Sarah Lucas, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud)’ 2000
Sarah Lucas
Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud) 2000
© Sarah Lucas
Pablo Picasso, ‘Nude Woman in a Red Armchair’ 1932
Pablo Picasso
Nude Woman in a Red Armchair 1932
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2022

Surreal Beauty

Surrealism emerged in France in the early 1920s when André Breton published the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 outlining the ideas of a new group of poets, writers, and artists who believed in the power of the dream and the unconscious. The Surrealist movement lasted into the 1960s and has had a lasting and profound effect on not only later generations of artists but also the varying practices of Modern art. Celebrating individual sexual freedom, the Surrealists were strongly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis and the notion of desire became a central theme in their work.

In accordance with Freud’s belief in the ‘unbound’ energy found in the unconscious and the compulsive fetishistic process, outlined in his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle 1920, the Surrealists explored diverse formal strategies in order to tap into their own unconscious desires. They painted from dreams, creating works rich in symbolism and myth, and practiced automatic drawing, an attempt to bypass the rational mind in the hope of  truly expressing their innermost thoughts, impulses and desires.

Endeavouring to see sexuality, desire, and love as unbound, they championed women not only as their muse, but also as equals, and there were a large number of women Surrealists who fully engaged with the ideas and aesthetics of the movement. Dorothea Tanning produced sculptures that evoked the sensuous female form. In Nue Couchée 1969–70 the rounded bio-morphic forms, tangled limbs and softness of the sculpture suggest a human body, yet it remains imaginary.

Surrealism has continued to exert a strong influence, not least among many contemporary female artists. Dorothy Cross has cited a direct influence, employing many Surrealist ideas and methods in her work, as has Sarah Lucas. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle 2000, using Freud’s essay title as an authority, Lucas explores the darker side of sexual activity.