Why Surrealism Now?

Contemporary Art, In Brief, Opinion

By Will Griffith

Surrealism is everywhere in the art world of 2022, and yet nobody seems to know why.

What makes this Surrealist explosion so unusual is how curatorial and the market seem to be working in perfect tandem, from the Venice Biennale's The Milk of Dreams theme and the concurrent exhibition Surrealism and Magic at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, to the Met and the Tate's Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition, to the contemporary work at the fairs, to the auctions dedicated to the movement, including Christie's upcoming Marquée-week auction, "The Surrealist World of Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs." The leading work in that sale, Le Violin d’Ingres by Man Ray, is expected to be the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction, at $5-7MM. In addition to current Post-Surrealist gallery shows like Annie Lapin at Miles McEnery, many post-Surrealists featured at the fairs in New York last week, including at Independent, Peter Nadin with Off Paradise, and Bony Ramirez with RegularNormal, among others.

Attirement of the Bride (La Toilette de la mariée) (1940) by Max Ernst
Attirement of the Bride (La Toilette de la mariée) (1940) by Max Ernst, from the Peggy Guggenheim collection.
Le Violin d’Ingres (1924) by Man Ray
Le Violin d’Ingres (1924) by Man Ray, from the Jacobs Collection at Christie’s, expected to be the most expensive photograph ever sold at $5-7MM).

As Stephanie D’Alessandro, chief curator of the Met exhibition, explained, “The particular moment of 1924—following a pandemic, violence and political hostilities, social upheaval, economic and human hardships—isn’t too dissimilar from aspects of today. In my mind, in this moment of fracture, many of us feel a need for connection, for shared ideas and dreams, and Surrealism is a way to animate these tenets.” When asked why they think Surrealism is having such a moment right now, every single gallerist, auctioneer, academic, and curator we interviewed for this piece offered a response along these lines. Professor Effie Rentzou, a Surrealism expert at Princeton University, describes its relevance: “Surrealism tried to grapple with the question of how do we actually live, how can people feel free in these conditions of modern life that are determined by oppression.” But just how is it that Surrealist painting captures the collective feeling of this post-pandemic moment?

A review of the secondary Surrealist markets and the primary markets for emerging Post-Surrealists reveals a preference for a specific version of Surrealist painting: figurative canvases representing people inside of dreams.

The auction records show this figurative theme across the burgeoning market for 20th-century Surrealists. With multiple new records set each season for artists across the board, the Surrealism market has taken off since 2019, as Olivier Camu, who directs Christie’s “Art of the Surreal” evening sale, told us, “We have now had our 21st sale this last March 2022…for the first time in 22 years it was 100% sold, which is a rare feat for a various owners' sale as opposed to a single owner sale.” Both Camu and Thomas Bompard, head of Christie’s regular Surrealism sales, recognize two groups of Surrealism collectors, both concentrated in Europe and North America: what Bompard calls “the old Dada aficionados,” and a younger group who have become fascinated with Surrealism just as they begin to collect.

Bompard of Sotheby’s explains that the drivers of growth in the market have been, “women artists, immediately followed by the re-appraised Dada masters such as Picabia, Schwitters, and Magritte, of course, today king of the surrealism market.” The last few years have seen record after record for Magritte, most recently the $69MM hammer on L’Empire des Lumières this past March.

L’Empire des Lumières
L’Empire des Lumières (1961), René Magritte, sold at Sotheby’s 2 March, 2022 for a $69MM hammer.

All three of the most famous female Surrealist painters, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Leonor Fini have seen their auction markets take off since 2019. Comparing which works have performed well and which haven’t reveals a surprising trend: the record-breaking results are always for their most figurative works, those representing people living inside strange dreamworlds. Even for Dorothea Tanning, whose largest body of work is abstract, like Trois Poses pour Séduire, her breakout records all came from figurative dreamscapes like The Magic Flower Game, her first to sell over $1MM.

Le Repas du Lord Candlestick
Le Repas du Lord Candlestick (1938), Leonora Carrington, sold for $850K in December 2020.
Trois Poses pour Séduire
Trois Poses pour Séduire (1968), Dorothea Tanning, sold at Sotheby’s for $100K 26 March 2021.
The Magic Flower Game
The Magic Flower Game (1941), Dorothea Tanning sold at Sotheby’s for $1.07MM 6 Nov. 2015.

Rowland Weinstein, an SF-based gallerist who has collected and exhibited Fini for over 20 years, describes this trend in the private secondary market, too: “People used to tell me I was off-base buying Fini’s early figurative works, 3 years ago everybody wanted work from her abstract middle geologic period from 1958 to the mid-60s. Picasso told Fini that she was taking a difficult path, painting figures. Starting just in early 2020, I saw a major shift towards representation, where people are interested now in Fini’s 1930s figures like we saw with the $2.3MM record for Autoportrait au Scorpion and her late figurative work Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten.  Surrealism had a lot of abstraction, but the Peggy Guggenheim show in Venice was all figurative, all storytelling.”

Autoportrait au Scorpion
Autoportrait au Scorpion (1938), Leonor Fini, sold at Sotheby’s for $2.3MM 12 May 2021.
Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten
Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten (1975), Leonor Fini, sold at Sotheby’s for $666K.

Weinstein attests that the rapid rise in the female surrealists market comes not from a place of speculation, but from real historic value. He goes on, “With the Biennale I realized what a different feeling a show predominantly featuring women can have, it felt fresh. The female figure sells, and always has, but what we’re seeing now is women’s take on women. Something about what’s going on in the world has made that female lens on the figure really appealing.”

Female Surrealist representations of female figures were also everywhere at the fairs last week: at Independent, just across from where The Ranch exhibited Renate Drukes’ Surrealist female nudes and cat portraits from the 50s and 70s. Fortnight Institute showed new Post-Surrealist paintings by Trude Viken. Demand was hot, with both booths sold out within the fair’s opening hours.

Spring Fever
Spring Fever (1979), Renate Druks, The Ranch.
Moon Baby
Moon Baby (2022), Trude Viken, Fortnight Gallery.
Jane Harmon, one of the co-founders of Fortnight, shared some thoughts about how their representation of Viken fits within the female Post-Surrealist trend. Viken’s birth scenes, like Moon Baby, which sold during the first day of Independent, reflect her history as a nurse before coming to painting in her retirement in the last decade. After a pandemic-era retrospective at a national museum in Oslo, in her home country of Norway, her prices have risen slightly and interest has broadened to younger collectors and those outside North America and Europe, with one painting from Independent going to South Korea. Harmon also shared that many artists have bought Viken’s paintings.

Harmon speculates that the growing interest in this work reflects a desire for greater depth of emotional complexity within the dominant figurative mode. For Gerard O’Brien of Landing Gallery, the decision to include the Surrealist-influenced paintings of Chris Fallon in their Nada booth was his way of “getting in late on the figurative trend,” amidst a gallery program focused on abstraction. Whatever the reason for the general turn towards figuration, are female Surrealists dominant because they are those painters best equipped to take on our era’s complex emotions via the human form?

Without speculating about the broad focus on figuration, careful examination of the themes uniting the Surrealist paintings of the moment provides a possible reason for their dominance. As Fini’s dealer, Weinstein, points out above, what most unites all the different Surrealist paintings on view now is not just the representation of figures in a dreamscape, but “storytelling.” He attests, “For so long the appeal of abstraction was that it didn’t tell a story, but what people want now is to get pulled into another world, to get lost in this journey where they can see themselves inside the work.” What unites all these painted Surrealist narratives is their ambiguity—neither nightmares, nor daydreams, but mysterious and strange, uncertain as the feeling of our moment—a sense that everything that was most familiar is becoming foreign.

The version of Surrealism permeating the art world of 2022 offers a chance to not only glimpse a world where the environment reflects the deep confusion of everyday life, but to become transported there through narrative. In the face of total chaos, the most authentic visual representation of our inner lives could only be human figures, visions of ourselves living out the mysterious purgatory of the dreamscape.