1930’s Surrealist prints and Atelier 17, Paris

The Surrealist movement grew out of the anti-art Dada movement of 1918 and the 1920’s. Dada hoped to move the world in a new direction, away from the nationalistic, materialistic and industrial ideals that had spawned World War I but it soon got caught in its own limitations, particularly in the concepts of free association and automatism.

In 1924 Andre Breton formalized Surrealism when he published his first Surrealist Manifesto. Surrealism was embraced worldwide and Paris became the hub of its activities with Breton recognizing and then dismissing “official” members as he saw fit. The membership list was remarkable: Arp, Dali, de Chirico, Ernst, Giacometti, Klee, Magritte, Masson, Matta, Miro, Paalan, Tanguey, (Picasso never became a formal Surrealist though his work was admired by the Surrealist group.)

Since surrealism was as much a literary movement as a visual arts movement and the two worked hand in hand with many surrealist poems and other writings published with illustrations by surrealist artists.

In Paris in the early 30’s there were two studios that were actively working with surrealist printmakers, that of Roger Lacourière and the other was begun by Englishman Stanley William Hayter, which came to be known as Atelier 17. Artists Ernst, Miró and Tanguy worked at both, but it was Atelier 17 that brought together a broad, international gathering of artists, both noted and unknown, working as equals with this new visual “language” they were all learning.

S.W. Hayter: Combat - 1936

Success with this new, surreal language required what was referred to as “relevant investigations” into both real and imagined phenomena. Surrealism examined the unexplained worlds of the psyche: dreams, the unconscious and the subconscious, dark emotions such as fear and horror, anger and violence and, of course, death and birth. It questioned history and formal ideas, traditions and culture. It examined the universe and the sea and considered mythology and the “primitive” cultures of Africa and Polynesia. Surrealism would become basically two branches, the Freudian, concentrating on dreams and the subconscious and the Jungian, emphasizing non-thinking, stream-of-consciousness and “automatism.”

Serge Brignoni: Detail - 1931

S.W. Hayter: Paysage Anthropophage - 1937

Surreal printmaking of the 30’s was, for the most part, direct, linear and tended to be black and white. The engraved line was perhaps the most direct way to transfer an image from the hand to the plate, especially for those interested in the theory of flow-of-consciousness and “automatism.” Engraving, which, for the most part had become a reproductive medium in the 19th century, had a rebirth as a creative force.

Roderick Mead: Wreck - 1935/6

Luis Vargas Rosas: Untitled - 1936

One of the most difficult things for these classically trained artists was to put aside their backgrounds and give way to the “automatic line” which Hayter had embraced in the ‘30’s. The atmosphere was informal and they experimented with different intaglio techniques, including plaster prints, engraving, soft-ground etching, gauffrage, relief printing of intaglio plates, etc. The idea was to work directly on the plate, not transcribing a drawing or painting but creating a unique work. Hayter encouraged artists to work until they “destroyed’ the plate.

The Atelier was a cooperative effort and there was no push to sell the prints, though some portfolios were sold to help raise money for social causes, like the Spanish Civil War, which personally affected a number of the artists. Money made from the few sales was often given back to the studio for supplies and those who had no money contributed their time to maintenance. In this atmosphere there were no teachers and all students, all learning from each other’s successes and failures. Many of the artists traded work with each other and, because the editions tended to be small, many of these prints are difficult to find.

Atelier 17 moved to New York in 1940. Many of the artists, displaced from their homes in Europe with the onset of WWII, also moved to New York and, often uncomfortable in an unfamiliar society, found camaraderie at the workshop. Louise Bourgeois, Calder, Dali, Masson, Matta, Miro, Matta, Nevelson all worked there. It was open 24 hours a day and experimentation was the norm. They began working in color, eventually developing the simultaneous color print which allowed a color intaglio to be printed from a single plate in a single printing utilizing the different viscosities of various colors of inks (another blog to come).

The concept of the automatic line that the Surrealists embraced became much of the foundation for action painting and Abstract Expressionism that began in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. Surrealist ideas continue to be a major interest to artists worldwide.

Arpad Szenes: Merry Go Round - 1934

Roger Vieillard: Architecture I - 1935

These prints and many others from this period can be found at our website, just add “Atelier 17” into our Search our Site field:        http://www.annexgalleries.com/

About Annex Galleries

The Annex Galleries holds one of the largest original fine print inventories on the West Coast. With over 9,000 works, we specialize in (but are not limited to) original prints of the WPA era, Arts & Crafts movement, and Abstract Expressionism through the 1960's, with a focus on American and Californian artists both known and unknown. We have everything from Durer to Baumann to Picasso.
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6 Responses to 1930’s Surrealist prints and Atelier 17, Paris

  1. Richard Halvorsen says:


  2. Pingback: Printmaking surrealism | Olpera

  3. Linda Ramsey says:

    Gladys Dalla Husband was my Great Aunt and I am curious to learn more about her life. Not too much is known in our family about her art, affair with Hayter, and subsequent move to Mexico. There are a few pieces of her work in the family, but not much. Any information or sources you may have would be interesting to know. Thanks.

    • Linda, Sorry I took so long but I just discovered your note. I too would like to find out more about her – and I’d love to find more of her work. If you find more about her I would love to add it to our biography on her. I will add anything I find to it, so keep checking.
      Daniel Lienau, The Annex Galleries

    • Cathy Collins says:

      The Winnipeg Art Gallery has a box of her drawings and several paintings. She shows up in Indigo Days a biography of British artist Trevellyan. I think it is Julius. I have been trying to find out more about her too. I worked in conserving her paintings at the WAG. I keep trying to find out who she knew in Mexico.

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