Painting the surreal before Surrealism 1

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Surrealism as an art movement didn’t really arrive until the 1920s, and the term itself was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917. With the wisdom of hindsight, though, we sometimes consider much earlier art to be surrealist. This weekend I survey some of my favourite paintings which I argue were in the vanguard, in cases anticipating the popular twentieth century movement by more than four centuries. Today’s examples are drawn from the period up to the early 1890s; tomorrow I’ll show more immediate precedents.

While some older paintings might appear today to be quirky enough to qualify, common consensus holds that the original ancestor of Surrealism was Hieronymus Bosch, whose imagination ran riot in his brush.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (c 1495-1505), triptych, oil on oak panel, 220 x 390 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Of all Bosch’s many highly original and inventive paintings, it’s his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights from the period 1495-1505 which is his most florid example. Its left panel (below) shows an innovative view of the Garden of Eden, which is divided into tiers as it recedes into the background. The foreground is dominated by a scene from the account of the creation of man in Genesis, in which God has just created Eve, and introduces Eve to Adam. Adam is seated on the ground on the right hand of God. God holds Eve, on his left, by the right wrist. She appears to be kneeling on the grass on which they are stood. God wears red robes, Adam and Eve are of course naked.

Everything behind, from the Tree back, is a wild phantasmagoria unique to Bosch, but imitated by many over the following century or so.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (left panel) (c 1495-1505), oil on oak panel, central panel 190 × 175 cm, each wing 187.5 × 76.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Another artist who knew no convention was the Italian Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who painted portraits using objects collated like modern collage.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/7–1593), Fire (1566), oil on panel, 66.5 x 50.8 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

His first significant group of these paintings showed the four classical elements, including Fire (1566). At this stage, his paintings were made from carefully chosen and positioned objects which are associated with the theme of the work. So this uses a bundle of matchsticks, steels used to make sparks, burning logs, and firearms.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/7–1593), The Four Elements, Air, Earth, Fire, Water (1566), various details. Wikimedia Commons.

His series The Four Elements used creatures predominantly as its building blocks: Air consisted of birds, Earth of land animals, Fire of inanimate objects, and Water of fish and aquatic creatures.

Arcimboldo seems not to have had any school or followers, but his approach inspired others to experiment.

Joos de Momper (1564–1635), Allegory of Winter (date not known), oil on canvas, 52.5 x 39.6 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Joos de Momper took a different approach in painting weird anthropomorphic landscapes, in which the land itself became the head and shoulders of giants. His undated Allegory of Winter was one of a series covering the four seasons, probably painted around 1600.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Prisoners on a Projecting Platform (Imaginary Prison) (c 1745-50), etching, 41 x 53 cm, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

My next example is the collection of prints made in the middle of the eighteenth century by Giovanni Battista Piranesi of an Imaginary Prison. He’s thought to have started work on this series in about 1745. I like to think that they originated in the doodles of an architect who had a particular interest in the classical ruins of Rome. Inspired perhaps by flights of fancy from trying to reconstruct old ruins in his mind, he must have given his imagination free rein.

Their style is far freer and more sketchy than his normally tight and precise marks in his published engravings of Roman antiquities, and from some of the more detailed descriptions, he used chemical methods of toning too. They have since been reprinted in many different editions, and are believed to have formed inspiration for Gothic-Romantic and Surrealist artists in all media. The visionary British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) referred explicitly to them forming a part of his creative process.

A century later, Richard Dadd, who had murdered his father probably as a result of an acute crisis in his paranoid schizophrenia, painted two masterpieces that were far ahead of their time. Although his Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855-64) is the better-known, I show here his slightly earlier painting based on one of Shakespeare’s more surreal plays.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8), oil on canvas, 61 x 75.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8) was Dadd’s first work which develops his earlier faerie paintings into a new style, unique to him. Its theme takes Dadd back to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but its execution is like nothing that he had painted before. There is hardly a square millimetre of canvas which Dadd has not squeezed yet another curious detail into. Dadd’s dense details dart about in scale: there are tiny figures next to huge leaves and butterflies, and towards the top of the tondo these distortions of scale generate an exaggerated feeling of perspective.

The contradiction of the title refers to the battle of wills between Oberon and Titania, and the conflict here centres on an Indian boy. Titania (inevitably somewhat masculine, given the artist’s lack of access to women models) stands just to the right of centre, the boy bearing her skirts. To the left of centre is the bearded figure of Oberon, an elfin lad holding him back by his right arm. At the right are Helena and Demetrius, despite Helena’s efforts, their love remaining unrequited.

Beyond those central figures is an overwhelming mass of detail, miniature scenes and stories involving hundreds of extras, flowers (including the ‘Morning Glory’ convulvulus at the feet of Titania), leaves, an ornate swallowtail butterfly, a floating jade egg, fungi, and far more.

In the late nineteenth century, there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in surrealist themes.

Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), The Vision (1872), oil on canvas, 290 x 344 cm, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Although known primarily as a Naturalist, some of Luc-Olivier Merson’s paintings are phantasmagoric in their content. The Vision (1872) combines an altered image of the crucifixion with that of a nun in an apparent ecstasy, and an angelic musical trio. I’m sure that there’s a story behind this, although none springs to mind.

Charles Conder, A Holiday at Mentone (1888), oil on canvas, 46.2 x 60.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Conder (1868-1909), A Holiday at Mentone (1888), oil on canvas, 46.2 x 60.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Wikimedia Commons.

By this time, beach scenes had become popular with the European Impressionists, but Charles Conder’s Australian Holiday at Mentone (1888) has some distinctly unusual details. A lone parasol rests on the sand in the left of the painting, although it doesn’t appear to have been missed by any of the numerous people around. Figures in the foreground are curiously dissociated from one another, and from the scene itself: a woman sits in a chair, reading; a man wearing a tall black hat (contrasting with his white suit) stares intently towards the right of the picture, at an unseen object; another man is sprawled asleep, his left arm reaching up at nothing.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Bride of the Night (1892), media not known, 35.5 x 27.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Some of Gustave Moreau’s later paintings are also pre-Surrealist, including The Bride of the Night from 1892, which shows a woman in exotic and decorated dress in a dark and gloomy nocturne. Its brushstrokes are clearly visible, showing well Moreau’s late trend away from the Salon finish, and it appears to anticipate the later nocturnes of Paul Delvaux in the mid-twentieth century.

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), The Sick Girl (1892), oil on canvas, 74 x 100 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

While Félix Vallotton’s early paintings were decidedly Naturalist in subject and style, several are strange to the point of being unnerving. The Sick Girl from 1892 uses a theme which was popular with Naturalist painters throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s. His highly detailed realism here extends to showpiece surface reflections from the glassware and polished wood, but he curiously obscures the face of the young woman in her sickbed by reversing the bed’s normal orientation. Another odd feature is that the maid who has just entered the room appears to be heading towards the viewer, and isn’t even looking towards her patient.