Slicing Open the Eyeball: Rick Poynor on Surrealism and the Visual Unconscious

More than just the preeminent commentator on the social role and cultural politics of graphic design in contemporary culture, the English cultural critic Rick Poynor is our most reliable dashboard navigator through the visual landscape, a politically astute, historically literate GPS plotting our course through the forest of signs.

In startlingly insightful yet poetic essays for magazines such as Print (for which he writes the “Observer” column) and Eye, the British design review he founded in 1990; the website Design Observer, which he co-founded; in classrooms and lecture halls around the world; in the movie Helvetica; and in books such as his masterful collections, Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (2001), and Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (2006), Poynor offers an inspiring lesson in the power of visual literacy at a moment when our cultural consciousness is increasingly ruled, as Walter Lippmann predicted, by the pictures in our heads.

Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou.

But until I heard Poynor’s recent lecture at the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan, I had no idea he was a closet Surrealist.

Nominally a behind-the-scenes view of the curatorial logic that guided his show, “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design,” which ran at the Moravian Gallery in Brno in the Czech Republic from June 23 to October 24, last year, Poynor’s lecture was, in truth, his coming-out as an unreconstructed Surrealist. “The fact is, I have a not-so-secret commitment to the idea of Surrealism,” he confessed, to a packed house. “This is not just a scholarly, detached, undertaking; I really believe in this stuff.”

With a mouse click, he flashed an image of Surrealism: Permanent Revelation, by Roger Cardinal and Robert Stuart Short, a book that was a blasting cap in his 15-year-old mind.

What made the book extraordinary, he noted, was that although it was written by “academics with literary and art-historical interests,” it nonetheless viewed Surrealism “from the standpoint of people who were devotees; they were committed.” Committed to what? Committed to Surrealism’s permanent revelation: the adoption of a dreamlike consciousness—Breton’s “pure psychic automatism”—as a worldview, in which everyday reality was refracted through the unconscious mind.

Mark Dery: It was thrilling to hear you champion Surrealism, which is reflexively dismissed as part of the sedimentary record of art history, as a guiding principle for making one’s way through the world—not only the world of ideas but the psychogeography of the visual landscape, even the emotional terrain of daily life.

But what does that mean, really? What does it mean to live as a Surrealist? To say, with complete ingenuousness, that you’re a Surrealist over a half a century after the death of Surrealism’s “pope,” André Breton; after Dalí turned the Revolution of the Mind into a one-man brand, long before Warhol, Kostabi, and Koons elevated self-marketing to an art form; after MTV reduced it to an empty signifier? What does Surrealism have to teach us, early in the 21st century? What “profoundly important things” does Surrealism still have to say to the modern world, or the post-postmodern world, or [your preferred periodization here]? As important, what daily affirmations does it offer you, as a true believer?

Rick Poynor: I don’t want to start by splitting hairs, but saying I have a commitment to the idea of Surrealism is not quite the same as saying I’m a card-carrying Surrealist. Words like “unreconstructed” or “true believer” make it sound like some naïve faith, as though I’ve remained unaware of all the ways that Surrealism is problematic: its political ambiguity, its dubious treatment of women, its commercialization, its loss of cultural and moral authority after the Second World War, its wholesale absorption into the cultural mainstream (any curious experience is “surreal,” now, in ordinary speech) to the point where it’s questionable whether Surrealism has anything at all left to “reveal” to us.

In fact, in the decades since I found Surrealism as a teenager, my attraction to the movement has gone through different phases, including times of reduced interest, especially compared to where I am with Surrealism now, though there was never a time when I gave up on it. And that’s the point: we often tire of things, grow out of them, wonder why we cared so much, and feel retrospective embarrassment at what later looks like misjudgment. With Surrealism, that never happened. Time and experience tested it and proved its value. That youthful encounter blasted open a mental door and what was on the other side—there is so much on the other side—has never ceased to be meaningful to me.

Max Ernst, A Week of Kindness
or: The Seven Deadly Elements.

I should also emphasize at the outset that while I’m greatly interested in Surrealism’s precepts, personalities, history, and literature, my fascination began with the visual art of Surrealism and this has always been its bedrock. When I look at Surrealist art, it still delivers its mysterious psychic shocks. Surrealism codified a poetic principle that has always existed as a possibility and still exists in life and art “after Surrealism.” “There is another world,” said Paul Éluard, “but it is in this one.” This, for me, is a guiding principle—the illuminating essence of the Surrealist revelation. I’m deeply attracted to the fantastic, the strange, the marvelous, the nameless, the uncanny, but not in the flimsy, escapist sense of fantasy otherworlds remote from our own. I’m searching for the fantastic, the unaccountable, in the tangible world, in ordinary experience and everyday life, the moments when something unexpected but deeply thrilling is suddenly manifest. The mystery is here if we would but see it. We are bound to try to talk about this, but it eludes final explanation and that’s the measure of its power.


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  • Colin

    This dude really digs the pretentious-colon-in-the-title move that everyone seems to loves so much.

  • AaronWB

    I'm sympathetic to Poynor's appreciation of surrealism, but it strikes me as more of a historical interest than an artistic one. It seems to me that, like many innovations in artistic philosophy, what was once a stand-alone “theory” of art has been fully integrated into the artist's toolkit and is now just a component or backdrop to contemporary artistic innovations.

    Surrealism for an artist is sort of like Freudian theory for a psychologist– it's necessary but not sufficient.

    • MarkDery

      Thanks for this, Aaron. I'm not sure I, or more to the point Poynor, would agree that his interest is more historical than artistic. His whole point, if I understand it, seems to be that Surrealism *isn't* just part of the fossil record, for Poynor—he applauds the authors of PERMANENT REVELATION for *not* consigning it to the dustbin of history—but rather a useful prism for viewing the world around us, an intellectual probe for exposing the marvelous hidden in the banal. Then, too, Surrealism, unlike, say, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Marxist criticism, feminism, poststructuralism, and all the other lockpins in the deconstructive toolkit, is unique in its refusal of the logical argument and Enlightenment rationalism common to the other approaches (and yes, even to critics of instrumental rationalism like Foucault!); in place of linear, point-by-point analysis, well-supported by evidence mined from the text, it offers the nonlinear, free-associated dream logic of the unconscious. Of course, this is often more fantasy than reality, since it's heavily indebted to Freudian dream theory, flirted with Marxism (to a minus effect), and is often hyperrationalist in actual practice (see Breton's manifestos, which made Frida Kahlo roll a weary eye, when Breton visited her, Diego, and Trotsky in Mexico).

      • Rick Poynor

        My interest in Surrealism is, as Mark Dery suggests, both historical and artistic — if by “artistic” we mean that these ideas, insights and procedures still have some relevance today. (I am not an artist.) I hoped this dual vision of Surrealism was clear when I suggested, among other things, that Surrealism embodies a poetic principle that existed before the Surrealists formulated it with such thoroughness, and that continues to exist today as a way of seeing/dreaming/experiencing the world. The Surrealists were never slow to cite their forebears: Swift, Sade, Chateaubriand, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, etc. are there in the first manifesto (1924). I'm in at least half-agreement with Aaron. Artists have indeed integrated Surrealism's most serviceable tools into their tool kit. This can be conscious or unconscious. A few days ago, I went to see a marvelous exhibition by the collage artist John Stezaker, whose work, starting in the 1970s when Surrealism was totally out of fashion among a new generation of conceptual artists, would make complete sense to Surrealism's early adherents. Take a look:


        Breton declared that “Lucidity is the chief enemy of revelation,” but, naturally lucid himself, he really had to work at it.

  • This Spartan Life

    Great interview. I always feel like I am speaking to someone who gets Surrealism if they name Ernst or Bunuel as their favorite Surrealist. The two of them seem to weed out those interested only in the pictorial fantasy aspect of the movement. Similarly, I never considered Cocteau much of a Surrealist.

    My version of Poynor's discovery of the photograph came when I was in my 20s and eating pancakes. I noticed the paper label on the maple syrup can was peeling. The label was a drab brown and white drawing of a maple tree. I peeled it off to find a lush painted landscape on the can itself. Two children were sledding down a snowy hill with a deep blue sky and dark green trees surrounding them. I think it was partly the personal discovery aspect of this moment that excited me so, like the scene was waiting quietly there for me, hidden from view like the sound-making device in Duchamp's “With Hidden Noise”. But mostly it was the unexplainable “convulsive” beauty over “le merveilleux.” To this day I can feel it when thinking about that moment.

    • Markdery

      Brilliant, Chris. And a fist-bump to your point that Cocteau's brand of Surrealism is more gloopy magical realism, sugared with that cloying Gallic sentimentality that makes AMELIE so gack-oriffic. (If, er, that was your point!) Great childhood anecdote. And bonus points for a reference to WITH HIDDEN NOISE, one of my favorite Duchamp readymades, the point where parlor magic, children's games, and Surrealist art converge. The only man who knew what made the noise was Duchamp's dealer, if memory serves, and he never told and is now gone to dust. Perfect. Convulsive beauty forever!

  • Clara

    I am wondering if Poynor has that photo — is it posted anywhere?

  • jotta

    Great post!
    If you want to find out about Rick Poynor's lecture “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design”, this might be of your interest:

    Check it out!
    Team jotta

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