At the beginning of the 20th century a new theory was brewing. Discussed and contemplated in the cafes, cinemas and carnival freak-shows of Europe, these groups of artists developed a new method of creative expression: Surrealism.
This new thought-process looked at the world with very different and bizarre eyes. It challenged convention and greatly divided the art world, yet Surrealism found its home in every artistic medium. However, like so many rebellious ideals, it has become a servant to commercial enterprise, the elitist tyrants it despised. Although diluted, Surrealism has evolved to take its place in 21st century media, especially in music videos and advertising campaigns.
Going against the grain of convention, Surrealism claims to go deep into the psychic to reveal our true selves. However, caution and guard yourself, for Surrealism says it’s many things but refuses to be true to itself. So before we venture down the rabbit-hole we need to take a torch for the tunnel runs deep and dark. But despite this warning there’s some potential benefit. Just as revolutionary as Surrealism, I wish to put forward the possibility of a ‘remodelled’ version: Orthodox Surrealism. This concept removes certain aspects that are hazardous to both our spiritual and mental well-being.
But firstly, what is Surrealism?
To set the scene, it’s World War I and Europe is in peril. The terrors of organised, industrial-scale warfare were in full swing and the people were plunged into great fear and depression. The populace was swept up in a cloud of parotitic propaganda which conflicted with their notion of common humanity. Artists tried to make sense of this chaos as they watched the ‘civilised world’ destroy itself. It was in this atmosphere Surrealism was born.
The movement is based on several core principles. Firstly, Surrealism is anti-art. It’s totally against preconceptions of what art is as forged by social convention – bringing about the term avant-garde, especially in fashion. Secondly, it seeks to challenge social, sexual and moral conventions – Surrealism is highly critical of authority including religion. Thirdly, Surrealism is based on the personal morality, experiences and obsessions of the artist which are only known to them – for example, Luis Bunuel often depicted insects in his films because he had studied entomology. Fourthly, Surrealism does not follow conventional linear narrative structures, frequently jumping time and space. A good example is David Lynch’s 'Lost Highway'. Fifth, the artist creates work which reflects their unique signature, their auteur, where their personality shines through the work’s technique, style and language. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, merging reality and dreams making it almost impossible to distinguish. So the overall outcome is to reveal the ‘truth’ about reality and ourselves in order to make the world a better place.
However, as I mentioned early, everything is not what it seems. The very foundations of Surrealism were built on self-destructive and manic elements – perhaps a neurotic side-effect of the First World War.
One of these elements is how Surrealists greatly rely on dreams. They believe through dreams, which are supposedly linked to the subconscious, truths about the individual and society will be revealed. This is where Surrealism gets it bizarre themes, such as in Salvador Dali’s paintings. However, the dreamscape is not a place to let your guard down. It is a teaching of the Orthodox Faith that we should not put our trust in dreams. Although examples of Divine dreams appear in the Old Testament; however, it was only for a very select few. When The Ladder was revealed to Jacob, God did so through visions as he slept, just like the Prophets Samuel and Isaiah. Then there are dreams which are directly inspired by the Devil. Finally, we have dreams which are from our thoughts whilst we sleep. The recently canonised St Porphyrios was recorded telling a lady who asked how to interpret a dream she had about a fish, his response was "fry the fish and eat it!" – implying that it meant nothing and could have been an evil thought designed to mislead her.
However, dream interpretation is taken one step further. Surrealists were greatly inspired by the work of psychologist Sigmund Freud who developed the therapy of psychoanalysis, where memories, thoughts and dreams were interpreted so as to uncover traumas from the subconscious. Surrealists believed dreams were the key to the subconscious and could unlock ‘truths’ and deep-seated desires which were repressed. The Parisian Surrealists called this ‘liberating the subconscious’ It is worth noting this theory is relatively new, early 20th century, so it’s not discussed by the saints or Church Fathers, yet it may have been examined in other ways. However, if the idea of the subconscious was put before the Church Fathers I’m sure they would have a lot to say. But at this stage, until it’s fully assessed by the Church, the subconscious should be viewed with a great deal of caution; even psychoanalysis is disputed by many in the psychiatry profession. So, what has been some of the outcomes by Surrealists in using dreams?
The filmmaker Bunuel greatly valued dreams. He once spoke to Dali about a dream where "a cloud cut through the moon like a knife though an eye". He used this dream in his film Un chien andalous where he cuts a women’s eye with a knife. Other than being shocking, which is another goal of Surrealism, what is the benefit to the audience? If psychoanalysis interprets dreams so as to tap into the subconscious and reveal ‘truth’, then is it these images that will ‘advance’ our society?
In challenging social and moral conventions Surrealists seek to impose their own sense of ‘personal’ morality. It’s worth noting most Surrealists had strong ties with Communism. They relied on Surrealism to criticise the various establishments, including the upper-class and Church. So, in dictating their self-prescribed morality they were also pedalling their own social-political philosophies as the solution to all of society’s problems. So, what were their answers?
In Bunuel’s 'The Phantom of Liberty' there’s a dinner scene where the guests carry on a conversation around the dinner table whilst sitting on flushing toilets. The characters would then excuse themselves and enter a private cubicle in order to eat. Bunuel’s aim was to mock what he considered the absurdity of proper social convention and etiquette. Some more recent examples are seen in David Cronenberg’s films. Although ahead of its time, 'Videodrone' explored the relationship between humans, pornography and technology – prophesising the Internet. In another film, 'A History of Violence', Cronenberg seek to examine how violence is rooted in every aspect of society and its inescapable hold. Now, years later, has the world changed for the better? As for Bunuel’s 'Liberty' film, other than being somewhat comical, what good is meant to come of this exploration? From an Orthodox perspective, instead of advancing society, these works encourage the passions. The goal of the spiritual-life is not to dwell on the passions, but, like the Incarnate Christ, become, through Grace, transfigured, purified and perfect like God. This was the purpose of Christ coming into the world – to unify with God and achieve Theosis.
Now after learning about the nature of Surrealism how can Orthodoxy have anything to do with such a potentially ‘evil’ theory? That’s why a great deal of remodelling and in-depth analysis is required to ensure that this is the right path for Orthodox artists.
So how would Orthodox Surrealism work?
Due to the mystical nature of the Faith, Orthodoxy can provide a rich and endless source of surreal imagery. Even our long tradition of iconography can be described as surreal. Unlike Western Christian art, Orthodox iconography was inspired by the spiritual elements of ancient Egyptian and Greek art, including symbolism and the non-realistic representations of divide beings and events. As ‘windows into the divine’ iconography’s spiritual messages transcend this world speaking a language between the viewer and the holy person depicted. For example, the 6th century AD icon of Christ the Pantocrator from the St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, Christ’s face is of two halves – one half stern and in judgement, the other half loving and welcoming – the overall effect on the viewer is to remind them of their sinful state yet that God is love. This art transcends the earthly mind.
If one is to become an Orthodox Surrealist the only way to ensure it does not lead them down the wrong path is to maintain an Orthodox phronema both when working and in daily life. A cornerstone principle for an Orthodox Surrealist is to set their creative mind into a constant state of prayer. Just like an iconographer who prayers and fasts throughout the icon writing process, an Orthodox artist should maintain a prayerful state of mind. Praying unceasing the Jesus prayer, reading Scripture and spiritual books will help guide them from straying into dark thoughts and clinical madness. Prayer also provides an endless source of inspiration looking at the world with eyes that the Surrealists could never fathom. But an artist must have a spiritual father or mother, a guide they can regularly seek advice and clarification. Just the same as we regularly visit the doctor, an experienced eye will see illness even when we feel fine.
Secondly, instead of relying on dreams of unknown origin, an Orthodox Surrealist should find their inspiration and subject matter based on their own experiences. This is similar to the Surrealists, whose work was very personal, but the difference is being able to reveal the true meaning behind the experience thereby building a stronger connection with the audience.
So what could be some surreal Orthodox imagery? I will use some of my own experiences from the Divine Liturgy, though the same process can be applied to worldly experiences. One example is of a church here in Melbourne where their
iconostasis has unusual deacon doors which did not open inwards, but would slide along a track and very quickly. I was always transfixed by these doors as for one moment I would see Archangel Gabriel then suddenly an altarboy would be standing in his place. It was as if he ‘transformed’ at the threshold which was the ‘portal’ between the outside world and the holiest place on earth.
Another time, I remember standing on the left-hand side of the church with mum. Being a small child, I was surrounded by taller adult women wearing long black coats because it was winter. I remember feeling snug and warm as if in a forest of woolly trees. When the Great Entrance began, I couldn’t see anything but I knew the priest was going past because the forest of women gradually turned and bowed, just like the trees did to St Irene.
My last example is of my stay at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mt Athos. It was during Matins, as I stood in darkness with the only light coming from vigil lamps and a few candles. Then a priest came out with a censer on a chain but there was something very unique about this one. As it swayed back and forth the bells made one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. It’s almost impossible to describe but the resonating chimes felt like ‘golden butterflies’ fluttering around me – I was experiencing sound, visually.
Using the essence of these personal experiences, I could portray them, visually or written, in very surreal ways with whatever technique. Like Jan Svankmajer’s 'Alice', he used puppetry, animation and live action. Orthodox Surrealism can be just as creative. There’s so much to use from these experiences, perhaps moreso than dreams, because real-world experiences are happening in the five senses – and can not the Truth of God be revealed through these images, experiences and sensations?
However, it must be stressed there’s a very real danger in relying on personal experience. My ‘golden butterflies’ or ‘forest of women’ were positive experiences to me, but does everyone feel this way during Liturgy? To another person the bells may have been a piercing siren or the crowd of women claustrophobic. A personal experience is dependent on one’s spiritual & mental state. So potentially, an artist could produce anti-religious art based on their experience of ‘truth’. A great deal of discernment is required; however, very few of us have this quality so it is essential to have access to a spiritual guide to avoid venturing off the path and into the dark wildness. If someone has such negative feelings they should cease their work and seek spiritual advice, for the Church is perfect like Christ who is the Church. As in Proverbs (Ch 4: verse 23), "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life" We need to be careful not to became like the guideless Surrealists inventing their own self-centred truths but instead purify ourselves through life in the Church because "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew. Ch 5: verse 8). Just as St Porphyrios said, "If you don’t see Christ in everything you do, you are without Christ".
Just as Surrealism talks about blurring the lines between dreams and reality does not our Faith provide similar inspiration? By combing personal experiences with our doctrines, the Faith offers endless possibilities for surreal and thought-provoking art. When one examines the lives of the saints and their daily struggles with the Devil, such as Elder Paisios, it boggles the mind how ‘realities’ – the real-world, evil and the Divine – clashed. Throw in a non-linear narrative structure and the types of spiritual messages would be profound.
Just like Surrealism, Orthodox Surrealism challenges current social & moral conventions, that is, conventions of the Fallen world. Christians are not archaists, but Christianity does go against the grain on a theological level to reveal the folly of materialism, hate, greed and hedonism. Our Faith is unconventional to this world – love your enemies, forgive those who hate you, turn the other cheek – things taught by the Saviour but are considered illogical and crazy by the standards of this selfish, Fallen world. If such spiritual messages and experiences can be expressed through Orthodox Surrealism then, just like the goal of Surrealists, can we not make the world a better place?
Orthodox surrealism can offer an ancient yet fresh approach towards creativity, with Orthodox artists developing their own auteur.
But where are some examples?
One Orthodox artist is Angelica Sotiriou whose artwork takes on a unique approach to expressing the spiritual life. Angelica regards her work as, I quote, ‘an outgrowth of her personal prayers and contemplation with images often inspired by the Divine Liturgy, scripture passages, the Holy Fathers and the Saints’. Her expression of spiritual concepts takes on a surreal nature, engaging the viewer. Her work, ‘In Communion, Theosis’ depicts what looks like a supernova, but quoting Angelica it, ‘drew [her] into a deeper understanding of [her] Orthodox faith and prayer life’. The piece is a visualization of two worlds colliding into one: God and the Nous. In Angelica’s words, ‘[it was] a galactic birthing...a melding into one...Theosis’. During the creative process this work took on another form, becoming "chalice" shaped – the mystery of the Eucharist. So to Angelica, the painting is like looking at the ‘seed of "creation", a birth beginning in a womb’.
In another piece entitled, ‘Noetic Prayer’, we see what appears to be a bright sun in the middle of the canvas with three golden-arrows pointing to it from above and one arrow from below, surrounded by shades of blue. Angelica wanted to comprehend the prayer of the heart and the Nous on the way to achieving Theosis. The images relate to the need of a pure and clean heart, achieved through living a Christian life and in prayer, cleaning the heart in order to see God. According to Angelica, it is an image of the Nous in its brightest moment of pure prayer.
Another Orthodox artist is Michael Lujan, a photographer whose work includes digital and photomanipulations artworks. Michael is obsessed with finality, his auteur, which features in his piece, 'The Last Thing You Remember', where a hand stretches out to a tree within a picture frame. To Michael, the very act of reaching out to grasp something, to hold it, means at the same time to define it. The tree, God's creation, is the sum total of all experience everywhere and at all times. Thereby, to know God is to know Him through His energies, as taught by St George Palamas.
Another of Michael’s work is the Science Fiction Romance series, an attempt at grappling with the most obvious evidence of the infinite around us, including the night sky and everything we've projected into it, either by imagination or theory. The series deals with humanity’s obsession with knowledge, especially the Universe. Where we romanticise the objects above us before we even set foot on them and how this may ultimately influence our experience once we get there. Fact and fantasy collide generating the human response of wonder – that never-ending conversation with our Creator.
In both Angelica and Michael’s art we see contemplative works based on personal experiences incorporating the idea of Theosis expressed through imagery of the comas, birth, creation and emotion to create abstract and mesmerising art work achieved in a prayerful state. These examples can be prototypes for Orthodox Surrealism.
So where does that leave us?
I think this remodelled version of Surrealism is ripe for Orthodox Christian artists. It offers artists the ability to express spiritual messages based on their own unique experiences from living the Faith. Orthodox Surrealism has much treasure to offer the world. Yet, Surrealism in its original form, is nothing more than a continuous loop of self-destructive, misleading morality created by secular artists.
If we establish this new movement on the said values we are creating a form of artistic expression that is based on living in a prayerful state grounded in reality communicating with the Divine. Compared with the values of Surrealists, at least Orthodox Surrealism allows the individual to contemplate the spiritual and maybe stir a change deep in their heart and soul. I believe Orthodox Surrealists have a greater chance of changing the world than the inward-thinking Surrealists.
Note: received permission from artists to post their work.
Click Angelica Sotiriou Page to learn more about her work
Click Michael Lujan Page to lean more about his work
** Podcast transcript from The Moving Icon show on Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) **
Broadcast April 2014