Surrealist roots

A key aspect of Te Papa’s new exhibition Surrealist Art is works inspired by and pertaining to indigenous and African cultures. Ellie Franco Williams takes a look.


Salvador Dalí, Couple with their heads in the clouds, oil on panel, 1936. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo Studio Tromp. Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP. Copyright Agency, (1)

The Surrealist art movement was famously concerned with the unconscious, dreamscapes, subverting reality, and fragmentary perspectives. The socialist-aligned and primarily European movement was, however, also concerned with global unity and sought inspiration from cultures outside Europe. Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, at Te Papa, features more than 180 surrealist works, in genres including paintings and photographs, books, sculpture, and film.


Salvador Dali’s Impressions of Africa (1938) is presented both as a physical painting and as a moving image, taking Te Papa’s viewers on an immersive journey through the brush strokes, figures, and unconscious recordings of Dali’s imagined Africa. The landscape in the painting is said to have been inspired by the area near his house at Port Lligat.


Showcasing subconscious inspiration, Unica Zürn’s Circus (1956) is an oil painting created by scratching in figures and structures as a form of automatism, the practice of creating works without conscious intention, using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations. The German author and artist’s father had been a cavalry officer stationed in Africa. His collection of exotic objects from his time there is said to have inspired Zürn’s work, evoking a subconscious association of beauty in diversity and the unexplored.

Unica Zürn, Circus, 1956, oil on canvas. © Verlag Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin, Germany. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp

Indigenous culture was of interest to Surrealists for its displacement in the modern world. Curated in kōrero with Surrealist Art | He Toi Pohewa, the smaller exhibition Surrealist Impulse uses artworks from Te Papa’s collection to explore the relationship between Aotearoa, Māori, and Surrealism. Contemporary Māori artists Michael Parekowhai and Shane Cotton demonstrate the influence of Surrealism on their work, both expressing a Māori ethos related to the spirit of the movement rather than a literal reimagining of it.


French author and poet André Breton was an influential force in the movement. He argued that Surrealism had to commit itself to a political movement dedicated to the liberation of oppressed peoples everywhere. The Collection of André Breton and Paul Éluard: African, American and Oceanic Sculpture (1931) is a book on display at Te Papa as part of the exhibition. Surrealists admired “primitive” and “tribal” objects for their difference from and subversion of the European world. Breton observes that Oceanic art was particularly good at challenging Western concepts, aesthetics, and politics.


“I have tried to relocate Black cultural objects in…relation to their own world. My painting is an act of decolonization not in a physical sense, but in a mental one” said Afro-Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam. His Clairvoyance (1950) features the important “horse-woman” character of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, surrounded by African-mask-like faces suggesting their supernatural power. The painting serves as an ode to his roots, while also considering how one might re-centre external cultures within the Euro-centric Surrealist movement.


Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is at Te Papa’s Toi Art Gallery until October.