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Surrealism And Its Afterlives In American Culture




WIH Reporter: It is a pleasure to welcome you to WIH, Dr. Zalman! We are looking forward to learning more about Surrealism and Its Afterlives in American Culture. Can you give us an example of where we can see Surrealism’s influence today?

Zalman: Absolutely, Surrealism is still all around us. It’s in our language, for example, when we describe an experience as ‘surreal.’ Surreal first entered the American dictionary in 1937, thanks to a major exhibition of Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it’s still just as relevant—In 2016, Merriam Webster declared ‘surreal’ the word of the year.

WIH Reporter: Has Surrealism evolved or changed over time?

Zalman: Yes, Surrealism began as a revolt against bourgeois society, and ironically, became a darling – even a tool – of bourgeois society. Even though Surrealist artists were trying to shock people out of their complacency, advertisers immediately recognized that Surrealist visual strategies were very effective at getting consumer’s attention. So, Surrealism has a double-edged kind of potency.

WIH Reporter: In your course description, you mention that curators and artists grappled with the complicated politics and unabashed commercialism of the movement. How did this differ from other modern art forms?

Zalman: Surrealism was difficult to categorize because it is not stylistically cohesive (the way Cubism is, for example). It encompasses artists as different as Joan Miró and René Magritte. It’s also a completely interdisciplinary movement—involving poetry, experimental writing, visual art practice, political engagement and theoretical psychology. Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, called Surrealism “a way of life.” This meant that it wasn’t as easy to define as a movement guided by a unified aesthetic theory, since it encompassed such a broad cross-section of culture.

WIH Reporter: According to Google, Surrealism is defined as “a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.” Is there a quintessential piece that you think represents the movement best?

Zalman: Magritte is a quintessential Surrealist artist, and, thanks to the Menils who amassed an impressive collection of his work, his paintings are very accessible to Houstonians. Today, Magritte is probably best known for creating The Treachery of Images (1929), his painting of a pipe that says underneath “This is not a pipe.” But Golconde (1953), often on view at the Menil Collection, is another great Surrealist painting. It depicts several rows of rather banal, bowler-hatted bourgeois business men hovering in mid-air above a cityscape. Their floating defies the laws of nature, but it’s also very orderly and legible as an image. This sort of disconnect – between something impossible and something seemingly right before our eyes – opens up the space in which we can question our perceptions about systems of knowledge and assumptions of understanding.

WIH Reporter: In your book Consuming Surrealism in American Culture: Dissident Modernism, you contend that Surrealism has been integral to the development of American visual culture over the course of the twentieth century. Where is this most prevalent?

Zalman: That’s a great question. It’s sometimes hard to recognize something that is so influential because it’s all around us. Visually, Surrealism’s influence is still seen today in window design, fashion and advertising, in a lot of contemporary art from Pop to the present, in photography with odd cropping or disorienting close-ups, in films that begin at the end and play with time and structure, or more simply, any dream sequence where things get a little weird. But most of all, Surrealism is successful because we understand that there is a certain absurdity in everyday existence.

WIH Reporter: What are you most excited to share in this class?

Zalman: Surrealism is one of the few really popular avant-garde art movements. I’m excited for people to learn more about the history of Surrealism including how it became so popular, but also what it means to translate avant-garde ideas into mass culture.