Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, ‘The Tiled Room’ 1935
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, The Tiled Room 1935 . Tate . © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

Room 4 in In the Studio

International Surrealism

Little Hermit Sphinx

Leonor Fini, Little Hermit Sphinx  1948

The scene in this painting is an unsettling one. It shows the open doorway of an overgrown building, with peeling paintwork. Hanging from the doorway is an internal organ – identified by Fini as a human lung. Sitting among leaves is the Sphinx (a mythological hybrid of a lion and woman). Fini adored cats and used the image of the Sphinx partly as a self-portrait. She regarded it as a symbolic mediator between the human and animal worlds. For her it also connected the conscious and the uncharted areas of the mind and spirit. Here the Sphinx appears as a child-like creature, sitting in front of its ramshackle home. The bird skull at its feet and the organ hanging in the doorway, however, hint at acts of violence.

Gallery label, August 2020

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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Arshile Gorky, Painting (Apricots)  c.1938

The form and structure of this painting appears to be abstract. But the colouring and the title of the work are rooted in Gorky’s childhood memories. The sight or smell of apricots seem to have transported him back to the Armenian orchard that he called ‘the garden of wish fulfilment’. Gorky emigrated to the United States in 1920 and entered into a long period of familiarisation with contemporary painting. He later developed a style of energetic abstraction, drawing him into an association with surrealism

Gallery label, June 2021

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Louise Bourgeois, KNIFE COUPLE  1949

These wooden figures are made on a human scale. Bourgeois made them as part of a series of around 80 works, entitled Personages. She displayed them by arranging them in groups around the floor of the gallery. She associated these figures with the family members she left behind after moving from France to the US. She referred to them as ‘confrontation pieces’. Bourgeois often explored ambivalent and emotional states in her work. Here the sharp forms seem to combine loving affection with the implicit threat of cutting and violence.

Gallery label, June 2021

© The Easton Foundation

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Ibdes in Aragon

André Masson, Ibdes in Aragon  1935

Masson painted this view of Ibdes, a village in Aragon in 1935. He produced a series of paintings of Spanish landscapes from 1934 to 1936. He made them while living in Catalonia, the autonomous region to the north of Aragon. ‘In these completely recognisable landscapes there is always an element of fantasy, either in the sky, or on the ground, or underground’, he wrote. Here, Surrealist double-images are provided by the cocks woven into the landscape and the crocodile formed by the rocks in the background.

Gallery label, June 2021

© The estate of André Masson

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Three Points

Henry Moore OM, CH, Three Points  1939–40, cast before 1949

Moore kept up with the activities of the Surrealist’s in Paris. He also contributed to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London. Several of his works explore feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that relate to Surrealism. The use of space in Three Points creates a sense of anticipation. Moore commented: ‘This pointing has an emotional or physical action in it where things are just about to touch but don’t... like the points in the sparking plug of a car... the spark has to jump across the gap’.

Gallery label, June 2021

© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved

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Peg-Top

Hans Bellmer, Peg-Top  c.1937–52

This image began as a plan for a sculpture, which Bellmer never completed. A ghost-like figure, painted in shades of grey and set against a dark smoky background, fills the centre of the canvas. Bellmer's interest in fetishism led him to draw out sexual associations between objects and the body. Here, Bellmer uses the peg-top to symbolise a woman turning the heads and hearts of men on her spinning top. This was an ongoing theme for Bellmer. He joined the French Surrealist group in 1938, having left his native Germany to escape the Nazi regime.

Gallery label, August 2020

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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Man with a Newspaper

René Magritte, Man with a Newspaper  1928

Magritte’s deadpan style is seen clearly in these four simply painted scenes. Each section seems to be exactly the same, apart from the disappearance of the man reading the newspaper. There are slight changes of perspective between the four panels. This can be seen by focusing on the view out of the windows. This shift adds to the slightly unsettling effect in the painting. It may relate to the displacement of images in early 3D viewing devices. This subtle undermining of the everyday was typical of Magritte and his Belgian surrealist colleagues. They preferred quiet subversion to obvious public action.

Gallery label, August 2020

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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Hour of the Traces

Alberto Giacometti, Hour of the Traces  1932

The fragile construction of this sculpture suggests the mysteries of the unconscious mind. The cage-like structure supports delicate organic forms. The upper shapes have been seen as skeletal or phallic. The lower suspended form could be a beating heart or a clock’s pendulum. Together these might relate to themes including space and time, eroticism and death. Giacometti said that when making his sculptures he reproduced images that were ‘complete in my mind’s eye... without stopping to ask myself what they might mean’.

Gallery label, April 2021

© The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2021

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The Three Dancers

Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers  1925

With its emphasis on violence and sex, The Three Dancers was greatly admired by the surrealists. It started off as a realistic representation of ballet dancers rehearsing. While Picasso was working on it his old friend Ramon Pichot died. Twenty years earlier, Pichot and another friend, Carlos Casagemas, fell in love with the same woman, Germaine Gargallo. Casagemas took his own life, having first shot at Gargallo. Recalling these events transformed Picasso’s approach. The distorted angular figures, harsh colours and thickly worked paint surfaces seem to express violent emotions.

Gallery label, April 2019

© Succession Picasso/DACS 2021

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Azure Day

Yves Tanguy, Azure Day  1937

Colourful groups of forms and shapes occupy the foreground of this work. They deny any rational explanation. But they have been associated with the ancient standing stones of Tanguy’s native Brittany in France. Tanguy joined the surrealist movement in 1925, the year after its formation. As a surrealist artist, he was committed to exploring the unconscious mind. Tanguy often depicted vast dream-like spaces, like the one seen here in Azure Day.

Gallery label, August 2020

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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The Tiled Room

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, The Tiled Room  1935

The Tiled Room was a breakthrough work for da Silva. Her paintings often resemble mazes or cities seen from above. The web of lines here suggests what one critic called her ‘absorption in space’. The lines of colourful squares have been connected to her experience of feverish imaginings when she had jaundice. She was also haunted by memories of her lonely childhood. After her father died, her mother withdrew into mourning. The unsettling space she creates here could relate to these experiences.

Gallery label, April 2021

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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A Thousand Times

Yves Tanguy, A Thousand Times  1933

Tanguy's fantasy landscape is made of shapes and forms that have no basis in reality. Its threatening atmosphere may reflect Tanguy's personal situation at the time. He had to give up his studio because he could no longer afford it. But the painting may also reflect the bleak economic and political climate of Europe in the 1930s, in the years leading up to the Second World War. Due to the precision of his technique, Tanguy worked very slowly. A Thousand Times is one of the largest canvases he made in a year when he created only ten paintings altogether.

Gallery label, August 2020

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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Deification of a Soldier

Kikuji Yamashita, Deification of a Soldier  1967

The title of this work suggests that a soldier is being worshipped as if he were a god. However, the imagery is chaotic and violent. With screaming mouths, distorted animal forms and disembodied limbs it captures the absurdity of war. The painting was made at the height of the Vietnam War, when there were extensive protests about the United States’ military presence in Japan. It also looks back to Kikuji’s traumatic memories of the Second World War. As a conscript in the Imperial Japanese army, he witnessed many atrocities and took part in the killing of a Chinese prisoner.

Gallery label, January 2019

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Cecil Collins, The Cells of Night  1934

This is one of the earliest paintings in which Collins expressed his ideas about the life of the human spirit. The human head in the foreground represents the psyche. The landscape behind, seen in dramatic recession, represents infinity. The distortion of the head symbolises the human psyche’s yearning for infinity. The ‘Cells’ of the title refer to the organisms and natural phenomena that make up the Universe. The breaking of dawn, indicated through the light colour of the sky, signifies the possibility of re-birth. These were all important themes in Collins’s work at the time.

Gallery label, June 2021

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Forms

Paule Vézelay, Forms  1936

Vézelay started drawing on canvas in the late 1920s. She discovered what she called ‘a special quality’ in drawing with charcoal. Focusing on form, she explored various ways of creating an illusion of space on a flat, two-dimensional surface. She was particularly interested in the spheres and circles. She wrote that 'they can be used to indicate directions or movements, in order to balance or counter-act the movements of other elements in the composition’.

Gallery label, August 2020

© The estate of Paule Vézelay

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Autumnal Cannibalism

Salvador Dalí, Autumnal Cannibalism  1936

Two faceless figures are devouring each other. As their heads and bodies merge, they dig knives and spoons into each other’s flesh. The surrounding landscape is Empordà, in Catalonia, where Dalí was born. The mutually destructive embrace may be a comment on the Spanish Civil War, which began a few months before Autumnal Cannibalism was painted. The apple on the head of the male figure relates to the legend of William Tell, in which a father is forced to shoot at his son.

Gallery label, January 2019

© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2021

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Boris Anrep in his Studio, 65 Boulevard Arago

Pierre Roy, Boris Anrep in his Studio, 65 Boulevard Arago  1949

This is a painting of an imagined sculpture head. Here, Roy turns his friend and fellow-artist Boris Anrep, to stone. Roy uses his usual style of manipulation of perspective to create a sense of great scale. The bust appears to tower over the studio. Though the painted sculpture is solemn and restrained, Roy’s perspective creates an odd effect. The size of the bust creates the feeling of a cinematic zoom, in which an object is suddenly brought into dramatic focus.

Gallery label, August 2020

Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

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Sleeping Venus

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus  1944

Delvaux’s painting combines classical elements with a troubling atmosphere. Set against a night sky, the town, with its temples lined with horses’ heads, is populated with female nudes, a skeleton and a dressmakers dummy. Delvaux painted it in Brussels during the Second World War, while the city was being bombed. ‘The psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish’, he recalled. ‘I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus’.

Gallery label, June 2021

© Foundation P Delvaux - St Idesbald, Belgium/DACS, London 2021

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Arshile Gorky, Garden in Sochi Motif  1942

Gorky reconstructs his childhood memories of Armenia in this painting. The central shape, though difficult to explain, was an important symbol for Gorky. It appears in several of his paintings. It has been read as different items from his native Armenia. Some scholars have interpreted it as an Armenian butter-churn made of goatskin, familiar from Gorky’s youth. Others suggest it is a pair of red slippers his father gave him before he left for the United States.

Gallery label, August 2020

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Ships in the Dark

Paul Klee, Ships in the Dark  1927

A series of interlocking triangles form the sails of a group of boats strung across this canvas. The surging line suggests a gently rocking, wave-like motion. This rhythmic composition recalls a diagram by Klee in his teaching notes for the Bauhaus art school in Germany. He noted it showed ‘an active line, limited in its movement by fixed points’. The nautical imagery also seems to draw upon Klee’s recent trip to the south of France and Corsica.

Gallery label, April 2021

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Composition

Henry Moore OM, CH, Composition  1932

Moore drew inspiration from many sources, including natural forms and ancient sculptures. He also responded to the work of other artists working at the time. This sculpture is both organic and abstract. But its form and structure also link it to traditional portrait busts. This reflects Moore’s belief that ‘all the best sculpture I know is both abstract and representational at the same time’. Composition is an example of his radical inventiveness. Moore argued that surrealism and abstraction were not in conflict. He wrote of the importance of the ‘nonlogical, instinctive, subconscious part of the mind’ in his artistic process.

Gallery label, August 2020

© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved

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Black Virtue

Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren), Black Virtue  1943

The distorted forms and shapes in this painting make it appear abstract. However, Matta based the image on drawings of erotic and violent scenes. In the two side panels the imagery has a science fiction quality. But in the centre the forms are organic, suggesting references to female sex organs. Matta was concerned with capturing the inner world of the mind. Black Virtue evokes a mental landscape in an extreme combination of eroticism and violence. Matta joined the French Surrealist group in 1937 before moving to New York two years later.

Gallery label, August 2020

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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Curves and Circles

Paule Vézelay, Curves and Circles  1930

Vézelay was one of the first British artists to explore abstraction. Born Marjorie Watson-Williams, she changed her name after moving to Paris in the 1920s, perhaps to identify more closely with France. In Curves and Circles she brings together a series of abstract shapes, with elegant, twisting curves that seem to trace the movement of the artist’s hand. The background resembles a cloudy sky, as if the lines were floating in air.

Gallery label, January 2019

© The estate of Paule Vézelay

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The Handsome Pork-Butcher

Francis Picabia, The Handsome Pork-Butcher  c.1924–6, c.1929–35

The features of this pink-faced man were originally made up of collaged elements including string, measuring tape and curtain rings. Some years later, Picabia ripped these off, an action which also removed areas of paint, leaving patches of bare canvas visible. During the second phase of work, Picabia added combs for the hair, and painted in the head and hands of a woman. These dramatic alterations reflect Picabia’s humorous and irreverent approach to picture-making.

Gallery label, November 2005

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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Some Roses and Their Phantoms

Dorothea Tanning, Some Roses and Their Phantoms  1952

In this painting Tanning questions our expectations of still life painting, transforming a domestic table-top scene. Tanning plays with perspective and introduces mysterious forms and an insect-like creature. She wrote: ‘Here some roses from a very different garden sit?, lie?, stand?, gasp?, dream?, die? – on white linen. They may serve you tea or coffee. As I saw them take shape on the canvas I was amazed by their solemn colours and their quiet mystery that called for – seemed to demand – some sort of phantoms.’

Gallery label, August 2019

© DACS, 2021

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Head of a Catalan Peasant

Joan Miró, Head of a Catalan Peasant  1925

Miró claimed that his paintings of the mid-1920s came to him ‘almost entirely from hallucination’. This image, however, was copied from a small preparatory drawing. A grid-like structure is faintly visible. Miró used it to help him enlarge his initial drawing. Miró was from Catalonia, an autonomous community in Spain. The red form in this painting references the barretina hat. This symbol of Catalan identity suggests Miró’s support for Catalan nationalism. Other parts of the painting are more ambiguous. The circles have been read as both eyes and breasts. The wisps of hair below could suggest a beard or pubic hair.

Gallery label, August 2019

© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

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Art in this room

Little Hermit Sphinx
Leonor Fini Little Hermit Sphinx 1948

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Arshile Gorky Painting (Apricots) c.1938

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Louise Bourgeois KNIFE COUPLE 1949
Ibdes in Aragon
André Masson Ibdes in Aragon 1935
Three Points
Henry Moore OM, CH Three Points 1939–40, cast before 1949
Peg-Top
Hans Bellmer Peg-Top c.1937–52

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