In the first of these two articles looking at surreal paintings which anticipated the Surrealist movement of the early twentieth century, I showed examples from Hieronymus Bosch in around 1500 up to Félix Vallotton in 1892. Here I complete the journey with paintings made from 1895.
Gustave Moreau’s last masterpiece, Jupiter and Semele (1895), is surely surreal by any standard. Jupiter sits on a massive throne, with Semele draped over his right thigh. All around them is phantasmagoric detail, drawn from many different myths and cultures, which can be seen better in the detail below.
Jupiter rests his left forearm on Apollo’s lyre. His right hand holds a lotus flower, and his body or clothing is extensively decorated with further floral and botanical images. He looks, eyes wide open, straight ahead. Behind his left shoulder is a woman deity, perhaps his wife Juno. Semele is statuesque, her arms cast back in shock. Her left side is covered in blood, presumably from where the foetus has been extracted. Her hair flows off in a long, thick tress, decorated like a peacock’s feathers. Below her is a winged Cupid, its face buried in its forearms, in grief at Semele’s imminent doom. Around them is a torrent of images exceeding even Richard Dadd’s visions.
In 1899, Georges Clairin painted his extraordinary Bust of a Woman in Profile. Perhaps a sea-nymph, she’s wearing the most bizarre headgear which appears to have grown from coral. It has peculiar pedicles which sweep over her hair, and excrescences which look like the bodies of fabulous birds.
Here’s another surprise, this time from the closing years of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s career, a little joke which proved to be his greatest influence on twentieth century art: his Optician’s Sign from 1902. This plays on the French term opticien, and chien, the French for dog. He apparently entered this in a competition. Years later, it was seized upon by Surrealists, and proved an inspiration for several.
The First World War exposed its artists to sights which can only be seen as surreal, perhaps in the same way that Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is.
Félix Vallotton’s Landscape of Ruins and Fires from 1915 captures the utter destruction on the ground and surreal displays in the sky.
Paul Nash, already on his road to becoming one of the British Surrealists, captured this in The Menin Road (1919). It shows a section of the Ypres Salient known as Tower Hamlets, after what is now a part of eastern London. This area was destroyed during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.
In the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, Joseph Stella filled the Tree of My Life with exotic plants and birds in densely-patterned passages, as shown in the detail below. These are presumably autobiographical references, in a work which the artist described as the “tree of my hopes.”
I end with a Norwegian painter who was far from the urban centres in more southern European countries where Surrealism was starting to develop in the 1920s: Nikolai Astrup, whose rural enchantments occasionally became so otherworldly as to become surreal.
His 1920 painting of Corn Stooks shows what I understand was the traditional way to dry cut grain crops in this part of Norway. But Astrup turns them into a ghostly army stood on parade under the watchful eye of the mountain giant behind. This culminated in his unearthly nocturne of The Befring Mountain Farms which he painted between 1924-28.
Astrup’s rugged rock peaks become the head of a giant owl, peering down at his moonlit unreality. The everyday act of milking a goat becomes strange when it takes place in the dead of night. Marsh marigold flowers, which we typically see in the summer sunshine, still glow yellow under his bright yellow moon. Surreality in the fjords.