Submerged Surrealism: Science in the Service of Subversion

Christina Heflin

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The obsessive representation of and violence against the eye is inescapable in Surrealist art, with works like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien andalou and Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye being the most renowned for their depictions of acts of ocular defilement. Over the years scholars have questioned these artists’ intentions and have even gone so far as to position them as anti-ocular as a reaction to the trauma of the Great War. 
I argue that the compromising of the eye’s physical integrity is not necessarily an outright rejection of vision. It symbolically questions the hierarchy of the senses. The use of marine animals in Surrealist works by Eileen Agar, Jean Painlevé, Robert Desnos and Man Ray represents beings which rely on other modes of sensing, navigating their worlds without the primacy of vision. These artists were not anti-ocular, but rather they were using depictions of the marine to question the regimes of ocularcentrism, gender roles and anthropocentrism. Furthermore, they were doing this in a way that displayed their engagement in empirical, materialist science, which has been overlooked in favour of discussing Surrealism’s interest in the metaphysical.
Considering the early twentieth century scientific discoveries widely discussed in popular science journals and read by Surrealist artists, I argue that they were using these creatures to question the status quo. Surrealism’s depictions of marine life reflect an interest in exploring alternative sensory regimes – rejecting the primacy of vision above other senses – calling into question the position of the human-animal relation by blurring these boundaries and by challenging the traditional places of men and women at this time. These representations express a desire to adapt to a society that has been turned upside down by war to merge with the capacities of these creatures, expanding perception and exploring the faculties of sensing typically denied to the human.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Townsend, Christopher, Supervisor
Award date1 Apr 2022
Publication statusUnpublished - 2021


  • Surrealism
  • Art History and Theory
  • Photography
  • British art
  • French cinema
  • World War I
  • marine animals
  • Vision, Ocular
  • Sculpture
  • Collage
  • Documentary
  • Georges Bataille
  • Eileen Agar
  • Jean Painlevé
  • Man Ray
  • Robert Desnos
  • film studies

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