A Study of the Relation Between Renaissance Proto-Surrealism and Modern Surrealism
Hieronymus Bosch, Tondals Vision, Between 1490-1500, Oil on Canvas
20th Century and Theoretical Surrealism
The surrealism movement was ignited with the manifestos of André Breton, the French poet, and strongly associated with Neo-Freudian idealisms. In the early 20th century, the term surrealism strictly referred to any literary piece or visual artwork that was created in a trance-like state and “inspired by automatism.” In essence, surrealistic art is characterized by a presentation of illogical and hyperrealist scenery.
While the surrealist movement was cultivated through outlining philosophies and defining techniques in the 20th century, the art history proves that the hyperreal imagery was not an unexplored territory. Several artists across Europe produced artworks that were surreal, mostly in an attempt to envision religious credos, mythological stories and fantastic interpretation of an idea or a person. In the Eastern cultures, Japanese and Indian arts displayed a fair share of imaginative depictions, often arising from the spiritual notions in mythology.
Surrealism in the Renaissance Era
During the European renaissance, intellectuals and artists committed to the revival of classical philosophy and archetypes of Greek art including mythology. The illustration of beauty through realism was at the core of their creations. Therefore, exaggeration in artistic expressions, such as seen in surrealism, was simply crossing over the boundaries of the norms.
Four centuries prior to the international recognition of surrealism as a stylistic movement, and subsequent with the classical aestheticism akin to renaissance, the 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch created hyperreal art. He had broadened his artistic horizons into the surreal realm of religious beliefs. He belonged to the Early Netherlandish School of Art, and today is widely remembered for his exaggerated expressions. His art was mostly themed with human morals, punishment of the debauchery and falling of humans from their initial glorified stage.
While André Breton is regarded as the father of the hyperreal movement, Bosch is titled as the grandfather of surrealism. Numerous canvases of Bosch illustrate hellish imaginary; monstrous personifications; humans with arcane details and unrealistic proportions; fantastic landscapes; and blunt nudity, often with grotesque notions. In a way, he was the Dante of the visual arts, who portrayed a coherent image of hell and punishment awaiting the sinners in the afterlife.
The most famous painting of Bosch is perhaps “The Garden of Earthly Delights’’, which is a clear depiction of fears and moral creeds in the Middle Ages. The painting is a forthright expression of the torment of the lustful men and their dwelling in the eternal damnation.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, between 1490 and 1510, oil on canvas on 3 panels
Another notable artist in proto-surrealism studies is Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He was a classical painter, and similar to other outstanding Italian painters in the 16th century, his publicly recognized works embrace spiritual motifs. Some of Arcimboldo’s notable murals are still adorning the tall walls of Duomo di Monza. Religious themes and imagery of Christ were the dominant theme of his painting in the cathedral, but when it came to his canvas paintings, the complexity of his art bore hyperrealistic characteristics.
Creating portraits out of nonliving nature and objects is the keynote in Arcimboldo’s surreal illustrations. Books, vegetables and fruits, objects and even figurines were combined to create human portraits that were witty, occasionally comical or monstrous in their expressions. He died in the prime of his life at 35, and did not receive a meritorious recognition for his unconventional art works at that time. It wasn't until the beggining of the 20th century that his innovative techniques were rediscovered, following Salvador Dali’s research on proto surrealism in the history of art.
The Opposing Ideas on Proto Surrealism
Surrealism avant-la-lettre of tracing the roots and related art works to the 20th century movement contains conflicting arguments regarding the role of the proto-surreal artists, particularly Bosch, in the modern hyperrealism.
Art historians assert that the difference lies in the artist's intention for the creation. While the renaissance and 20th century surrealism may resemble in technique and fantastic imagery, they differ in ideology. Bosch’s paintings were merely a masterful illustration of common beliefs. Inconsequentially, the 20th century surrealism movement was largely influenced by Freudian psychology. Modern surrealists pursued, providing a voice to the subconscious mind. Bosch never attempted to tap into the subconscious realm of his own mind, or the viewer, and was merely a classical representation of spiritual truths — like many other artworks during the renaissance and baroque periods. Taking these factors into account, Bosch’s art can not be classified under surrealistic definition.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s works, however, bear a closer resemblance to the definition of modern surrealism. He creates portraits and juxtapositions that elicit the subconscious mind in the spectator and helps them cross the bridge of rationality to illogical yet artful sceneries.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1563, oil on canvas
Other visual art critics reflect on the nature of techniques and expression in the works of 15th century artist Bosch. These techniques were original and later adapted by renowned modern artists, including Dali himself. This is the reason Bosch yet holds the entitlements such as precursor to hyper realistic paintings and the grandfather of surrealism.
Fine Art America, Tondals Vision is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch which was uploaded on September 14th, 2010.
ARTnews, How Giuseppe Arcimboldo Reimagined Portraiture in 16th-Century Europe, 2010
Singulart Magazine, The Garden of Earthly Delights: 15th Century Surrealism of Hieronymus Bosch, 2019
Georges Melies, 1988, Proto-Surrealist, Ithaca College
Benjamin Baudis, Hieronymus Bosch : a mediaeval prefiguration of surrealism?, Sciences Po, Paris , School of Public Affairs
National Gallery of Art september 19, 2010 – january 9, 2011, Arcimboldo 1526–1593 nature and fantasy