Home - Texts - Galleries -Other media- Links - Contact



Mattias Forshage


The surrealist bestiary

Ils sont des animaux...       

Surrealist imagery is full of organisms, and it is quite obvious that animals make a certain type of particular sense to surrealist sensibility, for several reasons.

1) the marvellous abundancy and diversity of shapes, solutions, lifestyles, oddities, juxtapositions, exceptions in general in the animal kingdom;

2) the way very many animals are very easily subjected to empathy and experimental identifications, as well as easily interpreted as mere distorsions of whatever is human;

3) the way animals are among the everywhere available wonders of given reality, proffering poetic encounters to anyone with a poetic vigilance, especially when combined with a prelidection for walking alone and with somewhat oversensitive hearing, sight and smelling, traditional character traits shared by the poet and the naturalist;

4) the way other animals are related to ourselves but keep making other choices and arrangements, thus serving as reminders of the lack of basis for our own sense of superiority, and providing yet another field of real concrete experience supporting antihumanism;

5) the dynamic roles played by animals in traditional and popular mythologies, including various kinds of old and new folklore of various cultures, contemporary horror and quasiscientific lore, traditional hermetic imagery, etc

6) the sense in which animal diversity demonstrates the wonders possible within a scientific perspective, where pure astonishment and scientific rigor share interests, and especially so in the appreciation of the radically demystifying and antireligious dialectical-historical discipline of evolutionary biology and its fundament the darwinian theory of evolution.

But among humans, including surrealists, it is also quite obvious that some people are more interested in animals than others. And it became even clearer to me when doing a small study in the form of sweeping through my bookshelf for examples of animals in surrealist imagery. Many surrealists just love filling their works with animals and animal-like objects (Breton, Péret, Ernst, Miró, Carrington, Césaire, Lam, Molina, Gomez-Correa, Caceres, Cabanel, Morris, Le Toumelin, Camacho, Toyen, Lacomblez, Joans, Lamantia, West etc etc), some focusing on the concrete sensory experience of animals actually encountered, others on the fantastic character of various exotic animals encountered in books and films, still others on either vaguer (in terms of diagnostic characters) or just less known animalistic presences in the imagination. Others cite them less frequently but still as an important part of their coherent imagery (Desnos, Tzara, Eluard, Dominguez, Brauner, Magritte, Dalí, Mansour, Kahlo etc) – among those we obviously see a sensitivity towards the general surrealist aspects of animals but probably no particular interest. While some others cite remarkably few animals, usually in a very unspecific way ("bird" "fish" "insect" etc) and sometimes notably in a strangely nonsensuous way as if utilised as concepts or symbols rather than in their own right (Arp, Artaud, Char, Paz, Pellegrini, Chazal, Dotremont, Cobra painters) – this is sometimes bodies of work with some kind of a metaphysical focus sometimes corresponding with a lack of sensuous concretion on the whole, and sometimes bodies of work focusing on a more narrowly anthropocentric phenomenology. In a few of the classic surrealists I've seen no obvious references to animals whatsoever (Duchamp, Ray, Tanguy, Sage).

Indeed, animals always run the risk of being utlised as mere nonsensuous symbols (as in religious imagery including hermeticism, including Artaud) or as mere words or shapes without particular meaning in careless automatism (cf Arp with his limited set of word-matter elements, but also for example Franklin Rosemont, whose poems and collages abound with interchangeable animals).

If those latter directions are dismissed as not truly concerned with animals, we could make a temporary distinction between a few fundamental modes of animal fantasy; which I will call animalistic, zoological and field vigilance. The animalistic one is the one focusing on empathy with, alienation and horror before, and fantasies of transformations into, different lifeforms and particularly their wildness, freedom, fierceness, lack of reason – this type of fantasy often targets animals at hand (domestic mammals) or animals representing wildness in popular fantasy (very often the mammals of the african savannah).

The other type, which I call zoological, is the more exotistic type of fantasy focusing on diversity of life forms, often covering the strangest possible kinds of animals and the most remote faunas, typically including the sea, the tropical rainforests and the "hidden worlds" of Australia, Madagascar etc. And finally as a third type of fantasy we may regard the simple field vigilance which makes anybody who is outdoors observe remarkable forms and behaviors in the animals surrounding us, of which birds and insects are usually the most conspicuous but all kinds of animals (whose geographical range, habitat choice, diurnal and annual rhythm and behavioral patterns the poet overlaps) may occur as strange encounters.

Much of surrealism's zoological iconography rests solidly on that of Lautréamont and of Lewis Carroll, and to a lesser extent on HP Lovecraft and hermetic philosophy, while also zoologists like Haeckel, Fabre, Darwin, Wallace, Lamarck, Buffon, Say, Linnaeus, Kinsey etc and visionary zoological amateurs such as Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Toussenel, Zötl, Dürer, Bosch etc have inspired many surrealists. Few active surrealists have been professional zoologists themselves (but many have been amateur naturalists) – it seems like the only surrealist dealing with a broad perspective of contemporary zoology (beside myself) has been Desmond Morris; at core a mammalologist and a popular scientist. But many surrealists have been, and are, active amateur naturalists, notably as birdwatchers (Barbaro, Camacho, Forshage, Hérold, Lamantia etc) or as entomologists (Buñuel, Caillois, Forshage, Starr, Tunnard). Other zoologists with notable and sometimes close relations to the surrealists have included Tom Harrisson, Jean Painlevé and Laurent Schwartz.

A few exposées of surrealist animals have been made before. Kurt Seligmann made a famous collage of "Les animaux surréalistes" reprinted in the Dictionnaire abrégée de Surréalisme 1938, Breton listed a certain number of animals as mythologically important for surrealism during the 40s, Ted Joans compiled a list of surrealist animals in his magazine Dies und Das 1984. All of these listed a small number of animals of particular totemic/mythological value within surrealism, and did not consider the width of the animal kingdom.

It should also be noted that a study such as this cannot give justice to those surrealist painters who invent a lot of animals (Ernst, Brauner, Lam, Carrington, le Toumelin, Morris, Miró, as well as the few animals of Matta, and those – if animals they are – of Tanguy) which are not obvious how to name or classify.

Provisionary conclusions: it is the classical fierce animals, the classical damned/ evil/ dark animals, the near animals, the classical poetic animals, the hermetic animals and the famous wondrous/ exceptional/ fantastic animals, which most frequently occur in surrealism. Many of surrealism's totem animals clearly belong to several of these categories.

The few most common animals of all in surrealist imagery I'd like to divide into a general and a specific category. The general ones are those very common in human thinking, human language, human life in general, popular image and/or all kinds of poetry. The use surrealism has made of them may be particular but is not quite distinct from popular use. I was in fact a bit surprised to see that the animal perhaps most frequent in surrealism on the whole was the horse, which has never been acknowledged as something totemic for surrealism (but perhaps for a few of its pictorial artists specifically). Other such common animals common in surrealism are corals, snails, butterflies, elephants, lions, cats, wolves, eagles, parrots, owls and nightingales. The more specific ones are the elective affinities, the chosen totems, the selected oddities put to particular use within surrealism. Of those, the most common ones are the octopus, the mantis, the hippocampus, the salamander, the platypus, the anteater, the black swan and the ibis (several others are traditionally recognised as surrealist totems but just not as widespread).

A list of other animals that are frequent in surrealist imagery could include: jellyfish, mussle, centipede, lobster, spider, scorpion, dragonfly, locust, scarab, glowworm, fly, starfish, sea urchin, shark, moray, turtle, kangaroo, sloth, mole, bat, lemur, dog, polar bear, donkey, rhinoceros, pig, deer, giraffe, chamaeleon, iguana, boa, cobra, crocodile, dinosaur, peacock, pelican, cormorant, pigeon, nightjar, bird of paradise, raven, etc etc.

Those occasionally singled out, or still unused but with a big potential according to the parameters discussed, will make up a huge set and include more or less most animals, and the list where I've been collecting such information for this minor study has some 600 different animals. Its voluminous and eternally unfinished nature makes it perhaps less suitable for public view.




Home - Texts - Galleries -Other media- Links - Contact