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Cubism and Surrealism

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Cubism & Surrealism: A Break from Tradition

Cubism & Surrealism: A Break from Tradition
Since the introduction of perspective during the Renaissance, artists painted in a way that imitated the natural world. Some artists, such as the Impressionists, painted the world as seen through his own eyes. Others, such as the Realists, aimed to paint the world as it actually was by using precise detail and realistic subjects. It wasn’t until 1907 that artists began to look beyond nature and reality and into the creative corners of their minds to depict art that wasn’t based in the natural world. Cubism pioneered the way for this break from tradition with its unique take on perspective while Surrealism deviated even further through exploration of the subconscious mind.
Cubism developed in a time of technological advances. Photography had become common and was threatening painting as a way of documenting the natural world. Art needed to evolve its purpose. (Bewley, 2013) Cubists changed the way they approached painting by rejecting the tradition of painting the world as our eyes see it and, instead, they painted subjects broken up and reassembled in abstract form from different perspectives and viewpoints. Influenced by African mask carvings, Picasso created Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the first painting which exhibited cubism elements. (FozzyFozz, 2012)
Although not considered a Cubist painting, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is regarded by many as a pre-Cubist painting. Picasso’s use of simple geometric shapes and multiple planes are both characteristics that would later be used to define Cubism. Cubism features abstraction – artists disassemble, analyze and reassemble subjects to show the subject differently. Early Cubist painters made use of monochromatic colors, whereas later in the movement, artists explored the use of vivid colors in their artwork.
Much like Cubists, Surrealist artists were uninterested in painting the natural world as we see it. However, Surrealists took this idea and put their own spin on it by creating lifelike paintings rooted in ideas found in the subconscious mind and dreams. Stemming from the Dada movement (an anti-art movement created as a reaction to the horrors of World War 1) the Surrealism movement was less violent and more art-based. Surrealism was inspired by the psychology of Sigmund Freud and the politics of Karl Marx. (Voorhies, 2004) Surrealists had a fascination with the subconscious and aimed to resolve contradictions between dreams and reality. (Barnes, 2001) Through a creative process called automatism, the Surrealist artist explored deep into the subconscious to produce art that revealed the inner expressions of his psyche.
Surrealist artists pushed the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviors and traditions and were willing to depict images that many might find disturbing. Frequently their art displayed images of a perverse sexual nature or depicted subjects in grotesque and violent situations. Surrealist art contains a certain element of surprise due to unexpected juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated subjects in strange or unnerving circumstances. Many Surrealist works of art could be described as irrational, ambiguous or disturbing.
Neither Cubism nor Surrealism painted reality in a straight-forward way. Dali’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee and Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat are great representative pieces for Surrealism and Cubism, respectively. In Dream, Dali used strange juxtapositions which would be impossible in reality. However, it is painted with an element of realism so the objects look lifelike, unlike in Dora Maar au Chat which is a painting of a real subject that does not look lifelike. The subject, Dora Maar, has been broken down into basic geometric shapes so it is very obvious the image is not real.
In both pieces, the subject is the artist’s lover. Dali painted his wife, Gala, in the state of dreaming. (Dream, 2014) In the painting, there is a bizarre series of creatures escaping from the mouth of a previous creature and at the end of the chain, there is a bayonet. The bayonet is representative of the bee’s stinger and Gala is dreaming this because in her reality, there is a bee buzzing around her as she sleeps. Picasso’s painting is of his long-time girlfriend, Dora Maar. He used faceted in the construction of her body and intricate detail in many areas of the painting, including her hat which was commonly associated with her.
Both periods were considered movements due to their focus around a central idea. Cubism focused on the idea of expressing the Fourth Dimension on a 2D surface and Surrealism focused around exploring the subconscious and dreams. Cubist artists portrayed this idea through use of multiple planes and exploring different perspectives. In Dora Maar au Chat, Picasso placed Dora Maar in a simple but dramatic setting. Automatism allowed artists to tap into the inner workings of their psyche to create authentic paintings of their subconscious. Surrealist artists painted dreamscape and made use of Freudian psychology in their pieces, such as in Dream, where the immediate reality of the subject’s situation affects the course of her dream.
While Cubism paved the path for the break from tradition of painting reality, Surrealism continued along and then created its own path. The ideas and art expressed and created by Surrealist artists went on to influence artists, writers and even politicians. The Surrealists taught the world to see art in a completely new light – to appreciate it not only the visual and literary devices used, but to also appreciate it on a subconscious level. They affected the future generations of art by liberating the imaginative corners of artists’ minds and carved a path for freedom of expressing feelings in their artwork by breaking the chains that confined them to only painting reality.

Barnes, Rachel (2001). The 20th-Century art book. London: Phaidon Press ISBN 0714835420
Bewley, Alex (2013) “A comparison between the Cubist and Surrealist Art movements” [Web blog] Retrieved February 2014 from
Dream, Caused by the Flight of a Bee (Around a Pomegranate, a Second Before Waking Up) (2013) Retrieved February 2014, from
FozzyFozz (October 2012). Cubism and Surrealism [Web blog post]. Retrieved February 2014 from
Voorhies, James. "Surrealism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

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