Purchase your audio guide online or at the Level 2 Information Desk for $5.50. Use the guide on your own device by scanning a QR code on entry – please bring your headphones, or pick up a loan device at the exhibition entrance.
Listen to two tracks from the Surrealist Art audio guide below.
Salvador Dalí – Couple with their heads full of clouds, 1936
Love, dreams, and the unconscious were the heart of the surrealist world. Looking at this painting’s couple, with their heads full of clouds, it almost feels like we’re looking into the lovers’ minds. It’s a strange scene – what might be happening in these huge, cloud-strewn deserts, with abandoned tables and small figures in the distance?
Dalí has said that the painting depicts him and his wife, Gala. Salvador and Gala met on his first visit to Paris in 1929, when he joined the French surrealist group.
At that time, Gala was married to the poet Paul Eluard, and Dalí invited both of them to visit him for the summer in Spain. Gala and Salvador fell immediately, and very deeply, in love. Gala soon left Eluard for Dalí, and the two stayed together for the rest of their lives. She became his muse, the woman around whom his creative life revolved and the subject of many of his works. Dalí began to sign all of his paintings ‘Gala Salvador Dalí’, and he later described her as ‘the one who moves forward, my victory, my wife’.
Dalí borrowed the poses in this work, with the woman’s torso subtly leaning into the man’s, from a painting titled The Angelus, by 19th-century French artist Jean-François Millet. Dalí was obsessed with The Angelus, which he saw as an expression of deep, unconscious sexual desires. He described the woman in The Angelus as a praying mantis getting ready to devour her lover.
Now look again at the painting in front of you. There’s a threat of darkness in some of the gathering clouds, suggesting the unbidden, dark images that lurk in the subconscious.
And if you’d like to, you can view The Angelus now on your device by swiping left.
Unica Zürn – Circus, 1956
There’s something quite abstract about this painting. When you stand back, the forms dissolve into lines and patterns. It makes the whole work feel like a bit of a hallucination or imagining.
The painting is by the German artist and writer Unica Zürn. Born in Berlin in 1916, Zürn spent much of her early adult life working in film, and as a freelance writer. She didn’t become an artist until the early 1950s, after she met the surrealist Hans Bellmer and moved with him to Paris.
There, she started out writing anagrammatic poems that rearrange the letters of a word or sentence to form new words, and experimenting with automatic drawing, transcribing pencil lines to paper from stream of consciousness. She wrote of the exhilaration of this technique, the ‘excitement and the enormous curiosity’ of not knowing what she was going to draw, and of her own work bringing her a surprise.
Circus is one of her few oil paintings, but it shares a style and a magic with her very detailed line drawings. Here, she’s scratched into a layer of black paint to create this gossamer-thin circus scene, with a tottering scaffold of creatures, Ferris wheels, and spinning umbrellas.
The work on paper to your left, called Composition, is painted with gouache, which is a more opaque version of a watercolour paint. The gouache is perfect for the fluid, feathery forms of the work. Like the fine lines of Circus, the organisms in Composition seem to be moving through a vast space.
As you move into the next gallery, take time to watch the experimental films of Man Ray, starring his lover and muse Kiki de Montparnasse. Next, we explore the surrealists’ obsession with sex and desire.