One aim of the Surrealist movement was to access the unconscious and unite the realm of fantasy with rational everyday life. According to André Breton, one of the movement’s founders, this unity would lead to a surreality. Surrealist sculptures often included unlikely juxtapositions of found objects with dreamlike components. Here are 10 fascinating Surrealist sculptures.
1. The Most Famous Surrealist Sculpture: Lobster Telephone by Dalí
Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone is one of the best-known Surrealist sculptures. Dalí designed the object for Edward James, who was a collector of Surrealist art. James was also a poet and an important patron of Dalí. There are several versions of the work.
Both telephones and lobsters were highly sexual to Dalí. For his multimedia experience The Dream of Venus, Dalí dressed models in seafood costumes with a lobster placed over the women’s genitals. In Dalí’s sculpture, the lobster’s tail covers the telephone’s mouthpiece, therefore alluding to a connection between mouth and genitals.
The imagery of the Lobster Telephone goes back to a drawing Dalí made for the journal American Weekly in 1935. They asked him to illustrate his thoughts on American culture and Dalí created numerous drawings. One of these drawings showed a man who finds a lobster in his hand instead of a phone. The drawing had a fitting caption reading New York Dream: Man Finds a Lobster Instead of a Phone.
2. Venus de Milo with Drawers by Salvador Dalí
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Salvador Dalí’s sculpture Venus de Milo with Drawers is based on the famous ancient Greek sculpture depicting the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Dalí did not only copy the name of the Venus de Milo, but his sculpture is also a plaster reproduction of the original. He did however add drawers with fluffy pom-poms as handles on the figure’s forehead, breasts, stomach, and knee.
By combining different aspects that are usually not seen together, the Surrealists tried to remove an object from its familiar context. This was supposed to make a reality, which usually stays hidden, visible. This idea is illustrated in Dalí’s Venus de Milo with Drawers through the combination of the sleek and elegant appearance of the famous sculpture and the texture of the fuzzy pom-poms. For Dalí, the difference between the ancient Greek platonic body and the contemporary body is seen in Sigmund Freud’s discovery that humans are full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable of opening. As a symbol of love and desire, the goddess Venus and her drawers illustrate how the hidden secrets of sexuality wait to be uncovered.
3. Object by Meret Oppenheim
The work Object by Meret Oppenheim is one of the most iconic Surrealist sculptures. The idea for the teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with fur was conceived in a café in Paris. During a conversation between Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar, and Meret Oppenheim, Picasso noticed Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet and said that almost anything could be covered with fur. Oppenheim, who was drinking tea at the time, responded by saying that even her cup and saucer could be covered with it.
Shortly after the conversation, Meret Oppenheim bought a teacup, a saucer, and a spoon and covered them with the fur from a Chinese gazelle. The piece plays with the ambiguity of sensations that the fur-lined objects provoke. While a cup and a spoon usually feel smooth, putting fur inside one’s mouth probably has a different, almost irritating effect on most people.
4. My Nurse by Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim created several Surrealist sculptures. Her work My Nurse consists of two high-heeled shoes displayed on a silver platter just like a turkey, decorated with paper ruffles. The paper ruffles were once used to decorate chicken or lamb chops at expensive dinners. The tied-up, feminine shoes evoke associations like fetishization, bondage, and also objectification of women, whose bodies are symbolically served like dinner in Oppenheim’s work. Meret used the shoes of Max Ernst’s wife Marie-Berthe Aurenche to create the piece. When Marie-Berthe Aurenche first saw My Nurse she understood it as a sign of her husband’s infidelity and destroyed the piece.
5. Marine Object by Eileen Agar
During her time in Paris, the British-Argentinian artist Eileen Agar met important members of the Surrealist movement like Max Ernst, André Breton, and Joan Miró. She included Surrealist elements into her own work but distanced herself from the radical political views of some of the movement’s members. Agar didn’t create Surrealist sculptures only, she also made collages, paintings, and photographs.
The making of Marine Object started with Agar’s move to Toulon, a city on the French Riviera. While she was at Carqueiranne, she saw that fishermen caught a broken Greek amphora in their nets, so Agar bought it from them. It became the center of her Marine Object piece. She found some of the sculpture’s other elements two years earlier on a different beach. By using found objects that the artist came across by chance and combining them with other objects in unfamiliar ways, Agar followed the Surrealist approach to art.
6. Angel of Anarchy by Eileen Agar
Angel of Anarchy consists of a plaster head that is covered with African bark cloth, Chinese silk fabric, shells, beads, ostrich feathers, and diamante stones. The high price of bronze was one reason why Eileen Agar worked with plaster. To create the sculpture, the artist attached found materials to the head.
Henry Moore and Eileen Agar would go to see the ethnographic collections of the British Museum in London. They were both inspired by the African sculptures from the collection. The uncanny-looking mannequin-like head is a subject that many Surrealist artists integrated into their work. Dora Maar’s Mannequin in Window, Hans Bellmer’s The Doll, and André Masson’s Mannequin are just a few examples of Surrealists capturing the eerie and dreamlike qualities of the mannequin.
Patricia Allmer, the curator of the exhibition Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, sees the subject of the angel as a central symbol of the female members of the Surrealist movement. According to Allmer, the symbol of the angel unites divinity and humanity as well as immanence and transcendence. It is seen as a symbol of hybridity and becoming which can challenge and change patriarchal norms.
7. Disagreeable Object by Alberto Giacometti
The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti is known for his Surrealist sculptures. In 1935, he stopped creating works associated with the movement and concentrated on working from the model again. The piece Disagreeable Object, however, was made during the artist’s Surrealist phase. The work was meant to be displayed differently and Giacometti intended for it to be available to touch. Reminiscent of a phallus, Disagreeable Object has sexual connotations. The spikes at the end of it, however, also seem violent. Through the interaction of desire and repulsion, Disagreeable Object becomes a characteristic example of how Surrealist works deal with the theme of sexuality and violence.
8. The Palace at 4 a.m. by Alberto Giacometti
The Palace at 4 a.m. is another example of Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist sculptures. Giacometti said that an impactful love affair that lasted for six months was the inspiration for this work. According to the artist, he built a fantastical palace in the night out of matches which he and his lover watched collapse.
The idea for the piece goes back to the summer of 1932. He built the palace with little pieces of wood every night and when autumn came, he created the final version of it in just one day. According to Alberto Giacometti, the subjects for his Surrealist sculptures came to him in visions. Integrating visions, dreams, and the subconscious into artworks was an important aspect of the Surrealist movement.
9. Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed) by Man Ray
Man Ray is best known for his photographs, but he also created Surrealist sculptures. The piece called Object to Be Destroyed consists of a metronome and a cutout photo depicting an eye. The prophecy of the work’s title was fulfilled when the object was indeed destroyed by students protesting Dada at an exhibition in 1957. After the incident, Man Ray recreated the object and called it the Indestructible Object in order to demonstrate that the idea of the artwork could not be destroyed. The object was reproduced several times. According to Man Ray, other pieces have also been destroyed by visitors but since he made them easy to replicate, they continue to be indestructible.
10. Found Objects as Surrealist Sculptures: Emak Bakia by Man Ray
The integration of objects found by chance is a recurring quality present in Surrealist sculptures. The original was made from the neck of a cello found at a flea market in Paris. According to Man Ray’s dealer Arturo Schwarz, the artist wanted to emphasize the object’s worn-out appearance by attaching a beard to the cello’s neck. For this he used horsehair. The work also has a curved spiral form which was something Man Ray was obsessed with. The title Emak Bakia means leave me alone in the Basque language. In 1925, Man Ray made a movie with the same title, which united Surrealist and Dadaist elements. The original version of the sculpture made a brief appearance in the film.