The Evolution of Surrealism in the Digital Age

On various occasions, whilst getting my daily doses of scrolling through Instagram, amongst the addictive cat videos, and the faces from friends of friends whom I’ve never met, many squares are also filled with art of some kind.

I often ask myself, what now-dead-artists would post on their Instagram feed (or if they would post at all?) …

In that context I started thinking about the Surrealists in particular. Instagram has been the main platform bearing the “grandchild” of the Surrealists: in form of the booming medium the “digital collage”.

To answer my question: I’m sure that some surreal collagists such as Dora Maar, would have somewhat similar feeds as Morysetta, Postwook or Taudalpoi. But the it is still interesting to think about these contemporary collage through the lens of the past.

The annual updated version of Adobe Photoshop creates limitless options for new techniques to make collages. Photoshop has opened all the doors and invites the most absurd, but also highly realistic edited depictions of reality: proving once again, that photography is more than mere reproduction of facts.

Surrealism has always been preoccupied with the problem of reality and the idea that illusions are just as much part of reality as non-illusions. However, thematically, there is one stark difference between the pre-photoshop collages and the post-photoshop ones… and that is the obsession with space, also referred to as the aesthetic movement of “Spacecore”.

Throughout the pandemic, many have heard the term “Cottagecore” for the first time (myself included). It describes a specific aesthetic (even lifestyle) that embraces the “beautiful” (i.e. aesthetic) elements of a romanticised cottage life. Spacecore, on the other hand, is another type of internet aesthetic embracing the aesthetic, you guessed it, of space. From Surrealism in the 20th century to Spacecore in the 21st.

But why is outer space so compatible with Surrealist aesthetics and concepts?

I have come up with three reasons as to why collages attract more attention on Instagram if there’s a moon, stars or planet involved.

1. It's easy!

Even though the process of collage making is inherently surreal because it embraces the idea of accidentalism and chance encounters, the visual language of a collage, the scene it takes place in, can easily be manipulated so that it evokes the surreal by using outer space imagery. (A few other tricks include: unrealistic size relations like a huge mouse, next to small elephant etc. and abandonment of natural laws like a flying (insert any object)). In other words, many Instagram collagists use images of the moon etc. because it is a fast, efficient, and aesthetic way to conjure up the feelings of surreality in the viewer. Perhaps one could call it an “aesthetic hack”.

2. Mysteriousness is attractive

Historically, Surrealism has dealt with a lot of subjects that are “invisible” to the eye: mainly addressing the subject of the: subconscious. Arguably outer space just as the deep sea, connotes to this fascination of terra incognita. What could be more “unknown earth” than something that is not even “earth” anymore? Space, symbolises the unseeable and the “greater” mystery which surrealism loves to immerse itself in.

3. Images are in the public domain

Lastly, NASA releases all of their images into the public domain, making high quality images of space free and easy to access for anyone interested in creating a collage. Also, during the time of the Surrealists there was no access to such detailed images of outer space, which presumably also influences the fact that they weren’t used by the OG surrealists.

So, the next time you see one of the Instagram collages, check out how many likes they have in relation to whether or not a moon etc. is part of the collage… I don’t want to conflate correlation and causation, but I can’t help wondering where this aesthetic “hack” is coming from…

P.S. If you are curious whether there's an aesthetic for you out there, or want to find out if you have unknowingly been identifying as one of these aesthetics for years... check out this comprehensive list. I'm sure you will be surprised!