Surrealism: How our strangest dreams come to life in design
Beverley D’Silva / BBC:
It’s now argued that Surrealism is no longer an art movement – it’s an attitude. From Dalí and Schiaparelli to Björk and Lady Gaga, Beverley D’Silva explores a fantastical, unsettling world of dreams. Melting clocks drape over trees; men in bowler hats float through the sky; a disembodied eye blinks back from a plate of soup… Disturbing, displaced, dreamlike – the visual language of Surrealism is now so normal that “to be surreal” can be shorthand for anything strange, unreal, or hinting at the deeper, darker recesses of the human mind. Surrealism began as a literary movement in Paris, 1924, when writer André Breton created its first manifesto – he described it as “pure psychic automatism” – and it was shaped by Symbolist poetry and Dadaism, whose “anti-artworks” defied reason.
It was soon embraced by fine artists including Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and René Magritte, who were reacting to the horrors of World War One, and the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The group was also greatly influenced by the work of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, whose theories on the subconscious and the hidden subtext of dreams provided them with rich material.
Obsessions, chance, and the irrational were integral to their new artistic reality, in which the familiar is unsettling, and a disintegrating world takes on a dream-like light. Painting, drawing and sculpture were their primary media, but by the 1930s, Surrealism was climbing into bed with design to encompass objects, too.
From fashion to furniture, graphics to photography, with magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue inviting Dalí and Giorgio De Chirico to create covers with a surreal twist. So too did theatre, film and dance, famously including the ballet costumes and sets commissioned in 1932 by Russian Ballet director Sergei Diaghilev, and artfully executed by Max Ernst and Joan Miró.
In fact, Surrealism’s passion for design has never faltered – as an exhibition at London’s Design Museum, Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 to Today, shows. Its curator, Kathryn Johnson, tells BBC Culture: “If you think Surrealism fizzled out in the 1960s, think again… It is alive and well and never really went away.” She draws parallels between the original avant-garde art movement’s reaction to war and disease, and artists at work in recent years, “when in the context of dizzying technological change, war and another global pandemic, Surrealism’s spirit feels more alive than ever in contemporary design”. To see how that spirit has bountifully inspired creatives since then, look no further than Elsa Schiaparelli, currently being celebrated in an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The Italian aristo fashion designer began her haute couture empire, Maison Schiaparelli, in 1927, and joined forces with Dalí to co-create absurdist, provocative designs. Their Shoe hat (1937-8), an upside-down court shoe with a heel in Schiaparelli’s signature shocking pink, was made for Dalí’s wife, Gala. They whipped up a lobster dress for US socialite Wallis Simpson, then Duchess of Windsor. Schiaparelli’s trompe-l’oeil imagery, such as her dress fabric, printed with rips, foreshadowed punk by four decades, and Surrealist gallery owner Julien Levi believed she was the only fashion designer to successfully interpret Surrealism.
Fast forward almost a century, to Maison Schiaparelli’s relaunch in 2018 to great fanfare by its new creative director, Daniel Roseberry. “I want to be the alt couture house,” he said, “the really alternative destination for surreal, twisted luxury.” Roseberry described Surrealism’s relationship with design as “somewhere between fantasy and reality… darkness and light… The surreal feels just out of reach, yet its emotional punch is visceral and sometimes even urgent.”