The world of Western art survived many transformations and transitions, but of all of them two can be considered to be the greatest shifts. Both of these transformations were concerned with a change in world view and paradigm, a renewal that was both a logical consequence and a rebellion against the previous canon, and both would come through with much difficulty, and yet make an effect that would be impossible to ignore. One would come at the end of the 13th century and last through the end of the 16th, the second would begin in the 19th century and, in a way, it is not certain whether it is over yet.
The first is the transition from ecclesiastical art to secular art – from art that dealt with displaying the celestial reality to mimetic art, a slow transition which culminated in the Italian High Renaissance. The second transition was from the great evolution of worldly art into the transcendental, philosophical art of the twentieth century – from mimetic to non-mimetic. Part of this second transition were the Surrealist and Magical Realist art movements, and it is upon their example that we will be examining the similarities and differences between the two great revolutions.
There are, of course, the great themes that are the subject of all art. Art depends on the human experience, and changes when that experience changes. In our case, there was a number of specific themes that, by changing, link the two abovementioned revolutions. I will argue that no theme and technique were borrowed by the Surrealists per se (with the exception of the works of Paul Delvaux)– however, a great many problems that the artists of two different epochs had to solve coincided, and if the methods of solving were different, the ideas were strikingly similar, as were some of the solutions.
The first theme that we will examine is the attitude towards the human body and its depiction. Second, we will examine the depiction of the human mind frame, mostly in the context of the sciences in art: which sciences were inspiration for the arts, and how precisely they were shown. This theme migrates naturally into the human perception of space and time, which is, possibly, the deepest it is possible to get into the analysis of the painting.
What we shall not examine here are these subjects: color, texture, and oher technical details which – with one or two notable exceptions – were mostly derived from the local background, and not from Renaissance influence on the Surrealists. In the case of notable exceptions – such as the abovementioned Delvaux or Chirico, who was as influenced by Florence as the 16th century painters – it will be mentioned separately. I have allowed myself to include a couple of artworks from the late 15th century, if only for their very characteristic displays.
It must be noted, that the Renaissance tendencies are actually best shown not in High Renaissance – it is well-known that what Vasari thought was a zenith, had, in fact, reached its peak and would soon mutate into the Baroque style, and had more than a few overtones of its future transformation. The human body The ideals of the human body and the methods of its depiction are, perhaps, the most characteristic illustrations of any change or artistic paradigm. The question of the body is a question of self-consciousness.
We are very much associated with our bodies: to look at them in a new way is to know ourselves as different. And both Renaissance and Surrealism showed a transformation in the perceptions of the human body. Middle Age art could not afford, for the most part, to show the body in any way that would truly display its uniqueness as an object: even those paintings which are obviously of a portrait character are quite subject to canon. This was especially relevant when talking about the canon of perspective and pose: there were certain very clear rules on what was the decent way to depict a human being.
The Renaissance broke these rules – the most striking of these breaks, possibly, being Mantegna’s «Lamentation». Mantegna shows not just any corpse, but the corpse of Christ himself. We are not looking at Christ side by side, streteched out limply – no, the picture is harsh in that we are as if looking down on him and those grieving. This presence is one of the greatest influential factors of this painting: Mantegna pits the viewer face-to-face with the cold, harsh reality that is death, through his depiction of the body.
Here is its fragmentary, appears as if distorted – though, ironically, this is one of the first attempts at perspective, and it is well-known that the mistakes he makes are classical for someone who had been drawing from nature and not from a calculation. (Coppel, 2) Mantegna may have been one of the first to truly break through the classical perspectives of the body, but the most important artist to study the human body within the time of the Renaissance was, undoubtedtly, Leonardo da Vinci.
Through him we are offered a link to the Surrealists: they were fascinated by Leonardo and his studies of the human being. Max Ernst, for instance, was enamored by the notion of automatist writing and drawing, to be so prevalent in Surrealistic art. Yet others were taken in by the fact that he did not turn away from the grotesque in the human being – never minding that many other artists also did not, Leonardo was, possibly, the most directly available and famous example.
He had been one of the few for whom things such as the human age were not an allegory, but a reality to be examined and depicted. Human ugliness fascinated Leonardo, both as simply ugliness of the body, and as ugliness of the mind. Pictures such as «The Grotesque Head» are a veritive study in the human condition, and the kind of it that would be shied away from by the future neoclassicists and mannerists.