Recently I went to see the “Forbidden Games” surrealist photography show at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Now, I knew I liked surrealism to begin with, as some of my favorite movies are by David Lynch. But I really, really loved this show. While looking at it all, I was able to form a more concrete reason why I loved surrealism, and just what surrealism is.
Part of the description of the exhibit at the beginning of the show described surrealism to be about looking at things with a childlike imagination (being very dream like), but it also has darker adult themes about sexuality and the human psyche. Surrealism has been described as art that studies dreams, and I think this is a good description of how dreams are. Dreams are not driven by logic or reality. There will be strange things that we just accept without question in a dream. Likewise, those sorts of things will be in surrealist art as well.
I must admit that listening to the soundtrack from the game Ib (which is about being in a dark twisted surreal art museum) did heighten my enjoyment of the show, perfectly setting the mood for all the pictures I saw. (You can listen to it here.) In fact, it felt very much like watching one of David Lynch’s earlier films; either one of his short films or his first feature film Eraserhead. There were a couple surrealist short films playing and I was completely enraptured by them. They were dreamlike and experimental and we probably wouldn’t have certain filming techniques we have today without those films.
The most important aspect of it all for me though was the fact that I could look at any picture and think that there was a story behind what was captured. No matter how simple or strange, the picture told a story. I stress this matter because in pretty much every art museum I’ve ever been in, I was really bored with all the art. After looking at this show as well as then touring the modern art gallery, I was able to place why I didn’t like the other art I had seen. The older “traditional” art (what you’re most likely to see in museums) felt very stiff and unreal to me. I could look at most of those pictures and not get any ideas of what was going on there; most of the time it was just people who looked like dolls. With the surrealist show and the modern art we saw, everything felt alive; everything felt like a moment of life captured in a single image, rather than just some picture of nothing in particular thrown together. They felt real. They gave me emotions.
I have to wonder whether I would have felt the same way about the modern art we saw if I had seen that before I saw the surrealist exhibit. The surrealism just brought my mind alive to new possibilities. As I stated earlier, surrealism is looking at something through the imagination of a child; anything is possible, no matter how dark and twisted it may be. Surrealism is perhaps one of the most important art forms there are, as it causes us to stop and think; to think outside the box and use our imagination.
To talk a little bit more about the darker side of surrealism, I want to use the David Lynch movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as an example. Twin Peaks is one of my favorite television shows. It starts out as a mystery with elements of comedy, soap opera, and horror in it, and it slowly goes into a supernatural and psychological drama. The movie, Fire Walk With Me, ups the horror, supernatural, and psychological aspect of it. It actually goes into the darker details that the show only hinted at. It’s a dark story about how a father abused and raped his daughter from a young age and how she turned out as a result of it. She went into more adult things (basically becoming a prostitute at the age of 17), but you still see the childlike innocence of her in certain parts. Despite all the horrible things she does of her own choice, she doesn’t want to be that way. She still wants to be the child she had been before her father did anything to her.
At the start of the movie, you know Laura as a high school girl, the homecoming queen, the one everyone in the town loves and cherishes, but you quickly see her darker side that she hides from everybody but her boyfriend. She’s a drug addict, she drinks and smokes, she’s cheating on her boyfriend with her “secret” boyfriend. You see the dark side of her really before you see the side of her that the rest of the town sees. But then you see her family life and the problems she has; the fears that grip her, and it all starts to make sense.
I make a point of this because it fits with that description of surrealism; childlike imagination or innocence mixed with darker adult themes of sexuality and the psyche. Laura has a dream in the movie after looking at a painting of an angel. The angel disappears from the painting. By the end of the movie, she sees it again, hovering over her, which I believe symbolizes that her soul has been saved… perhaps. It’s a very childish sort of dream to show her that she’s been saved. I use the term childish not to mean immature and dumb, but just that it’s something that a child would see or imagine, and it’s beautiful.
Even in the midst of this dark ending, you see a bit of hope. The hope comes in a dark, sad place, and you’re not even sure if it is hopeful, but you still feel like not everything is horrible and despairing. Essentially, the surrealism in this story is used to show themes and the dark, horrible things that are happening to make it less horrible. Yes, it is still horrible, but you feel like you can handle it more in the surreal setting. If you were to tell the same story being brutally honest and realistic with no surrealism, I believe you would feel much dirtier having seen it. In this sense, it’s more thought provoking. And there’s a strange beauty to it all. Some people say there is beauty in suffering. I believe that is true as long as you present it in the right way. This did it right.
I would dare to say that fairy tales used surrealism in them. They have odd, unexplained things that we are just supposed to accept because that’s how fairy tales work, right? Surrealism works in the same way. In fact, many surrealist stories draw parallels to fairy tales. The oldest versions of fairy tales have these dark, disturbing themes in them that surrealism often deals with. So surrealism has been used for a long time without us giving it the name of surrealism. Children’s stories and shows and movies are often surreal (though maybe not the normal dark surreal that we usually think of).
Another genre that is closely linked to surrealism is cyberpunk. Cyberpunk often deals with things like going to an online world like the internet but being there in a more physical or mental sense; making it more like virtual reality. Often they make it like a video game, and I’ve seen that virtual reality video games are often attributed to dreams. I’ve had dreams that were like video games myself a lot. And as I established before, surrealism is all about dreams. Cyberpunk often dives into these darker, grittier issues that surrealism also deals with. As children growing up in the age of computers, we dream about being able to go into computer programs, so often in cyberpunk there’s a bit of that childlike imagination thrown in with it as well, even if it is the darker side of the imagination. The perfect example of something like this is the anime Serial Experiments Lain.
This is a really weird show and I will admit I don’t believe I could process or understand it when watching it the first time through. It’s definitely a show to be viewed multiple times before understanding. But it has the cyberpunk genre and surreal atmosphere down pat. And to a subtle degree it deals with the theme of an innocent girl breaking out of her shell and moving into the adult world. There’s no actual sexual content in the show, but there are subtle hints and implications that there is a theme of opening up sexually. Everything in the show is presented in a very psychological sort of way; you don’t know when something is real or a dream or in the “Wired” which is essentially the internet. It may or may not be non-linear as well, though it is honestly hard to tell. It gets into peoples’ heads but you’re not even sure whose head you’re in all the time.
There’s also the game I mentioned earlier called Ib. You play as a 9-year-old girl going to visit an art museum with her mother and father. It’s a show of this artist who did lots of strange and dark pieces of all sorts. You find one painting and after looking at it you find yourself inside a nightmarish version of an art museum where paintings and statues come alive and try to kill you. You find two other people there as well: a boy named Garry who sort of takes on an older-brother relationship with her, and a girl named Mary, who is not to be trusted.
Many of the themes in this game are darker and in an extremely subtle way you could interpret some of them as sexual, especially with the painting called The Woman In Red. There are also dark themes of death and loneliness, lust and envy, and the state of one’s soul. and it’s all so terrifying and heartbreaking and beautiful all at once. This art museum is a place of horrors yet at the same time I find myself wanting to be there. It’s such a simple game but I love it so dearly.
All this to say, surrealism is important and I wish people would have a more open mind to it. Just because something isn’t completely linear or clear-cut, just because you don’t have every little detail explained to you doesn’t make something bad. Just keep looking at things from the mind of a child. Look at it the way you might a fairy tale. Be enchanted, and horrified, and heartbroken, and open for that tiny shred of hope at the end if it isn’t a completely happy ending.
I only hope that I can keep that childlike sense of imagination with my own art, even when it gets dark and more “adult”. That description of surrealism sums up my entire thought process of writing and stories and I believe me as a person in general. Never give up your childlike imagination, but don’t be afraid to delve into darker and more mature waters at the same time.