It is hard to define what great art is. Here is a good example from none other than French Nobel Laureate, André Gide, who describes his reaction to Man with a Glove by Titian, that he saw in the Louvre as a very young man: "I began to cry. Life without intensity has no value and I saw that perfectly expressed in Titian's painting."
Of course, Titian was not a surrealist artist, far from it but that power of emotion, which his painting evoked in Gide is something found in abundance in surrealism. Why? Because surrealist art literally turns our world upside down rattling us to the core.
As a young child I found Dali's art so terrifying that I couldn't bear to look at it. Now in the second half of my life, I can finally understand what surrealist art is trying to say- take your world, your life, everything you believe and consider this- is it a reality, does it actually exist or is it the sum of your inculcated and ingrained beliefs and perceived ideas? That process jolts the viewer so deeply within themselves that they experience a cataclysmic bolt of unconsciousness followed by an altered consciousness and a questioning of themselves. The experience is unsettling to say the least. I would describe the effect as akin to discovering some terrible skeleton long hidden in the family cupboard.
Surrealism is definitely for grown ups; the effect is so powerful, dare I say, so damaging, that the viewer will either love its strange fantastical and esoteric vision of life or run screaming away from it.
Take this painting by renowned French Surrealist painter, Pierre Chalory:
Le roi fou, oil on canvas, copyright Pierre Chalory
The Mad King sits alone, perhaps distracted, perhaps lost in thought. It is impossible to know. His head appears to be somewhat vacant and his 'crown' is no longer on his head. The ground around him seems to be moving perhaps a symbol of the king's growing insanity. Strange to the viewer's eye, there appears to be movement in the painting whilst there is actually no sign of anything actually shifting position. Again we are asked to question what we are seeing. As we look at the painting, our perspective begins to change - at first glance we are struck by the strangeness of the subject, by the end of our close examination, we are unsettled. The bright colours are anything but cheerful and the King is fractured and fragmented not just as we see him sitting without his crown, but we come to realize that the entire painting is in fact a portrayal of his state of mind. This masterful ability to demand that we look at every element in a painting, in order to understand its essence is not dissimilar to how we face life. We are the sum of our past, our families, our upbringing etc. Our mental store of beliefs and behaviour is, in fact, everything that has already happened to us. One cannot so easily change a mindset or simply put, the way we view the world. But what if, even what we thought we knew turned out to be an irreality?
René Magritte's surrealist painting of a pipe entitled This Is Not A Pipe is the antithesis of The Mad King. At first, second and third glance, the pipe is clearly a pipe yet Magritte asks a very simple question and in so doing encourages us to question what we are seeing. In this sense, surrealism gives the viewer a silent yet violent shaking and forces them to dissect apart their own perception versus reality.
Philosophers argue that reality is just an illusion. Surrealism drives a question mark further into our minds by asking- how can you be sure that you know anything at all? And by inference, who are you? At this point, although convinced that yes, we are actually made up of flesh and bones, we are troubled by the surrealist challenge to remove the cloak of appearance and veneer and to peer beneath it.
The surrealist artist creates a reflection that unsettles the viewers into examining themselves. Shock horror!
Ironically in our throw away society where profundity is probably likened to the size of a burger and fries, the questions that surrealism is asking risk going unanswered. All around us human beings are becoming degraded into a non-thinking sub species. And like the mad king, inside the minds of today's society is becoming a great big hole of nothingness. Art has not so much evolved as degenerated into unmade beds and material conceptualism. The artist is a director of operations wearing diamond cufflinks. The questions that nudge the soul into reflection no longer take precedence. Subtlety has been replaced by in-your-face mediocrity that is a truthful facsimile of today's society: loud, aggressive, impatient with hard work and earned praise. Think of it this way: there is nothing subtle about a pickled animal in a glass case. But a house floating an azure blue sky and some strange object that we can't recognize which forces us to adjust our glasses and to scratch our heads simultaneously, now that's what I'd call a work of art. But golly, it can hurt to find out that life is just a mirage, after all.