The bizarre, thought-provoking, weird world of surrealism appeals to
broad range of collectors
By Maja Tarateta ABN Contributing Editor
Raw Appeal of Surrealist Art is Grounded in Reality
For decades, the work was often dismissed by critics and historians as overly commercial. But today, surrealist art is gaining recognition, according to curators, gallery owners and publishers, as a movement that has left an indelible-if oftentimes dark and disturbing-mark on the world of modern art. Add to this its undeniable and growing popularity among viewers and collectors (The New York Times recently called surrealism “one of the few crowd-pleasing art movements of the 20th century”), and surrealism’s future looks, in contrast to its typical subject matter, bright.
Those who deal daily in the works of surrealists, both of the past and the present, express what appeals most to people about the style: the need to use one’s mind when viewing the works rather than passively enjoying it as one might a floral or a still-life painting. According to Boots Harris of Discovery Galleries in Bethesda, Md., surrealism’s power lies in its ability to expand the mind. “It allows you to take your mind somewhere it doesn’t usually go,” he said. Said Meridith Brand, director of public relations for the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., “There’s a certain amount of freedom to it that both shocks and fascinates people, I think. The idea behind surrealism is that the rational, conscious mind is not allowed to censor the artist, so what we see on the canvas is more raw and real. As a result, there’s a lot of weirdness in it. There’s non-rational imagery; there’s a need to interpret.” The need for the viewer to decipher the work was exactly what the artists who first forayed into the world of surrealism had in mind. André Breton started the movement, which had followers in both art and literature, in 1924, drawing from the theories of Sigmund Freud to rally against the rationalism that many believed led to World War I. Freud had developed the theory of the psyche and, with fellow psychologist Carl Jung, explored, among other things, how the unconscious mind reveals itself through symbols. Jung believed that the human psyche was comprised of three parts: the ego (conscious mind), the unconscious mind and the collective unconscious (archetypes). Surrealist artists hope to bring the visions and symbols of the unconscious mind, including the collective unconscious, to light through paintings, sculpture and photography so that they might be interpreted. Some of the best-known artists from surrealism’s heyday, those who today are considered surrealist masters, include Joan Miró, May Ray, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and, of course, Dalí. Today, surrealist art continues to draw people to museum and gallery shows and to purchase the work of surrealist artists who continue to tap the hidden world of dreams and whose art is sought by a clientele that transcends demographics of age, geographical location and gender.
Arguably one of the most well-known surrealists is Salvador Dalí, thanks to a painting called “Persistence of Memory,” which, according to Brand, “is the painting that represents surrealism in the public mind.” Although not among the Salvador Dalí Museum’s collection, the museum still welcomes approximately 225,000 visitors each year to view its 95 original oils, more than 100 watercolors and drawings and thousands of graphics, sculptures, photographs and the like created by the surrealist Godfather. Sixty percent of visitors come to the museum from outside of the United States. According to Brand, attendance peaked at 225,000 about four years ago and has held steady ever since. She attributes this increased and maintained interest in Dali’s work to recent recognition by critics and historians of surrealism as a legitimate artistic movement. Dali’s popularity also led Bruce Hochman, director of the Salvador Dalí Gallery in Pacific Palisades, Calif., to hold “Dalí in Manhattan” for two weeks in April. According to Hochman, with more than 500 works on display, this was the largest collection of Salvador Dalí pieces ever exhibited for sale in New York. Nearly 40,000 people attended the show to purchase works ranging in price from $2,500 to $500,000. The show comes in the midst of a well-received exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan from London’s Tate Modern, called “Surrealism: Desire Unbound.” One of the aspects of Dalí that aids in his popularity is that, while a surrealist, he painted in several distinct styles. For example, some of his early works are done in the style of the Dutch masters. A lot of different tastes are represented,” said Brand, “because Dalí himself changed his own artistic taste several times in reinventing his image.” While Dalí’s notoriety has helped bring surrealism to the fore of consumer’s minds, a notorious side to his work has hurt the market for surrealism. Dalí’s works have been embroiled in a long, expensive forgery scandal that has tainted many collectors and galleries from buying and selling not only Dali’s work but surrealism in general. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission has prosecuted many galleries for knowingly dealing in fakes, including the work of Dalí, Miró and other surrealists, with consumers losing tens of millions of dollars to art fraud in the recent past. Not surprisingly, Dalí fakes are now reportedly popping up for sale on the Internet. “The art community is a very conservative group,” said Lee Rylee, director of Kush Fine Art in Maui, which represents the work of modern-day surrealist Vladimir Kush. “They don’t want their reputations associated with any negative impact, which the forgeries carry over into the whole market for surrealism.”
The old masters of surrealism aren’t the only ones popular with today’s art collectors, though. A handful of modern-day surrealists are gaining notoriety through their unleashing of the unconscious. For the galleries that are reaping the rewards of the universal appeal of these works and the collectors who are attracted to the dreamlike visions depicted, this death knell couldn’t be further from the truth. “We’re so busy, it’s scary,” said Rylee. “We almost can’t print the prints fast enough.” Kush Fine Art opened a little over two years ago and now counts 30 galleries among its growing list of clients.
At Discovery Galleries, the surrealist works of Rob Gonsalves have also been steadily growing in popularity-and price. Harris calls Gonsalves, “the largest-selling surrealist artist living in the world.” When discovered by Harris at an outdoor art show in Chicago in 1994, Gonsalves’ paintings were selling for $1,400 each. Today, according to Harris, original works sell for $24,000 to $32,000, with a 15-month waiting list and a $3,000 deposit required just to be placed on the list. Discovery has released 38 images as prints. Nine have sold out; six more are “on the endangered list.” “People call his work intoxicating,” said Harris. “They always come back for more and more.”
According to Harris, galleries all over the country and the world are selling Gonsalves’ work. “He’s the only artist we represent who sells
equally well in all geographic areas,” said Harris, adding that Gonsalves’ work appeals to people of all ages, including young children, and to both men and women. It’s a sentiment echoed again and again. According to surrealist artist Ora Tamir, whose originals command $5,000 and up and whose limited-edition giclées
range from $160 to $850, her work appeals to “people who are open minded, intuitive and like to dream.” “Surrealism talks directly to the gut,” she said. “You cannot sell a surrealist piece to someone who is not attracted to it by nature. It hits a chord. They find their own stories in my painting.
They say it touches their soul. And this is how I paint. From the gut.” Susan Petr, owner of Atlas Galleries in Chicago and Puerto Rico, represents the work of modern-day surrealist Frederick Phillips. His originals sell from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on the size of the piece. Prints begin at $400 but can command up to $5,000
when sold out. According to Petr, Phillips had always been popular in the two Chicago galleries, and she said she believed him to be of great appeal to people living in the Midwest. But as soon as she opened the Puerto Rico gallery in 1999, Phillips’ work began selling immediately, to both locals and tourists from all over the world. “He appeals to a very broad base,” she said. “I can’t say, as I can with other artists, that he appeals to people of a specific age or background or geographic location.” At S2 Art Group, also in Chicago, it is the work of surrealist Rafal Olbinski that is causing a stir. “Rafal Olbinski’s work is the definition of contemporary surrealism,” said Vice President Keith Tomaszewsky. “He combines the non-rational, fantastic, dreamlike qualities and boldly subversive intent of works by the great mid-20th-century surrealists…with a modern aesthetic that appeals to the viewers’ emotions and
sense of humor.”
A sidebar to surrealism that is also attaining successful sales for current artists is metamorphic art, a style that Dalí and other surrealist forbears also utilized. Still relying on the unconscious mind, these works could be described as “two-fers”: There are actually two distinct paintings embedded in the works, and each one can be seen when looking at the work from different perspectives. These images are very popular at the Salvador Dalí Museum, according to Brand, including the “Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire.” At Amazing Art images, President Michael Levenberg publishes the work of metamorphic surrealist Octavio Ocampo. “I’ve never seen anything grab people like Octavio’s art,” said Levenberg. A limited-edition canvas retails for $1,200, with originals starting at $25,000 and commissions earning approximately $100,000. According to Levenberg, Ocampo’s “Calvary” image is “hands-down the most popular image. It’s the best-selling image I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I just can’t account for it.” Levenberg said he believes metamorphic art, like surrealist art, is appealing “because you don’t have to know anything about art to appreciate it. People are intimidated by art and about buying it. With this art, you can just look at it. If you can get the metamorphic concept, you’ll like it.”
A concern for galleries is how to sell art that taps the unconscious by delving into the world of dreams in an attempt to express universal
feelings. While the concept sounds complicated, the answer to how to sell it, it seems, is simple. “The art sells itself,” said Levenberg. “Gallery owners often think that their customers will think it’s too far out. I tell the owners that if they think it’s interesting, chances are, their customers will too.” Petr of Atlas Galleries agreed, to a point. She said that once customers are shown some of the varied aspects at work in surrealism, they will become instantly interested in the work. But they do need to be shown. “I feel that surrealism is a different type of sale than other works,” said Petr. “You really need to get the client to probe further, and then it’s really fun. There are a lot of hidden meanings in this work, which other artists don’t have. But you have to show clients how to probe into the work to see it.” Surrealist artist Tamir, though, said she believes that the unorthodox nature of the work will help it to sell itself to customers. “My advice is: Believe in it,” said Tamir to gallerists. “Have a wall displaying it. There is an audience for it. Don’t be afraid to try something new. My message is: Don’t try to play it safe. Trust the public. They have a good instinct.” And that’s a view about surrealism that’s being validated by art historians even now. ABN