Mark Dery interviews Rick Poynor
Slicing Open the Eyeball: Rick Poynor on Surrealism and the Visual Unconscious
Mark Dery



Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou.


More than just the preeminent commentator on the social role and cultural politics of graphic design in contemporary culture, the English cultural critic Rick Poynor is our most reliable dashboard navigator through the visual landscape, a politically astute, historically literate GPS plotting our course through the forest of signs.

In startlingly insightful yet poetic essays for magazines such as Print (for which he writes the “Observer” column) and Eye, the British design review he founded in 1990; the website Design Observer, which he co-founded; in classrooms and lecture halls around the world; in the movie Helvetica ; and in books such as his masterful collections, Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (2001), and Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (2006), Poynor offers an inspiring lesson in the power of visual literacy at a moment when our cultural consciousness is increasingly ruled, as Walter Lippmann predicted, by the pictures in our heads.

But until I heard Poynor’s recent lecture at the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan, I had no idea he was a closet Surrealist.
Nominally a behind-the-scenes view of the curatorial logic that guided his show, “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design,” which ran at the Moravian Gallery in Brno in the Czech Republic from June 23 to October 24, last year, Poynor’s lecture was, in truth, his coming-out as an unreconstructed Surrealist. “The fact is, I have a not-so-secret commitment to the idea of Surrealism,” he confessed, to a packed house. “This is not just a scholarly, detached, undertaking; I really believe in this stuff.”

With a mouse click, he flashed an image of Surrealism: Permanent Revelation, by Roger Cardinal and Robert Stuart Short, a book that was a blasting cap in his 15-year-old mind.

What made the book extraordinary, he noted, was that although it was written by “academics with literary and art-historical interests,” it nonetheless viewed Surrealism “from the standpoint of people who were devotees; they were committed.” Committed to what? Committed to Surrealism’s permanent revelation: the adoption of a dreamlike consciousness – Breton’s “pure psychic automatism” – as a worldview, in which everyday reality was refracted through the unconscious mind.

Mark Dery: It was thrilling to hear you champion Surrealism, which is reflexively dismissed as part of the sedimentary record of art history, as a guiding principle for making one’s way through the world – not only the world of ideas but the psychogeography of the visual landscape, even the emotional terrain of daily life.

But what does that mean, really? What does it mean to live as a Surrealist? To say, with complete ingenuousness, that you’re a Surrealist over a half a century after the death of Surrealism’s “pope,” André Breton; after Dalí turned the Revolution of the Mind into a one-man brand, long before Warhol, Kostabi, and Koons elevated self-marketing to an art form; after MTV reduced it to an empty signifier? What does Surrealism have to teach us, early in the 21st century? What “profoundly important things” does Surrealism still have to say to the modern world, or the post-postmodern world, or [your preferred periodization here]? As important, what daily affirmations does it offer you, as a true believer?


Rick Poynor:
I don’t want to start by splitting hairs, but saying I have a commitment to the idea of Surrealism is not quite the same as saying I’m a card-carrying Surrealist. Words like “unreconstructed” or “true believer” make it sound like some naïve faith, as though I’ve remained unaware of all the ways that Surrealism is problematic: its political ambiguity, its dubious treatment of women, its commercialization, its loss of cultural and moral authority after the Second World War, its wholesale absorption into the cultural mainstream (any curious experience is “surreal,” now, in ordinary speech) to the point where it’s questionable whether Surrealism has anything at all left to “reveal” to us.

In fact, in the decades since I found Surrealism as a teenager, my attraction to the movement has gone through different phases, including times of reduced interest, especially compared to where I am with Surrealism now, though there was never a time when I gave up on it. And that’s the point: we often tire of things, grow out of them, wonder why we cared so much, and feel retrospective embarrassment at what later looks like misjudgment. With Surrealism, that never happened. Time and experience tested it and proved its value. That youthful encounter blasted open a mental door and what was on the other side – there is so much on the other side – has never ceased to be meaningful to me.

I should also emphasize at the outset that while I’m greatly interested in Surrealism’s precepts, personalities, history, and literature, my fascination began with the visual art of Surrealism and this has always been its bedrock. When I look at Surrealist art, it still delivers its mysterious psychic shocks. Surrealism codified a poetic principle that has always existed as a possibility and still exists in life and art “after Surrealism.” “There is another world,” said Paul Éluard, “but it is in this one.” This, for me, is a guiding principle – the illuminating essence of the Surrealist revelation. I’m deeply attracted to the fantastic, the strange, the marvelous, the nameless, the uncanny, but not in the flimsy, escapist sense of fantasy otherworlds remote from our own. I’m searching for the fantastic, the unaccountable, in the tangible world, in ordinary experience and everyday life, the moments when something unexpected but deeply thrilling is suddenly manifest. The mystery is here if we would but see it. We are bound to try to talk about this, but it eludes final explanation and that’s the measure of its power.

Your dream of discovering the mind-stretchingly alien, uncanny, or dreamlike alternate realities latent in the everyday reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s concept of “profane illumination,” his term in his 1929 essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” for Surrealism’s ability to make us see the world around us in radically dislocating ways, transforming the heimlich into the unheimlich without warning.

What I’m curious to know is: what specific, concrete instances can you cite, either in your writings or undocumented personal experience, of first-person encounters with a surreality? Can you talk about moments in your mental life when the ontological ground has suddenly dropped away and you’ve found yourself peering into the vertiginous abyss of “the fantastic, the unaccountable…in ordinary experience and everyday life, the moments when something unexpected but deeply thrilling is suddenly manifest”?


Here’s something that happened two days ago. (I don’t know how “vertiginous” it will sound.) I was visiting my elderly mother for lunch and we were looking through old family photographs, a perfectly pleasant and ordinary way to pass the time. My mother would be the first to admit that she is not the greatest photographer and several pictures had peculiar blurs in the corner: her finger obscuring the lens. Most of the photos in this particular album were entirely unexceptional snapshot views. Then we came to a picture, once again with the telltale blur, that showed a road stretching into the distance with carpets of deep snow coming down on either side to the asphalt, except where areas of rocky ground, forming three curious irregular shapes, emerged from the whiteness. The road itself was entirely without snow. A white-haired man unknown to my mother was walking down the road with his back to her. There were other walkers at intervals in the distance, but no vehicles. Two clouds hung in the sky very low over the land. On the back of the photo, my mother had written “View from Highest Point.”

Now it’s safe to say that she had taken no trouble over this picture. She hadn’t composed it with any deliberation, it didn’t show anything she wanted to remember years later, and it was spoilt by an unsightly blur. Yet inside this failed image, with only minimal adjustments required, I could immediately discern a wonderfully enigmatic tableau, a place both familiar and strange that I yearned to inhabit myself, a scene I might even call surreal, if I were ever to use this drained and lifeless qualifier. I took the picture home, scanned it, cropped the bottom third to eliminate the finger blur and a distracting section of road, and the top to remove some unnecessary sky. This gave greater presence within the image to the clouds, which had the exaggerated white cloud-essence of a painting by Magritte. Enlarging the picture a little, I printed it out. Now the unknown man, standing dead center and casting a thin shadow at an angle to the rocks, was unambiguously the protagonist, contemplating the scene before him like one of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic adventurers in the wilderness, except that he wasn’t alone.

Since chancing upon this image-within-an-image two days ago, I keep going back to it. The Surrealists used the term hasard objectif (objective chance) to describe the process by which the force of our unconscious desire seems to attract the object of its fulfillment. The revelatory operations of the chance encounter lie at the heart of le merveilleux (“the marvelous”) – the Surrealist conception of beauty. You find something marvelous in the world (an object, an image, a person, a place) that corresponds, like a piece clicking into a puzzle, to a deep inner need.

Of course, most of us rely more on Google, these days, than on objective chance to summon up the obscure objects of our desire. To go meta for a moment, I’m wondering if you think the mind-splintering impact of serendipitous discoveries such as your adolescent encounter with Surrealism: Permanent Revelation was a product, in retrospect, of the difficulty of sleuthing out such cultural wormholes into alternate universes? To what degree was their affect on you bound up in your giddy sense of being a member of a secret society, perhaps the only person in your social world who’d stumbled on this concealed trapdoor into the cultural unconscious?

If this sounds like a thinly disguised apologia for hipsterism, I’m not the first to have had this thought: in the comment thread to
a Steven Johnson post about the Web as “the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture,” a skeptical reader named Alan Jacobs compares the experience of stumbling on the obscure (and obscurely charming) word “solleret” while combing through the OED in search of another word – a direct result of the information architecture of all dictionaries – to the experience of chancing on something rich and strange on the Web:

My “solleret” discovery was unique to me: other people know the word, of course, but very, very few discovered it the way I did. But when I come across something random on the net – for example, a blogger I read to learn more about the Mac happens to link to a YouTube video of a phenomenal ukulele player – thousands upon thousands of people make that discovery nearly simultaneously with me. There is a unique pleasure in discovering something all by yourself.

Johnson makes the utilitarian case that the Web has, in a sense, automated the phenomenon of objective chance, mainstreaming discoveries like yours of
Permanent Revelation. Search engines and bloggers who curate collections of links make effortlessly available to the mass of Websurfers an experience that, back in the day, was the hard-won fruit of a gnawing curiosity and a willingness to root around in the unfrequented corners of the culture, and thus was limited to an intrepid minority.

Yet he doesn’t consider the possibility that while the million now have instant access to the subcultural fringe, not to mention a magic cabinet of curiosities stuffed to infinity with ideas and images from other times and other cultures, the ease of that access may – may, I’m at pains to emphasize—be draining such encounters of their profundity. How marvelous can the marvelous be when we encounter it daily, with no more effort than scrolling down the front page of
Boing Boing?

In a recent interview, the fashion designer Anna Sui told me, “I think that because of the immediacy of the Internet, and the availability, images aren’t as precious.” Growing up in the ’70s, she said, she “couldn’t wait” for the latest issue of
Life magazine: “I was hoping that they would write about London. Finding a rock magazine that would have a small picture of somebody on Portobello road—those kinds of things, they meant so much. Now you can spend 20 minutes and find 100 pictures, [but] it doesn’t burn into your brain the way it did before.”

What do you think? Is the currency of wonder deflating, in the age of instant access for everyone?


This is an issue that weighs on my mind, for the reasons you give. Anyone who made formative discoveries before the Internet, far from the beaten path of ordinary social concerns, is acutely aware of moments of mind-altering private revelation that might never have happened, or might not have happened with the same life-perturbing intensity, after the Internet. People whose mental world was shaped later, taking digital super-abundance for granted, will find this hard to grasp without an effort of empathy and imagination. While digital optimists might have expected the vertiginous cascade of free-flowing information, unprecedented in history, to provoke a mass sense of wonder, has that actually happened? The crushing banality of the top Google search stats suggests otherwise.

Value comes from difficulty and scarcity. What can be gained too easily, with no personal effort, will be valued less. Mass experiences available to everyone at the same button click are fine, but that’s not what we are talking about with the Surrealist idea of chance encounter. The cultivation of a sensibility is an act of self-conscious individualism (there are reasons why this may be waning, but that’s another discussion). A refined sense of wonder requires us to venture out on a private trajectory – no, that’s too purposive – a drift through the world. This will be our path. The meanings we find on the path will be our meanings. Of course, this is the mission of the Baudelairean flâneur, the Surrealist wanderer in Paris in the 1920s, the Situationist on a dérive in the 1950s, all responding with poetically sharpened senses to the city’s matrix of atmospheric signals and cues. To discover things for yourself is to exercise and develop your will, to choose what you will become. The Internet is useful here (for me too) to the extent that it propels us out of the door. But it’s a mistake to depend on it for everything.

I chose the photograph as an example because there is only one copy of that picture, it was selected by me and is meaningful to me for reasons that might not register for anyone else, and I like it that way. (I wondered whether we should show it here. I have my answer now.)

These experiences are still available to us whenever we choose to seek them. If images are losing their meaning and we care about the loss, then take steps to recapture their meaning. Why do we feel we have to expose ourselves to so many unchosen influences that only deplete and demoralize us? Turn away, look elsewhere, fix on something of genuine private significance instead. The re-enchantment of the ordinary and obsolete has always been a vital project of Surrealism. The movement’s abiding concerns are those of anyone with senses peeled open to the non-market-defined possibilities of living.

In your
Print magazine essay, “The Complex Bonds Between Design and Surrealism,” you touch on Surrealism’s extraordinary influence on Czechoslovakian art and design in the 1930s – “second only to its impact in France, the movement’s birthplace,” you claim. “To this day,” you write, “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.”

Your exhibition “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design” explores Surrealism’s influence on Czech, Slovak, and Polish artists and designers. How, in your opinion, does Slavic Surrealism differ from other Surrealisms? Does it have a unique sensibility or stylistic profile?

Also, I’d be curious to hear you tease out the question of why Eastern Europe, specifically the Czech Republic and Poland, proved such fertile ground for Surrealism. Was there something in the Slavic unconscious – whatever cultural, historical, and maybe even geographical conditions helped create, say, Kafka or Bruno Schulz or Jan Svankmajer – that was especially congenial to Surrealism? The designer and critic Steven Heller has speculated that “Eastern Europe was a wellspring” of neo-Surrealism “perhaps because [artists and designers] had become so adept at creating veiled meaning in order to circumvent government censorship,” but his political reading strikes me as too reductionist to explain
The Metamorphosis and Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, examples of an authentic Slavic Surrealism that predate the falling of the Iron Curtain by decades.

I’ll concentrate on Czechoslovakian Surrealism because the Czech Republic was where “Uncanny” was shown and my intense reaction to Czech work was a big part of the impetus for proposing the exhibition. You’re right to say that this tendency in Czech culture predates the Communists’ seizure of power in 1948. The Czechoslovakian embrace of Surrealism has its origins in a literary and artistic movement called Poetism, which was developed by the avant-garde Devětsil group, founded in 1920 in Prague. In the early 1930s, the group’s leading lights, Karel Teige and Vítězslav Nezval, came to the conclusion that the differences between Poetism’s poetic program and the aims set out in the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930) were so slight that they would hitch their wagon to the international Surrealist movement. In 1934, they established the Group of Surrealists in Czechoslovakia. The following year, André Breton and Paul Éluard visited Prague; then, Nezval, Toyen and Jindřich Štyrský visited Paris.

Generalizations about differences between national cultures are always dangerous, since one can usually find exceptions. One thing that leapt out when I started to look more closely at Czechoslovakian Surrealism in 2000, on a first visit to Prague, was its sexual frankness: Toyen’s delicate erotic drawings; Štyrský’s hilarious illustrations for Nezval’s Sexual Nocturne; Teige’s collage cut-ups of female nudes. The work shows a zestful acceptance of the facts of life (it would have been scandalous in Britain or the U.S. at that time) and an exuberant humor that sets it apart from, say, the sense of psychosexual obsession and trauma in the more familiar work of Hans Bellmer. You can see the same gleeful humor decades later, though the imagery is a notch or two less explicit, in the erotic collage illustrations in Bohumil Štěpán’s book Galerie (1968), which I showed in “Uncanny” in its entirety. But again, it’s necessary to add that there is French Surrealist work that many would still classify as pornographic, such as Man Ray’s photographs of the four “seasons” in 1929. Maybe it’s just that the Czechoslovakian work seemed nearer the surface; these weren’t exceptions to be searched for in the back room; they were acknowledged “classics” of Czech Surrealism, easily seen.

Jan Švankmajer suggests that Czech Surrealism was “always rather more sober in the expression of the fantastic” than French Surrealism, with a greater emphasis on the poetic side—as perhaps befits its origins in Poetism. Štyrský’s photographs are a good example from the early years of this apparent sobriety, and they bring us back to the theme of poetic chance encounter in the city. What Štyrský does could seem minimal. He presents us with a false leg in a shop window; a big pair of spectacles projecting into the street outside an optometrist; a painting (presumably an ad) of a man trying on different shirt collars in front of a mirror; a smooth, clown-like mask hanging on a wall. There is nothing overtly fantastic about the pictures’ content and the visual style of the black and white photos is entirely matter of fact. At face value they are simply a record of ordinary objects and scenes that anyone might have come across walking around a European city in the mid-1930s. Yet the pictures, some of the best examples of Surrealist photography from that era, evince a deep sense of strangeness; many are curiously unsettling when studied and, yes, even uncanny. They invite us to recognize that the workaday objects pinioned within these tableaux are mysterious ciphers that only now, as we lean in to look closer, begin to hint at their unfathomable depths.

Your catalog for “Uncanny” includes examples of Surrealism-influenced book jackets, posters, even album covers such as Cal Schenkel’s bizarre, trash-compacted collages for Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and Uncle Meat by the Mothers of Invention, as well as Elliott Earls’s posters for the Cranbrook Academy, digitally deformed photomontages of body parts and hanks of hair that nod to Surrealism’s exquisite corpses as well as the current fascination with taxidermy and medical museums (witness blogs such as Morbid Anatomy).

I’m fascinated by the cultural dynamic in which mass consumer culture appropriates, and thereby serves as a vector of transmission for, highbrow cultural forms such as Surrealism. Case in point: the superlunar dreamscapes of sci-fi book-jacket illustrator such as Richard Powers, the Yves Tanguy of the pulps; the lurid, psychotronic covers of Ed Emshwiller, who drew inspiration from Dali; or any of the innumerable sci-fi magazine covers that beckoned teenage readers across the picture frame, onto Venusian savannahs and Uranian shores whose long shadows were on loan from De Chirico and whose biomorphic rocks were borrowed from Tanguy’s prop room.


Can you talk about the role middlebrow, lowbrow, and even kitsch visual cultures have played in spreading the gospel of Surrealism, and whether you think these dimestore appropriations of Surrealism, for purely commercial purposes, constitute an alternative branch of the movement, a counter-counterculture so to speak, no less legitimate than the official, Andre Breton-approved version?

The relationship between Surrealism as a movement and its applied forms in popular culture fascinates me. It was a central issue in “Uncanny,” which showed popular and (to an extent) commercial uses of imagery derived from Surrealism in graphic art and graphic design.

For a hard-line Surrealist, many of these images would be questionable at best and quite possibly anathema. Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, with members, meetings, manifestos and expulsions, and it sought to transform the conditions of daily life.

For Švankmajer, still at 76 a member of the Czech Surrealist group, Surrealism’s essentially political task means that it must be a collective endeavor. You cannot, in his view, be a Surrealist working only on your own, and imitations of Surrealism’s visual procedures for non-Surrealist purposes should not be seen as Surrealism. Švankmajer thinks that art historians who discuss the history of Surrealism in primarily visual terms, as though its challenge amounted to nothing more than a bag of spectacular stylistic tricks, have misunderstood and misrepresented it. Having said all of this – in Czech through a translator – at our first meeting at his house in Prague, he then surprised me by readily agreeing to take part in the exhibition and offering to lend copies from his collection of Surrealist periodicals. I thought he was about to say no.

Nevertheless, in terms of cultural history, it’s still the case that the Surrealist idea was so irresistible that it penetrated everything – advertising, fashion, design, film, music video, etc. – and if we’re interested in the development of those fields, then we have to take Surrealism into account.

The visual representation of science fiction using imagery derived from Surrealism is a good example of an area that can only benefit from closer critical attention, and there are signs that this is starting to happen. The Courtauld Institute in London recently mounted a conference titled Surrealism, Science Fiction and Comics and it’s a shame that the speaker who was timetabled to give a paper that promised to be a lynchpin in this inquiry – “Space and Inner Space: the SF Pulps and Surrealism” – wasn’t able to come. One imagines that Richard Powers’ science fiction cover images, a remarkable body of work by any measure, would have taken pride of place in this analysis.

I can see the pure Surrealism/applied Surrealism relationship (or dichotomy) from both sides of the table. I was reading science fiction in my pre-teens just before I found Surrealism and this flight training in interplanetary marvels made Surrealist art an easy-to-take next step. Around this time, discovering namechecks in J.G. Ballard’s books of Surrealist paintings that I knew and admired already – Dalí’s Impressions of Africa, Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility, Ernst’s Garden Airplane Trap – clinched the SF/Surrealism connection. Ballard’s persuasive advocacy of Surrealism within the framework of SF still looks farsighted (“the revival of interest in Surrealism... bodes well for science fiction,” he wrote in 1967) and Surrealist paintings were sometimes used on British SF book covers of the day, including some of Ballard’s. There is some fabulous (and to English speakers virtually unknown) Czech work from the same era by Adolf Hoffmeister, Teodor Rotrekl, and other graphic artists that fuses Surrealist influences with SF.

It’s hardly a doctrinaire position to take – that’s why I don’t claim to be a signed-up Surrealist – but for me the justification for these offshoots from Surrealism lies in how well they’re done. In the later history of official Surrealism, as this tenacious meme spread around the world, there is a great deal of painting that is corny, derivative, and kitsch: routine weirdness that’s much less convincing than Powers’ SF cover paintings or the mass-produced graphic images shown in “Uncanny.” I wouldn’t call these populist appropriations an alternative to official Surrealism, but the most plangent examples – by Roman Cieslewicz, Franciszek Starowieyski, and Karel Teissig, to name only a few—embrace Surrealism’s quest for the marvelous without reserve and carry it into new areas of public visual expression. Still compelling decades later, these images spout from the same primal depths as early Surrealism and equal its power to enthrall and disquiet.

I’d like to return to your evocative, poetic reverie about your mother’s photo, a throwaway snapshot that for you is nonetheless a portal to “a wonderfully enigmatic tableau, a place both familiar and strange that I yearned to inhabit myself…”

Wandering through coffee-table histories of Surrealist painting, I’m often struck by the centrality of landscape in Surrealist painting. Do you have any thoughts on that point, and more generally on landscape painting’s ability to transport us out of our bodies and into the world on the other side of the frame (an effect cognitive neuroscience or evolutionary psychology might be useful in unpacking)?


It’s often a case of haunting childhood memories transfigured on the canvas into elemental strangeness. Dalí returned in his pictures to the luminous skies and limpid bay of Port Lligat, a fishing village which he loved as a boy and where he later built a house. There are unmistakable connections between the peculiar upright forms in Tanguy’s paintings of alien dreamscapes and the prehistoric stones – dolmens and menhirs – he saw on childhood holidays in Brittany. Ernst’s dense, threatening paintings of forests conjure the exquisite blend of enchantment and terror he experienced as a child when his father took him on forest walks. Paintings of interiors can feel confined, claustrophobic, finite: Magritte exploited this sense of psychic containment brilliantly. Out in the open air, the mind’s constructions are free to spiral upwards into the empyrean. Where does one of Tanguy’s otherworldly landscapes come to an end? These mental spaces of wonder flow outwards, potentially without limit. In Expectation, a superb painting by the German Surrealist Richard Oelze, a group of men and women huddle together with their backs to us—they’re all wearing hats—in a lurid, nocturnal landscape, looking at a sky like lead. Nothing is happening here. Anything could be about to unfold.

Let’s end with a Surrealist parlor game, of sorts.

Imagine a Surrealist’s version of the Atavachron, the time-travel portal in the
Star Trek episode “All Our Yesterdays,” which permits the inhabitants of a planet whose sun is about to go supernova to dodge the apocalypse by retreating into their homeland’s past.

You’re standing in a gallery where every Surrealist painting, collage, and illustration ever created now hangs. You must step through the frame, into one, and whichever world you step into will be the place you’ll spend the rest of your life. Which will it be? The convulsive seascape of Dali’s
Cannibalism in Autumn, perhaps? The day-for-night street scene in Magritte’s moody nocturne, The Empire of Light? One of De Chirico’s metaphysically melancholy piazzas, architecture machines for freezing time? Or maybe the sleepwalker-haunted boulevard of Delvaux’s The Echo, or the infinite city of Tanguy’s Multiplication of the Arcs, a paleolopolis of seamlessly jigsawed beach stones that stretches as far as the eye can see? Remember, this is the dreamworld you’ll inhabit ’til the end of your days, so choose carefully! Of course, the inquiring reader will also want to know the why of what you’ve chosen.

A whole life? I’d give a different answer if you’d said a day or a week. My perfect retreat would be a landscape by Friedrich, justified on the grounds that he’s a precursor to Surrealism. But I’ll play the game and pick a later picture that can be properly classified as Surrealist, Ernst’s The Entire City (1936), painted after he visited the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Ernst is the Surrealist whose work I admire most. Once again, this is a painting as much about what we don’t see as what we do. We approach the city through lush green jungle. It’s impossible to tell where the striated rocks on which the city perches end and the city itself begins – Ernst used frottage for this effect, scraping away the paint. This monumental place could be ancient or science fictional, entropic or life-filled. Half of the canvas is given over to an unearthly yellow sky that glows lighter where it touches the distant buildings as though the structure is radiating weird heat. It’s a vision that can be speculated about, but never finally known. Isn’t that the essence of our condition? I’ll take my chances there.

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