Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s. Originally only a literary movement, the surrealists eventually began to include artists among their ranks. The aim of the surrealists was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.” Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.
If you want to see surrealistic paintings you usually have to go to an art gallery. If you want to see science fiction or fantasy illustration, you only have to go to the movies or visit the SF and Fantasy section of your local library or book shop. Fantasy and science fiction illustration is kind of the workaday, pragmatic poor cousin to the rarified art form that is surrealism. But the lines between these two disciplines are blurred on a regular basis.
Take the work of Peter Ferguson.
Peter Ferguson was born in Montreal, Canada in 1968. He set his sights on an illustration career after seeing the movie Star Wars, deciding that he would like to draw spaceships. After graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto in 1992, he began his career as a professional illustrator, using oil as his medium of choice.
Peter’s client list includes Marvel Comics, The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Wall Street Journal. His work in illustration is as workaday and as pragmatic as you can get.
However, Peter is also a highly sought after fine artist, who’s vividly imaginative works read like a lucid dream of an alternate history, recalling the aesthetic of Dutch Renaissance painting, old National Geographic photography, and 18th century British Naval history. Meticulously painted, Ferguson’s darkly humorous narratives evoke composite cities and landscapes from 16th Century Europe and early 20th century small town Americana (or Canadiana as the case may be).
Combining grandiose narratives of the great ages of exploration with a distinctly paranormal bent, Ferguson’s work subtly hovers the line between fantasy, surrealism, and realism without ever falling into either of them fully.
Luminously painted and complex in their composition, his paintings retain an air of both melancholy and wonder at days gone past.
John Brosio’s work is probably the closest to science fiction and fantasy art that you can get in a pure surrealist. His paintings look like they could be production art for a science fiction film, one made by Ray Harryhausen, perhaps. That’s not a coincidence. Brosio cites Harryhausen as an influence on his work, as well as Star Wars.
“The period between birth and the opening of Star Wars almost ten years later was spent drawing for the most part. Lots of monsters. Lots of Wizard of Oz. I had a crush on The Wicked Witch. I loved the Ray Harryhausen films, etc.” says Brosio.
Brosio studied at University of California and Art Center College of Design, Pasadena. His love for science fiction and fantasy art led him to work briefly for George Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic. He did production art for films such as Ghostbusters 2 and Back to the Future Part III, before devoting himself entirely to painting
That influence is clearly visible in his work. A science fiction or fantasy fan viewing Brosio’s work sees a kindred spirit. Brosio even has a series of paintings that is a tribute to Star Wars which features everyday people wearing Star Wars masks and helmets.
Brosio’s work blurs the line between surrealism and fantasy illustration in ways that make most doubt that there ever was a line there to begin with.
Surrealism is the art of disquiet. All art should have a certain element of discomfiture. It should, at some point, derail your expectations. Any art that doesn’t is kitsch.
Surrealism doubles down on that. Science fiction and fantasy illustration have some commonality with surrealistic art. The illustration of a science fiction or fantasy idea can sometimes look like a surrealistic painting divorced from its intent of illustrating. Surrealistic painting, however, is not in service to another idea. The surrealistic painting is its own expression.
Surrealism strays into all other areas of art from modern culture to food to sex to death. It presents conflicting visual ideas and through that juxtaposition unsettles the viewer into thinking or feeling something that they would not normally have felt or thought and, indeed, may never have wanted to.
I’m getting long winded and, possibly incoherent. Let’s move on to the surrealistic art.
Jeremy Geddes was born in Wellington, New Zealand. He studied painting at the Victorian College of the Arts and began working full time as a painter in 2003. Although he has done work for comic book covers (and won the Spectrum Gold Award for his cover art for the comic Doomed) and illustrated his own picture book for children, The Mystery of Eileen Mor, Geddes is chiefly known for his surrealistic paintings of bodies floating in space.
He painted a series of images of an astronaut floating in the air above a city. The position of the body in the air has a serene quality as it hangs suspended in the air. Through the series the gravity defying astronaut seems to get closer and closer to the ground until finally he gently lands on the pavement. The juxtaposition of the weightlessness in defiance of the implied gravity creates a dissonance in the viewers mind.
Geddes other series of bodies floating in space eschews the spacesuit and portrays subjects in a vulnerable state. Indeed the serenity of the floating figures in contrasted with the violence of their arrival in the scene. Each figure has, it seems, been forcibly ejected through a solid structure and is caught in a moment of pure movement. The serene position of the body floating in space is contrasted with the extreme violence of the breaking environment. The fact that the figures are vulnerable, dressed in flimsy clothing or, in some cases no clothing at all sets up a disquiet about the conditions that led them to this moment and the implied awful fate awaiting them at the inevitable end of their trajectory. One moment of beauty and serenity is surrealistically juxtaposed with implied events of great violence and pain.
In each of the paintings a bird appears. It is an oddly comforting presence within each of the pieces and highly symbolic, but of what I could not say.
Victor Safonkin’s work is self-described as Eurosurrealism or European classic surrealism & symbolism. His work is redolent of Salvador Dalí or more particularly Hieronymus Bosch. Victor’s work has been highly acclaimed and in 2005 he was invited to exhibit at the European Parliament in Brussels. The rock band Killing Joke used his Inhuman Rearing as an album cover in 2006.
Safonkin’s work, although bright in many places, is unsettling in that it depicts images of struggle, of warfare and violence alongside strange, misshapen creatures. In some ways his work is the most obviously surrealistic. His imagery is a catalog of elements that have shown up in surrealistic painting over the decades, yeat Safonkin manages to give it a fresh new treatment.
His realistic painting style, naturally, adds to the unsettling nature of the images. His figures’ predicaments, the close proximity of realistically painted flesh in uncomfortable proximity to very realistically painted sharp, metal objects, is enough to create a palpable disquiet in most viewers. His figures come together in a clash of warfare like violence and yet the composition and elements also conspire to suggest a bacchanalian-like celebration. The juxtaposition of these two dichotomies further enhances the discomfort level.
Safonkin and Geddes are two excellent examples of surrealist painters whose work cannot easily be compared to science fiction or fantasy illustration. The elements might be similar, but the “language” of the painting is different.
These images are meant to disturb and unsettle, to provoke a feeling of disquiet. They are designed to make us question our reality. This is something that all the best art should strive to do, especially fantasy and science fiction art.