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Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design

Whilst in Bournemouth doing her weekly visiting lecturer at Arts University College Bournemouth, jotta's Jane Trustram had the opportunity to see Rick Poynor present his lecture, Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design. Trustram discovered that the surealist movement has had a profound influence on all kinds of visual communication.

I was not quite sure what to expect as Surrealism and graphic design were two concepts I'd never really put together before - Surrealism had always lived in the art world for me. However, I soon learnt that the movement which spans an incredible 25 years, has since been a strong influence on all kinds of visual communication.

Poynor, himself a lifelong surrealism fan (he showed us images of a paperback on Surrealism he'd purchased as a 15 year old), searched for, and failed to find a comprehensive review of the influences of the Surrealist movement on graphic design, so he decided to create one himself. After authoring two features in eye magazine (eye 63 and eye 65), he curated an exhibition titled "Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design" at the The Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic:

"Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design, by Rick Poynor, uncovers the presence of an alternative tradition in graphic design. The Surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s focused on literature, painting, photography and the object, and the Surrealists’ publishing activities provided only hints of what a fully conceived Surrealist graphic design or typography might look like. Many of the most suggestive early examples came from Czechoslovakia, where Surrealism would become a lasting influence. Subsequently, Surrealist ideas and images had a profound impact on image-makers in every sphere of art and design, and by the 1960s the effects of Surrealism were widely felt in international graphic communication. Uncanny traces this intermittent line of development up to the present."

In design practice, Surrealsim was employed initially and impressively by Czech designers, especially in the form of the film poster. Some incredible dream-like posters which would have adorned the cities of what was then Czechlovakia, are a far cry from the standard airbrushed floating head format we are all too used to seeing these days. See example: Karel Teissig, Mlady Törless (Young Törless), film poster, Czechoslovakia, 1967

More recently, US book covers for The Box Man and A Face of Another by Kobe Abe take the graphic representational ideas of surrealism and present them  in a clean, considered and contemporary way. While, the blog, Biblio Odyssey (also a book published by Fuel) brings to the modern day, the marvellous, the strange, the exciting, the sense of mystery of dusty old online archives of some of the world's greatest museums and institutions. Like a modern day curiosity cabinet, where a plethora of quirky, surreal objects and references are all gathered together within the digital space of the blog.

Roman Cielewicz's 1961 poster (see here) is one which particularly fascinates Poynor. So much so that he has it up on his studio wall. The map etching, montaged with an eye, some roughly cut out teeth and expressive type is incredibly striking. Poynor says, the reason he'll never tire of it is because he'll never quite understand it. It seems to exist on a subconscious level that the mind cannot quite relate to or comprehend. I thought this idea was fascinating; that usually, we see something, we process it, and eventually we disregard it. But with something like this, we cannot process it, and so we cannot disregard it. It becomes lodged in the channels of our mind.

What really summed it for me, and made surrealism so exciting when put in the context of graphic design, was the way that the image is offered to the viewer, in such a way that they can make of it what they like. You are not told what to think - the message is left open to interpretation. The role of forming meaning is shifted from the author, via the designer, to the viewer. Which makes the reader experience a much more exciting, personal and emotional experience.

To learn more about Surrealism and Graphic Design, you can read Rick Poynor's articles in eye magazine:
eye 63: Dark tools of desire
eye 65: Documents of the marvellous

or the interview: Slicing Open the Eyeball: Rick Poynor on Surrealism and the Visual Unconscious

Read Rick Poynor's blog on eye site

Posted on
16 May 2011
By Jane Trustram
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