrated to America, and completed his education by his own efforts. He spent long hours in museums and galleries, and attended evening classes in various schools. In 1926 he became a teacher in New York, mainly at the Grand Central School of Art. After a figurative period, represented by The Artist and his Mother (1926), he was gripped by a passion for cubism, and in 1931 he said : 'The twentieth century - what intensity, what activity, what restless nervous energy! Has there in six centuries been better art than Cubism? No. Centuries will go past - artists of gigantic stature will draw positive elements from Cubism.' Later Gorky went through an abstract period under the influence of Kandinsky. He carried out huge frescoes for airports in New York and New Jersey, and for the Aviation Pavilion at the New York Exhibition in 1939.
When he had assimilated the experiences which modern art had to offer, Gorky received from Masson, from Matta and from Breton, whom he worshipped, the stimulus he needed to get him really launched into flight. In 1943 he came back into contact with nature. He worked in the open air in the Virginia countryside, and did a number of drawings of leaves and flowers, but in a transfigured form.
In The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery),
Gorky, with sweeping gestures which seemed to embrace the universe, launched into the feverish monologue which he was to continue from painting to painting until his death by suicide in 1948. Gorky was able to adapt an abstract language to the most subtle sensations, to the most confused psychic states, as in Agony (1947, New York, Museum of Modern Art). The interplay of lines and signs, punctuated by brilliant splashes of colour, on a carefully worked background, expresses the outpouring of the unconscious, the unfathomable mystery of nature. Gorky's freedom of expression, which is close to automatism, was never mere improvisation; he never reached the definitive version of a painting until it had passed through a number of successive preliminary versions. He was to become the master of the New York school, to which he transmitted surrealism in a personal translation which had retained the essence of the movement.

Arshile Gorky


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