The Complex Bonds Between Design and Surrealism

Posted inFeatured
Thumbnail for IMPACT Design for Social Change Returns

By: Rick Poynor

This article appears in the August issue of Print.

I have my former English teacher, Mr. Taylor, to thank for my interest in surrealism. During one class, he described Salvador Dalí’s 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory, which is in the Museum of Modern Art collection. I was 14. The soft watches draped in the landscape like melting cheese sounded fantastic—I had to find out more.

Soon after, I took my first visit to the Tate Gallery in London, where I saw Dalí’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus and Autumnal Cannibalism, and other inexplicable paintings by Max Ernst and René Magritte. It was a moment of thrilling discovery and revelation. From that point, my practical enjoyment in making art became a committed interest in art history; surrealism, the first art movement I read about, was the potent glob of plastic explosive that blew open that mental door.

Since then, I have looked at many kinds of art and design, but surrealism remains the current in the visual arts to which, even now, I feel the strongest attraction. The first book I bought on the subject, in that early phase of excitement, was titled Surrealism: Permanent Revelation, and that phrase, a declaration of advocacy by the authors, expresses my own view. Surrealism revealed possibilities that remain present in art, culture, and everyday experience. This potential for revelation transcends the banal and, frankly, irritating use of “surreal” in ordinary speech to mean something strange or unusual. Surrealism was more highly organized and longer lasting than most art movements, and it was always about more than art or aesthetics. By looking inward and attempting to fathom the unconscious, its project was to transform the way we live.

I have often made passing references to surrealism when writing about design. In 2007, the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition “Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design” provided a chance to explore the links between surrealism and graphic design in two articles for Eye magazine. (The exhibition, which focused on objects, interiors, and fashion, overlooked this relationship.)

Last year, when the Moravian Gallery in Brno, in the Czech Republic, asked me to curate an exhibition for the International Biennial of Graphic Design in 2010, I decided to develop this theme in a show called “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design.”

The Czech Republic is a good place to explore this connection because surrealism’s influence in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s was second only to its impact in France, the movement’s birthplace. To this day, there is a formal Czech and Slovak surrealist group of artists and theorists, who organize meetings, exhibitions, and publications. They have their own regular periodical, Analogon, with critical and scholarly articles relating to local and international surrealism.

Jan Švankmajer, the Czech filmmaker, artist, and intellectual, is a self-declared surrealist, and his extraordinary short films—highly recommended if you have never seen them—provide persuasive evidence that surrealism’s psychic electricity still flows. (“Meat Love” from 1989 is embedded above; a clip from “Alice” is below.) One of the high points of working on the exhibition was the chance to visit Švankmajer, now in his mid-seventies, at his home in Prague and at his “castle” deep in the Czech countryside. Here, he and his late wife, Eva Švankmajerová, also a surrealist artist, created their own Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities: a two-story private museum in a former granary, stuffed with ornate shells, polished stones, animal skulls, tribal carvings, nail fetishes, and artworks by spiritualists, as well as their own sculptures, ceramics, paintings, and graphic work.

Surrealism has never received much attention in relation to graphic design. Where design histories touch on it, they rightly tend to see its adoption in promotion and advertising, in the 1930s, as a dilution. It would be possible to trace the influence of, say, Magritte’s conceptual puzzles on illustration over the decades, but I wasn’t interested in this exercise. What fascinates me are cases where a designer or graphic artist connects in a more personal, direct, and continuous way to surrealist aims and image-making, though it would be misleading to suggest that this has ever amounted to a graphic “movement” with official members.

The most familiar graphic work with a surrealist influence is Polish poster design from the late 1950s. “Uncanny” includes designs by Jan Lenica, Roman Cieslewicz, Bronislaw Zelek, Franciszek Starowieyski, and Andrzej Klimowski, a British graphic artist born to Polish émigrés; he spent several years in Warsaw in the 1970s. Less well known outside the Czech Republic are the remarkable posters, mostly to advertise films, created by Czech designers in the 1960s, often using surrealist symbols, motifs, and visual strategies, such as collage. Many of these figures were also fine artists. What their work might sometimes lack in typographic refinement, it gains immeasurably in the invention, vitality, and iconic charge of the imagery. Looking at these posters now, it’s amazing to think that these astonishingly free designs were routinely displayed, for a few golden years, for public appreciation in the street.

Josef Vylet’al, who died in 1989, was the Czech poster artist most fully shaped by surrealism. He looked to Ernst, Dalí, Magritte, and the Czech surrealists Jindřich Štyrský and Toyen—as well as Hieronymus Bosch and Giuseppe Arcimboldo (also a key figure for Švankmajer)—as influences. In 1965, mysterious root-like tendrils, which Vylet’al called “Tree Beings,” began to surface in his paintings and posters, caressing and enfolding human figures and objects. A poster (top) for the 1966 British film I Was Happy Here becomes a lush orange hothouse, part geometric interior, part dream landscape, occupied by three women whose heads are displaced into other parts of the image.

Design like this retains its power years later because it embodies a psychological imperative that cannot be explained away. The uncanny sensation that the visual image means something, that it is familiar at a deep subconscious level that’s never quite accessible, keeps us returning to try to penetrate the mystery.

The work of contemporary designers such as M/M and Elliott Earls (at left), both featured in “Uncanny,” has the same irreducible capacity to disturb. Measured against the smooth, palatable conventions of contemporary graphic design, such imagery can look perverse, obscure, and willfully dysfunctional. Earls’s magnificent recalcitrance has always appealed to me, but graphic designers who are prepared to accept extreme forms of expression in art or film often reject this in the graphic arena. When placed in the surrealist tradition, Earls’s bizarre fantasies might still
seem irrational by any objective measure, yet they are fully at home there and make their own peculiar kind of sense.

Good taste attempts to curb and control, and surrealism has always resisted it. If we want to understand who we are, what we are made of, and what we desire, then we have to be prepared to pry open the gates. What bursts out can often look excessive—from Starowieyski’s skull people to Ed Fella’s replicating letterforms—but something significant is always revealed. It was surprising, even for me, gathering together this work from the last 80 years, to realize how persistent these visual themes have been. “Uncanny” presents many images of strange, monstrous, and even demonic figures and forms. It also contains a bountiful crop of curiosities, marvels, and wonders. This poorly tended and partly concealed graphic tradition has greatly enriched visual communication. We should cultivate its wild, orchidaceous blooms.

“Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design” is on view at the Moravian Gallery in Brno until October 24, 2010.

[The Moravian Gallery]

This article appears in the August issue of Print.

In This Issue Original art and strong opinions from Art Chantry, Joe Duffy, Barbara Glauber, Michael Ian Kaye, Oded Ezer, and many others. Also: regular columnist Khoi Vinh asks if designers are ready to start making apps, and Paul Shaw reviews Veljovic Script. Cover by James Victore.

See the complete Table of Contents

Order a copy

[My Design Shop]

Download the magazine