THE SURREALIST EYE: An Introduction
“L’œil existe à l’état sauvage” (The eye exists in a savage state) – so begins Surrealist founder André Breton’s essay Le Surréalisme et la peinture, as published in 1928. The very first sentence of this definitive text of the Surrealist movement insists on acute awareness of the eye—a principle which lies at the core of Surrealist work. These few opening words already reveal much about the Surrealist relationship to the eye: 1) the eye exists and 2) in a savage state. The eye maintains an existence of its own, or at least exists profoundly enough to be distinctive. That it is “savage” implies this part of the body is particularly pure, untainted by civilization, that the eye is wild and untamable, and that vision even has the potential for violence, or at least for apparent impact. From the start, the Surrealists did not take the eye for granted, focusing on vision not only within their works, but also as forming the foundation for the direction of the movement.
As Kim Grant outlines in her book Surrealism and the Visual Arts: Theory and Reception (2005), Surrealism entered onto the artistic stage during a time in which vision was deeply affected by the invention of photography. The artist became free of mimetic concerns. Once the camera assumes the ultimate responsibility of “accurate” representation of reality on a 2-D surface, artistic creation shifts to accentuate complete subjectivity not intent on respecting the object, instead favoring the artist’s vision. But to say that an artwork represents an artist’s vision is not enough; for the Surrealists, vision is transformative: it has the capacity and responsibility to call into question the nature and existence of reality. The eye takes on a role of immense power and possibility; whereas former art had often emphasized the hand of the artist as the source point of artistic creation, under the Surrealists the eye is just as respected.
Yet herein lies a paradox whose tension generates intense, and crucial, energy into Surrealist art. The eye becomes the paramount authority—it alone determines or shapes our reality. However, this authority cannot be trusted. Vision is not relied upon as a rationalizing force—indeed, the Surrealists run from what we construe as “rational.” Instead, these artists ask us to approach the eye, the sense upon which most of the population places emphasis as the primary mode of understanding, as fantastically unreliable. Consider, for instance, the rayographs of Man Ray. In theory, this type of art (and that it is considered “art” is already in itself significant) in which objects are placed onto light-sensitive paper and subjected to light, thereby creating direct imprints of the objects’ surfaces, should be the most immediate and authentic rendering of appearance, or visual manifestations of the physical, on a flat surface as possible. And yet what the viewer sees is quite obscure and often unrecognizable. Vision thereby challenges and even alters what we think we know, and how we know or perceive it. In Le Surrealisme et la peinture, Breton even insists that vision structures thought, thereby further delineating it from the other senses.
This perception of the gap between the apparent and the “real” is at its core instinctive, yet constantly overlooked because of the paradox which ensues upon its consideration. The Surrealists therefore strive to “reactivate the distinction between the apparent and the real,” to borrow Grant’s phrasing of this concept. It is perhaps for this reason that, for Breton, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? is “worth almost all the tricks of art added together.” Duchamp’s work has the appearance of a birdcage filled with sugar cubes. Yet if one were to lift this cage—as Duchamp gleefully asked his visitors to do—this seemingly simple task proves impossible. The weightless “sugar cubes” are in fact heavy blocks of marble. Vision in this case is severely called into question.
This questioning is in no way negative. It is not that we cannot rely on vision because it is deceptive; rather, it is vision’s very instability and untrustworthiness that demands that we do, in fact, rely on our eyes. In order to transform our perception of the world from the harmfully over-rational to the beautifully and opportune open-minded and novel, we must return to the very source of the most rational (the visual) and transform it. Once the eye has been questioned it can become emblematic of the challenge of the visual so at the heart of the Surrealist movement.
Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto lays out that the goal of the Surrealists is to re-transform the perception of the world as based in the infinite potential of human imagination. Grant suggests that vision can serve as a means of confirmation, but it is also important to note that this is not always necessarily the case. As discussed in Breton’s Introduction au discours sur le peu de réalité (introduction to the discourse of the dearth of reality), the “dream object” is an example of surrealism transcending the visual as confirmation. The dream object is conceived purely within the imagination or the dream, and only then is made manifest in the physical world. Vision in this case does not confirm reality; instead it creates it—it can function both as mask and as illusion. In fact the very creation of Surrealism with Breton’s introduction of automatism, as explained in his Surrealist Manifesto, lies in his being struck by the image of a man being cut in two by a window. Although Breton proceeds to then translate the visual into the verbal, he nevertheless admits to the image as the main under-layer of the subconscious and thus of our conception of reality.
One can perhaps say that the eye comes to take the role of the window within surrealist art. It “cuts” us into several halves: that of the subconscious and conscious, the internal and the external, the stabilizing and the destabilizing, the perceived and the physical. As Paul Nougé writes in his essay Les Images Défendues, “to see is an act; the eye sees as the hand grasps.” Claude Cahun brings our attention to this notion most vividly in her Object of 1936, an object which presents the eye in clear juxtaposition with the hand, but also offers its uncomfortable tangibility and physicality of the eye. Cahun further portrays the eye as bigger and more defined than the hand, suggesting that is power of perception is even greater than the tangible. Indeed, the abstract shape slicing into the eyeball seems to insinuate that the transformation of the abstract into the physical (here an abstract shape is given tangible form) literally halves the eye—that this function is only a part of its capability. For more on the violation of the eye as presented in surrealist art, see HERE. Cahun’s Object further calls to mind Nougé’s insistence that “images meant to be felt by the naked eye.”
The surrealist depiction of the eye is never singular, though it most always aims toward a unified goal of challenging and instigating awareness of this body part and the sense to which it is related. Our webpage will attempt to address some trends through which the Surrealists attempt to bring to the forefront this awareness, including, in addition to the aforementioned violation of the eye, its sexualization, its negation through blindness, and its illusory qualities. In doing so, we hope to make visible the prominence of the eye both within and to the surrealist movement; though the concept of vision is fundamental to any art movement, it is particularly crucial to Surrealist thought and to the goals of its artists—it is the very backdrop of Surrealism. For to be aware of the eye is in many ways to be a Surrealist, in understanding that the possibility of the visible is infinite—as Breton puts it, “who will determine the scale of vision?…there is also what I see differently from others and even what I begin to see that is invisible.”