Master surrealists find inspiration from physics

Victor Brauner’s evocative 1934 oil “Indicateur de l’Éspace” is among the paintings on view in “Science and Surrealism” at Gallery Wendi Norris in The City. (Courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco)

Born in modern times, the surrealist movement produced a startlingly new kind of painting, with illogical scenes and bizarre subjects linked to early psychology’s studies of the mind. But as a current exhibition of works by surrealist artists reveals, these pictures also reflect landmark discoveries made in early 20th-century physics.

“Science and Surrealism” at Gallery Wendi Norris contains 20 works by surrealist artists influenced by the “new physics,” especially quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. Inspired by Gavin Parkinson’s book “Surrealism, Art and Modern Science,” the show is described by gallery owner Norris as the first exhibit to center on the relationship between modern physics and surrealism.

Surrealism originated in the 1920s, arising from Dadaism. Characterized by incongruous juxtapositions and precise renderings of nonsensical scenarios, surrealist art initially reflected the movement’s fascination with the emerging field of psychology and Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams.

For some artists, physics surpassed psychology as an inspiration. Concepts such as subatomic particles, electromagnetic waves, Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, and Albert Einstein’s theories on the connection of space and time affected how they depicted the world.

The exhibition features rarely exhibited works by about 10 surrealists interested in such science. General surrealist themes and the sheer imagination associated with the movement, too, are on display.

Natural forces meet those of physical science in many of these works, including “Indicateur de L’Espace” (1934), an oil painting by Victor Brauner. In it, a cloaked fantasy figure consists of a strange mix of organic and mechanical matter. A human foot appears in a hole on the floor, where the tile design defies perspective as we know it.

“Star Travel” (1938) is a gouache and watercolor painting by the Chile-born artist Roberto Matta, known for his cosmic scenes and space-related subjects. The work appears to depict the travel of light.

Max Ernst’s “Fleurs – Coquillages (Shell Flowers)” (1928) is a gouache-on-paper work from a series. Shell-like objects containing patterns of nature appear to have emerged from an ocean primeval.

In Yves Tanguy’s oil painting “Je Te Retrouve/Objet Trouve” (1938), odd organic objects, accompanied by similarly shaped forms suggesting extraterrestrial stick figures, occupy an alien-looking landscape. Childhood visits to the seaside and its tide pools inspired Tanguy’s art.

Marcel Jean’s “Sonde Magnetique” (1970), a gouache (flottage) work, depicts the dynamics of magnetism.

Additional featured artists include Gordon Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann and Remedios Varo. The latter, whose paintings feature isolated female or androgynous figures, was often, due to her gender, unacknowledged as a significant member of the movement.

The exhibition also contains 1930s works on paper by Frantisek Janousek, in which distorted images resemble elements of the human body.


Science and Surrealism
Where: Gallery Wendi Norris, 161 Jessie St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Aug. 1
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 346-7812,

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