The following paper will develop the theory that Dali and O’Keefe manipulated illusion of the real world in such a way to evoke visionary incoherence of the dream life. Under this theory the paper will present several works by each artist and analyze these pieces to further illustrate surrealism and its use of expressing real events in a fantastical manner, as Janson states of surrealists, “They defined their aim as pure psychic automatism…intended to express…the true process of thought…free from the exercise of reason and from any aesthetic or moral purpose” (Janson “The History of Art” 807).
In Dali’s oil on canvas The Persistence of Memory (1913) the theme of paranoia is persistent in this dreamscape. The distortion of the piece exudes a frightening use of spatial mobility and form. Surrealism is a way in which the expression of fantasy can be forthcoming in the world of Art. Dali exemplifies this notion in his use of foreground and background shapes and the pure psychic automatism which is symbolized in the clocks. Dali’s focus in this work is mainly about freedom; although the context of this work is based on paranoia and the weightiness of time the work is also free from previous constraints of other artistic movements in that it is not a painting dedicated to reason or moral purpose.
The unfinished background is almost anachronistic with the foreground as it exhibits a cliff sliding off into a body of water. It seems as though Dali made the background on purpose to confuse the viewer since dreams are intended to be symbolic of personal meaning. The sky in the background also seems incomplete with no visible clouds but merely a color palette that drifts off into a sfumato haze. The background however is not what Dali wanted the viewer to be stricken with as a first impression.
The central figure of the painting is unfinished as well. Dali painted an eyeball, and a nose and made no more attention to the rest of the figure. This feeling of incompleteness is unnerving and truly embodies the emotional state and perception of dreaming. The painting is purely inspired by that part of Dali’s unconscious mind. Although the painting exhibits that Dali used controlled in certain aspects of the work such as the use of diagonals, and linear shapes, but the overall impression of the painting lies within the angles, the objects and the general ambience of the piece. The clocks themselves prove to be unnerving both their positions and their lack of solid form, as though they are oozing across the plane in the foreground and the limb near the horizon of the painting, as well as across the half finished face.
Another artistic ploy that Dali uses in The Persistence of Memory is his use of shadow; not merely darkness but the chiaroscuro so prevalent in the piece. This furthers the theory of this paper that Dali uses surrealism to tap into the unconscious and the dream world. Dali does the opposite in this painting of previous artists; he places the darkness in the foreground of the painting and the brightness in the background.
This is symbolic because Dali wants to evoke to the audience that in the dream world the objects that are in front of the dreamer’s face are not always tangible but looming and undefined. In the background the objects are illuminated but this illumination does not add in defining the object because Dali here uses space to further illustrate his unconscious perspective; the objects in the background are too far away and cannot be seen. Thus, each part of the painting is uncomfortably defined. It is almost nonsensical; these objects of Dali’s in space without a coherent theme except for these persistence clocks.
The clocks are the main meaning and focus of the painting and it is through these objects that the theory of this paper rests. The clocks present the theme of paranoia (as mentioned prior). Not only are they draped over the main objects in the foreground but their rendering is disconcerting. Each clock offers a different time, and one clock is closed so that the viewer cannot decipher its time.
It is interesting that Dali did not distort the closed clock; it signifies a secret and further exemplifies the state of the dream world present in this painting; that is, the one clock that could offer a valid time is closed and unable to be seen by the painter, or the audience. The contention in the painting is that the central figure of the face is sleeping and is thus oblivious to the clocks, to time, to the unfinished landscape. That is the quintessential meaning of a dream; the sleeping figure is unaware to symbolism, to action, to time, and that is how Dali exudes incoherence in the dream world.
O’Keefe’s organic abstraction is what lends itself to the New Objectivity era of art as well as the thesis of this paper in the unconscious mind and dream images. Her fantastical style was also tinted with expressionism and realism; which made her work that much more enticing. This dichotomy of O’Keefe (realism and abstraction) ties in with the subconscious and dreamscape. O’Keefe’s genius came with her incorporation of the abstract to the simpler approach of the object. O’Keefe’s abstract works were very progressive, as Janson states, “…she practiced a form of organic abstraction indebted to Expressionism, but she also adopted the Precisionism of Charles Demuth, so that she is sometimes considered an abstract artist. Her work often combined aspects of both approaches: as she assimilated a subject into her imagination, she would alter and simplify it to convey a personal meaning” (Janson “The History of Art” 817).
Although her work exhibited quite a range of composition, and her objects were used in their real life definition their application in her paintings were representational of the dreamscape. From objects such as rocks, flowers to skulls O’Keefe gave the art world a dichotomy of abstract and realism art. Within the succinct contour of these objects O’Keefe embraced a range of colours; it is with these colors that the formation of the dreamscape begins to take shape. In her Red Tree Yellow Sky piece the viewer is assailed by two brilliant and vibrant colours each in representation of the surrealist’s color palate. The disharmony of colours is what transforms these otherwise banal portraits into the dreamscape and surrealist category. The realism involved in these works is that the landscape in the southwest is directly correlated with O’Keefe’s representation of it but it is in her further emphasis of these colors, in their brilliancy the viewer finds an unfamiliar painting that perhaps would best be defined in the nature of the unconscious.
O’Keefe was very deliberate in her painting style; she seldom left her structure to chance (as Dali had and as Pollock had). Although O’Keefe is famous for her renditions of flowers or vaginas it is her earlier charcoal drawings and especially her skulls that portray a slightly more lucid ambiance to her work. Even in her plethora of flower portraits the grand scale of these blossoms leaves the imagination reeling. Their color and their scale in dimension lead the viewer into a different interpretation of the natural world. It is as though the viewer is given a chance to be Alice in Wonderland and to get a close up look at the intricate layers of a flower which does happen in real life (at least to the scale that O’Keefe represented). In her presentation of the geometric form, her use of line, and her flat planes all lead to defining O’Keefe as an abstract artist.
As an abstract artist the use of the illusion of the real world (in O’Keefe’s case, her flower and skull pieces) evokes in the audience a definite dreamscape. This is proven by her presentation of proportion of an object. Her Ram’s Head, White Hollyhocks-Hills is a great example of this use of dimension. The ram’s head is suspended in air with no body structure (real or skeletal) on which the skull could be supported; next to this picture is a hollyhock. Although these two images when placed side by side as O’Keefe has done are not by any means disproportionate or grand in scale that fact that their surrounding environment is a background of a desert landscape suggests that these two objects are at once an integral part of this landscape but they are suspended beyond it’s realm as well. This is how O’Keefe manages to portray the illusion of dream in her paintings.
Another example of O’Keefe’s abstract art is Ranchos Church. This painting is pure line, shading and geometric renditions. There is no focus on a primary object (although the lines and shapes do appear to form a church) but instead the artist is working in the abstract form which is enhanced by the artist’s definition of shape. O’Keefe does not reveal a definite structure in the painting and the only way to decipher what the painting is, is by reading the title. This echoes what Dali was doing in his works; both artists give very vague definitions of their subjects and merely allow the viewer to surmise for themselves what the object is truly.
The element that occurs continuously in O’Keefe’s work is that of the stark landscape. Whenever O’Keefe renders the desert she paints a very stark portrait; albeit the desert is a very blanched atmospheric world, O’Keefe’s use of making it extremely stark is what further defines abstraction and the dream in her work. These stark landscapes are devoid of life; the skulls, the sun baked clay and houses with no people are eerie in their rendering but this contrasted with the full and lush flowers is what marks dichotomy in Georgia O’Keefe. Dreams are often times dichotomized, both in perspective and the realm between the unconscious and conscious mind.
O’Keefe also represents the abstract dream world in her use of angles. Often times her subject matter is represented in full perspective, such as the skulls facing forward, the flowers are viewed in a direction that emphasizes their center and the landscape is typically level. Each of these variables however lead to a false sense of reality since O’Keefe in typical New Objectivity style uses these angles to benefit her own sense of reality outside of the realm of linear thought, and time. The skulls are blanched and suspended the flowers next to this picture of death are full of life (i.e. the Ram’s Head, White Hollyhocks-Hills). It is within these several juxtapositions that O’Keefe embellishes in the dichotomy of life and death, dream and reality, color and the absence of color.
Both of these artists work in the realm of the in between; their work is abstract in nature and each though representational of separate subject matter are linked in that their use of the illusion lends to the viewer a new perspective. For both Dali and O’Keefe this illusion is necessary in the artwork because it enables the typical concepts of time and space to become secondary to symbolism. The symbolism for Dali was in the clocks; how time makes a person paranoid but how this paranoia cannot be reflected as angst in an unconscious person. O’Keefe gave her audience another perspective, a much grander in scale perspective of flowers. These flowers viewed at this angle and up close allow the viewer to feel very close to the artwork and this personal feeling lends itself to the viewer in a voyeuristic fashion. It is as though the viewer was invading the flower and this is what brings O’Keefe the quality of the abstract, of the illusion in dream.
In the forms of every day objects in unfamiliar surroundings or placed in those surroundings in a less than familiar way (i.e. suspended) these artists give illusion in the real world and present this vision as a dream which is what I felt when I saw them. The artworks become manipulated not only through the artists’ use of space by through the viewer’s interpretation of these objects and their strategic placement in the work which is the worth of the painting. The reason they belong in a museum is because of their new inventions of perception: for Dali the invention of dreamscape and the disintegration of it and for O’Keefe for her close up of nature.
When asked if these art works influence Western Society the answer would be yes, in a Jungian way at least since both deal with the abstract or surreal elements of the psyche. Since the pieces adhere to this element it is appropriate to say that their influence, although not a strong influence, has contributed to the progression of art in the Western world as is found with the avant-guarde work which is being created in modernity.
When I asked another patron whether or not these works had influence on Western Society they answered no, because how could one painting so greatly influence an era of thought, and they doubted that new perception in art could create an entire new process of creation. They did however believe the pieces should be in a museum because of the reputation of the artists but not necessarily for the artwork. When I asked them how it made them feel they said they weren’t sure but perhaps they felt somewhat sad when they viewed the work because the colors and angles were so unfamiliar it was like being exposed too quickly to something too new and that left them out of touch with their base of knowledge which made them uncomfortable.
Janson, H.W. & Anthony F. Janson. History of Art. Fifth Edition Revised. Prentice
Hall, Inc., and Harry Abrams, Inc., Publishers. New York. 1997.