Comparative Visual Analysis of Two Surrealist Artworks of Animals
Conduct a comparative visual analysis of two Surrealist artworks that contain depictions of animals or use animal materials, both selected from the image collection (see The Writing Process).1 How do the artists render animals, humans and humanoid figures, objects, and the surrounding environment as well as the relationships between these iconographic elements? What kind of responses do the formal and stylistic elements of the artworks elicit from the viewer? What ways of seeing the world do these artworks create? Using the specific visual evidence you have collected from your careful analysis of each image, build your essay to support an interpretive thesis about the meaning you extrapolate from your comparison of the two artworks.
Your final paper will be about 5–6 pages in length and will be worth 35% of your writing grade.
- Make specific, clear, arguable claims
- Produce unified, cohesive body paragraphs that contain arguable topic sentences, well-selected evidence from primary sources, and fluid transitions between ideas
- Develop a rhetorically-effective introduction and conclusion
- Adopt the appropriate stance, style, and genre conventions of visual analysis (including discussion of iconography, formalism, and viewer engagement)
- Conduct a comparative reading of two primary sources (works of art)
- Practice process-oriented writing and learn flexible strategies for generating, revising, editing, and proofreading drafts while also reflecting on the process of writing itself
Before you begin brainstorming for this assignment, make sure you have read the following:
- Beauchamp, Tamara. “Visual Analysis.” Humanities Core Handbook 2021–2022 Animals, People, and Power. Xanedu, 2021. pp. 94–107. [Images: Brueghel’s The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark and Basquiat’s Beef Ribs Longhorn]
The Writing Process
In the fall quarter of Humanities Core, our focus in expository academic writing was the analysis of a single textual primary source: first through a rhetorical analysis of a medieval fable and then in a literary analysis of an early modern playtext. Now we will turn to a new kind of close “reading”—or, better yet, close looking—by asking you to systematically examine two images and formulate an argument about their visual logic and how they relate to one another.
You will first need to select two Surrealist artworks for comparative analysis from the image collection. As you learned in Professor Amiran’s lectures and will see in this collection of artworks, animals and animality play a significant role in the Surrealist imagination. These paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, and photographs include representations of horses, bulls, birds, lions, elephants, insects, reptiles, snakes, dinosaurs, fish, and other forms of aquatic life. Some Surrealists integrated their beloved companion animals into the iconography of their artwork—take, for example, the dog portraits of Dorothea Tanning’s Lhasa Apso and René Magritte’s Pomeranian, or the many felines in the work Remedios Varo and Leonor Fini. Classifiable fantastical creatures—like minotaurs, centaurs, dragons, sphinxes, vampires, merpeople, and giants—populate these visual worlds, as do indeterminately hybrid and monstrous forms. Depictions of fossils, bones, eggs, feathers, and shells appear in unexpected places, while animal-derived products like butterfly wings and fur are part of both two-dimensional and sculptural assemblages.
This selection includes numerous works by the Surrealist artists whom you will recognize from Professor Amiran’s lectures, as well as a sampling of other artists in their circles. All of these artworks are classified by art historians as participating in (or influenced by) the Surrealist movement, though some of these artists (e.g., Frida Kahlo) did not identify themselves as Surrealists. Moreover, you will notice substantial variation in style and different degrees of abstraction—even within a single artist’s oeuvre. In your essay, you may write about two works by the same artist, or about works by two different artists. Spend some time browsing the various images and noting what you find compelling about the iconography and style of the artworks that capture your attention. How do they engage you as a viewer, and what ways of seeing do they seem to create?
In your brainstorming, you should think both about the observations you can make about individual artworks as well as the formal and thematic connections you might make between them. There should be some meaningful relationship between your selected artworks that substantiates their comparison (and may ultimately form the basis of your thesis). You might, for example, select two artworks that share an iconographic element (e.g., two paintings of cats, minotaurs, or insects). Or, you might select artworks of the same genre (e.g., two self-portraits or landscapes) or medium (two photographic assemblages, oil paintings, or sculptures). Stylistic similarity—or difference—might be just as meaningful a source of comparison and contrast as iconography.
We have provided detailed bibliographic information about each artwork. In some cases—in particular, those of artworks in private collections and/or artists without a catalogue raisonné, an annotated scholarly inventory of their complete work—there can be contradictory, incomplete, or erroneous information about works of art on the internet. We have verified the information provided below with museums, catalogs, and scholarly publications, so please use this data in your analysis of titles, dates, medium, and dimensions. Where possible, we have also linked the websites of museums, artist estates, and auction houses, many of which contain higher resolution images and/or detail viewing tools. Many museum websites also contain helpful curatorial notes about the work of art and artist; make sure you cite these references properly should you make use of them in your analysis. When possible, we have also linked to the Artstor Digital Library, a searchable database of high-quality digital images for educational use.2
Once you have selected your primary sources for this assignment, gather visual evidence from the two paintings using the guidelines described in the chapter on “Visual Analysis” in the Humanities Core Handbook. Your prewriting for this assignment will likely ask you to inventory the formal and stylistic components (e.g., medium, size, composition, line, shape, form, space, emphasis, movement, balance, color, depth, perspective, and abstraction), iconographic elements, and modes of viewer engagement in each artwork—and to then compare and contrast the data you have gathered about the two artworks. You should view this as the evidence-gathering phase of your analysis. Drafting the essay itself will require more than a simple description of two visual objects or listing of their respective formal features. Rather, your essay will present and support an interpretive thesis about what these artworks do or mean in relation to one another. The various sub-claims that successively prove this thesis—not the visual evidence you have assembled—will structure the topic sentences and paragraphs of your essay. Each piece of visual evidence you provide in your essay (e.g., “Dubuffet uses a saturated red hue to represent the bull’s aggression”) should appear only at the point where it contributes to the claim you are defending (e.g., “While one might expect a painting of farm life to be bucolic, Dubuffet’s Vache Rouge instead depicts a space of antagonism between humans and animals”). This means that not all of the visual evidence you gather during prewriting will ultimately end up in your essay and that you must selectively organize your evidence to scaffold your argument.
This is not intended to be a research project; in fact, the primary challenge of this assignment is to summon specific visual evidence as support for your claims about the meaning and ways of seeing the world created by these artworks. You may, however, want to consult scholarly reference sources about art-making techniques or art history to better understand your artworks’ relation to their stylistic context. The affordances and constraints of the materials used by these artists (e.g., gouache, tempera, Masonite, silver gelatin print, etc.) may be unfamiliar to you. We suggest that you use Oxford Art Online, a collection of art reference works, to look up terms specific to this field. This, as well as other reference sources about Surrealist art practice, are available on the UCI Libraries Humanities Core Research Guide, where our UCI Libraries Research Librarian in Art History, Jenna Dufour, has assembled a list of resources to assist you.
1If you’d like to write about another Surrealist artwork, please first speak to your seminar instructor for approval. As a rule, you must be able to access a high-resolution image of the artwork and verify its provenance through a museum, auction house, or scholarly database. If the artwork is in a medium other than a two-dimensional painting or drawing (for example, a sculpture or a photograph), you should be prepared to research the formal conventions of that medium.
2Artstor is a subscription-based resource, so you must be logged in to the UCI Campus Network to access these links. Remember to use the “UCI Full” channel when connecting to the UCI VPN. Artstor is an important resource because its houses high-resolution images that allow for detailed viewing of artworks. Occasionally, however, the metadata about works of art in this database is incorrect, so please use the bibliographic information provided in this assignment (and make a habit of double-checking the metadata against other sources when using Artstor in the future).