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Surrealism and the Body

See how the Surrealists explored the human form and hidden desires.


Specter of the Gardenia

Marcel Jean
(French, 1900–1993)

1936. Plaster head with painted black cloth, zippers, and strip of film on velvet-covered wood base, 13 7/8 x 7 x 9 7/8" (35 x 17.6 x 25 cm) including base 3" high x 7" diameter (7.5 x 17.6 cm)

This head of a woman, with zippers for eyes and a filmstrip collar encircling her neck, composes an anxious portrait. At the same time, its tactile surface of black cloth and red velvet is charged with the eroticism of imagined touch. Marcel Jean believed that everyday objects “possess a double meaning: all have a latent sexual content besides their practical role, and our dreams…do not fail to endow them with values we unconsciously gave them when they were created during the waking state.”1

Marcel Jean, “Arrivee de la belle époque,” Cahiers d’art, 2:1-2 (1936), p. 60

Touchable, or sensed by the touch.

The subject matter or significance of a work of art, especially as contrasted with its form.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

A representation of a particular individual.

Lost and Found
Jean originally called this work Secret of the Gardenia, after an old movie reel he discovered, along with the velvet stand, at a Paris flea market. Chance discoveries like these provided a trove of items for Surrealists to combine in making their uncanny work.