A change of philosophy occurred in Surrealism around 1926.
From believing that automatism and objectivity could free the inner substance of men, Surrealists started to anchor this belief onto inner desires. Further, being into the idea that art was a collective thing, and that getting to know your inner self and desires was a community act – indeed through living life to the most you may radiate onto others – Surrealism started understanding art as a worldly act, a part of the big cosmos.
This led them to understand that their inner desires, through our subconscious, affects our actions, decisions, and surroundings. In this thought, the Surrealists, through by Breton began to believe that our everyday encounters and chance findings are actually psychologically pre-ordained by our subconscious.
As such, found objects were direct, already existing embodiments of our inner desires, that just need to be found, in a privileged chance encounters.
To trigger these encounters, the Surrealists would visit flea markets in the hope of being ‘called’ by certain items. Because of this, and also due to the group’s interest in primitive art (which they believed was art straight from the psyche, devoid of social interpretations of norms), the Surrealists are known for having been avid collectors of all sorts of objects.
Check out André Breton in his apartment in the 1960s, and this short post about his collection:
From such a fascination with objects and their meaning in the subconscious, as well as with the “inner desire” interpretation of serendipity, the Surrealists began trying to re-create the chance encounters with objects. This means that, from going to flea markets to be called by objects, they not so much began to artificially simulate the chance encounters, but they attempted to simulate “unconscious accident” by amalgamating found objects into sculptures, trying to attain the same principle as with collage and automatic writing – that of shaping the object directly from unconscious directive.
As such, the concept of Objective Chance began becoming popular, and was pushed forward by Breton for he feared that painting, drawing, writing and collage had been exhausted.
It is thought that the Surrealist Object first began with Salvador Dali, when he was asked by Breton to find an alternative artistic creation.
However, the concept that Dali came up with is slightly different from that of chance objects. Dali’s aim when creating Surrealist Objects was to bring objects from dreams into the real world, whereas Breton understood objects as entities which reveal one’s inner desires. We therefore see two categories of objects used by Surrealists: on the one hand, those created from dream-material, which eventually become symbolically functioning objects – as most of them are twisted enough to not really be functional anymore; and on the other hand, objects revealed through chance encounters, which eventually help the Surrealist to fulfil an existing unconscious obsession, or to complete a piece which was missing a little something. The two camps can be personified as follows: Salvador Dali and Meret Oppenheim for the symbolically functioning objects, and André Breton, Alberto Giacometti, or Joan Miro with regards to objective chance.
A famous anecdote relates to the latter pair. The sculptor Giacometti was struggling to finish is piece The Invisible Object, unable to complete the face; while Breton was obsessing over a play on words, “le cendriller de Cendrillon” (Cinderella’s ashtray) and was, apparently, fantasising over using a glass shoe as an ashtray, to fulfil his obsession. As such, they both had a desire that a found object could fulfil, which would be delivered by chance, through the unconscious. On a trip together to the flea market, Breton suggests they were both guided by their inner desire towards two objects: Giacometti found a curious iron mask, a prototype for military doctors, and Breton found a spoon, of which the handle is carved into the shape of a boot. Both objects assumed immediate connections to the two Surrealists – the iron mask allegedly inspired Giacometti, helping him finish the sculpture by him freeing himself from his obsessive indecision; Breton found in the shoe-spoon what he was looking for and more: a spoon, as a Freudian symbol for a phallus, made Breton realise his obsession with Cinderella’s shoe was unconsciously sexual.
Now it is interesting to bear in mind that Giacometti’s first sculptures were not originally intended as associated to Surrealism, but were subsequently adopted by them. The first piece for which this is the case was the Suspended Ball, 1931.
Suspended Ball was identified by Dali as an “objet mobile et muet”, a mute and mobile object – not a sculpture, nor a symbolically functioning object. The reason is obvious: it is not a dream-object with a symbolic function, and it is mobile, as the ball can swing on top of the wedge.
The object was revered by Surrealists because of its ambiguity, audacity, and potential sexual interpretations – denoting of some latent desires expressed within it. It is audacious as it completely defies classical sculpture, in shape and materials. Further, the Suspended Ball was actually seen in an erotic and sadist way.
Erotic because the ball was interpreted by Dali as a receiving feminine shape, the groove being close to a vagina; the wedge underneath was thus understood in masculine terms, being a penetrating object to the ball’s groove.
Sadist because of the shape of the wedge: its sharp edge, if interpreted in phallic terms, becomes aggressive and potentially damaging to the receiving shape.
However, the piece remains ambiguous: for one, the cord is not long enough to let the wedge get into contact with the ball. Thus the object was seen by the Surrealists as extremely tantalising, to the point of it becoming tormenting to the viewer, thus reflecting one’s inner obsessions. Secondly, if understood in the above sadistic terms, one would see the receiving ball, the victim, as actually on top and in control of the situation – which shifts the plot completely.
For these reasons, Suspended Ball was considered a Surrealist object, despite its non-intention.
Returning to those objects which had surrealist intentions, Joan Miro was also into creating Surrealist Objects assembled from found objects.
As explained earlier, the 2D match for such a piece would be a collage, such as seen made by Max Ernst. Yet the Poetic Object could be considered a tiny bit more surrealist than Ernst’s early works. Being assembled from many disparate items, the Poetic Object regroups several realities together. While each object has a meaning, name and story if on its own, when grouped, these all lose their identity, and must adopt a new one.
Such an assemblage fits perfectly with one key quote of a Surrealist hero, the Comte de Lautréamont, a nineteenth-century poet admired for his novel Les Chants du Maldoror, which establish a main character who has forsaken God – something the Surrealists followed.
A key phrase of the novel refers to the beauty of “the chance meeting on a dissecting–table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”
This is a phrase referred to often by the Surrealists, for it encompasses one of their core beliefs: that the most explosive poetic sparks came from a reader’s or a viewer’s disorientation, triggered by the juxtaposition of things that should not be juxtaposed. The artist, and the reader/viewer becomes forced to create new links for these juxtaposed words/items, which fuels imagination.
Without a doubt, it is exactly what is going on with Miro’s Poetic Object.
The other type of Surrealist Object introduced was the Symbolically Functioning one.
Understandably, Poetic Object could serve no function other than creatively. On the other hand, Dali’s famous Lobster Telephone potentially could. Indeed, while the phone has a lobster on it, it still resembles the original object, and could thus claim to retain its former identity.
It remains a typical Surrealist Object due to the conjunction of disparate objects, of course, but takes the surrealist idea further. This object could have come straight out of a dream – it happens very often that, in our dreams, common things get switched over with others, as explained by Freud. It is indeed perfectly imaginable for someone to dream of once picking up the phone, only to realise they were holding a lobster to their ear, due to the similarity of shapes, and the natural condensation process that happens in dream works.
Because such an item could appear in one’s dream, it also represents common fears, anxieties, and obsessions that are revealed by our unconscious at night. The Surrealists believed, having read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, that most of what goes on in our dreams has a meaning; that everything is a symbol for a latent desire or phobia.
As such, the Lobster Telephone is as if plucked out of a dream, and thus bridges the two worlds – creating another reality, a surreality, which can reveal and explain the symbols which our unconscious creates to mask our latent desires or fears.
Another artists who was plucking objects out of dreams was Meret Oppenheim, as exampled by the famous Breakfast in Fur.
This is a traditional cup, saucer and spoon, covered in fur, intentionally created as a Surrealist object, as indeed something out of a dream. From this original intent, many understandings of its latent symbolism can be exploited, as did the Surrealists.
To Freud, fur is a symbol for pubic hair, and any sort of receptacle (such as a cup) can be understood as a stand-in for a woman’s genitalia. Further, anything that is sort of phallic shaped (such as a spoon) was seen by Freud as being a symbol for male genitalia. The Freudian interpretation of such an object would therefore be quite straightforward: it relates to intercourse – an interpretation which the group followed.
Because Freud, psychoanalysis and dream theory were so important to the Surrealists, it is easy to see why the Surrealist Object, regardless of its creation-method, and be it Symbolically Functioning or not, was so popular amongst them. It further permitted the group to bridge the gap between reality and dreams, all the while also questioning material reality, and classical sculpture.