Science in Surrealism

Shotgun Review

Science in Surrealism

By Sienna Freeman July 12, 2015

Gallery Wendi Norris’ current exhibition, Science in Surrealism, showcases 20 historic works from private collections and created by Surrealist icons such as Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Marcel Jean, Roberto Matta, Gordon Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, and František Janoušek. While classic Surrealist tropes from a psychoanalytic perspective are surely present, the exhibit attempts to cast a new critical light on these objects. Science in Surrealism considers the movement’s engagement with the early-20th-century development of modern physics, specifically in relation to quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The earliest piece in the show is Max Ernst’s Fleurs – Coquillages (Shell Flowers), circa 1928. Subdued in palette and demure in size, the piece portrays a serene horizontal landscape composed of abstract and organic color fields. A cluster of seashells or rocks appears nestled within the sandy surface of a beige coastal setting, with the backdrop of a deep blue sea and periwinkle sky. This mass of objects seems simultaneously flattened in space and liquid in movement, as if undergoing some sort of process of creation or mutation within these structural boundaries. Thick, white, rhythmic lines repeat in succession along the central figures’ surfaces to imply the presence of a mysterious chemical reaction—evoking visions of alchemic possibility, biological growth, or everyday, at-home science kit experiments

Though it feels much grander in size, Kurt Seligmann’s painting Moonscape (1959) is roughly four feet tall by three feet wide and seems to loom on the gallery wall, immediately demanding the full presence of its viewer. Intestinal ribbons of black, white, and gray hues fill the surface of the canvas, ominous and chaotic. Swirling from the center, a pulsating spherical form swells from a volcanic source below, calling to mind images of destruction, such as the explosion of an atomic bomb. The pitted surface of the moon is clearly a visual reference here as well, hence the title “Moonscape,” but one could argue that the piece serves as a depiction of an intense social landscape as much as a natural one. 

Kurt Seligmann. Moonscape, 1959; oil on canvas; 48 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco. 

In the context of the history of modern physics, scholar Gavin Parkinson argues that in the late 1920s, Surrealists were attracted to a certain “sibylline strangeness”1 associated with new ways to experience the visual and physical world—rethinking temporalities and bodies in terms of mass, location, and velocity. Ernst’s Fleurs – Coquillages can be seen as a representation of this exciting and pregnant era—an image of human possibility. In contrast, Seligmann’s Moonscape reads as the image of impending doom—a critique of the blossoming atomic age of the 1950s, an era of unethical intent that was in opposition to the “anti-authoritarian rhetoric”2 of the Surrealist movement. Other works in the show explore a variety of visual and psychological connections to the scientific theme, opening a dialogue around early influences on sci-fi aesthetics and other visual narratives of the future. Collectively, Science in Surrealism successfully shines a new light on historic pieces by the masters, adding yet another layer of complexity to the already dense interpretive possibilities of surrealist work. 


Science in Surrealism is on view at Gallery Wendi Norris, in

San Francisco

, through August 1, 2015.


  1. Gavin Parkinson, “Sibylline Strangeness: Surrealism and Modern Physics,” in Science in Surrealism exhibition catalog (San Francisco: Gallery Wendy Norris, 2015), 5.
  2. Parkinson, 9.

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