Surrealism and eugenics

If I am to believe Wikipedia then the works of contemporary surrealist photographers – many of whom can be seen here  – exhibits quite a short history as it states that surrealism emerged as a visual artistic force in the early 1920s. Yet surrealist paintings can be seen throughout history. For example, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights[1] maybe of its time in the sense that it has a strongly religious theme but the visual imagination is clearly surrealist in approach. Yet we do tend to think of surrealism in terms of twentieth century artists like Dali and his The Persistence of Memory[2] or photographers like Man Ray whose Tears[3] is well known.

I think it is interesting that the timing of the emergence of surrealism as an artistic force was in the same period that there was a strong pseudo scientific focus on eugenics.

If we look back at the latter half of the nineteenth century we can see that much social attention had been placed on crime, poverty and health – not least because of the massive changes taking place in the west brought about by industrialisation[4]. This general concern built upon concerns and depictions of the poor created by artists like Hogarth and through photographers such as Lewis Hine but the dominant imagery of disabled people of the period from the 1870s through to the end of the Second World War, and the demise of the Nazis, was based on the theory of Eugenics.

The idea blossomed out of the theory of national selection[5] and Sir Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development[6]. Not only did the theory explain many social ills such as crime, poverty and disability, but it did so in a way that individualised these phenomena and ignored structural, economic and political explanations[7].

Eugenics offered a fixed view of types of people and so legitimated one group or type making decisions about another group. Thus issues such as imperialism, colonial rule, forms of disenfranchisement for some groups were all based on the issue of types or categories of people and assumptions about their capacity for reason. Maxwell argues that such an approach could not have been popularised without the application of photography[8].

Accordingly while some photographers such as Muybridge were working with forensic photography out of a general interest, others were applying similar techniques to people in order to classify people. For example, researchers such as Lousie Agassiz in the USA, Thomas Henry Huxley in England and the Dammann brothers in Germany were all applying a comparative photographic approach to people in order to define common characteristics of lesser races, criminals, the feeble-minded and mad people[9]. They were successful too.

By 1935 the impact of the theory was so great that policies in the USA and Germany had been adopted whereby disabled people were routinely classified, disenfranchised and institutionalised. Indeed the policy was to become so strong that by the beginning of World War Two the classification and institutionalisation of disabled people would widen to include their mandatory sterilization and an adoption of euthanasia in the USA and Germany[10]. This was a very limited but powerful approach of photography in representing disability as a freak but doing so in a way that purports to be scientific and objective.

Yet this period is just when Surrealism came to the fore as an artistic force[11]. I do not think this is a coincidence.


[1] Museum National De Prado (2014) The Garden of Earthly Delights [online] [accessed 02/10/2014]

[2] Museum of Mondern Art New York (2014) The Persistnce of Memory [online] [Accessed 02/10/2014]

[3] The John Paul Getty Museum, Tears by Man Ray [online] [Accessed 02/10/2014]

[4] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2000

[5] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, Published by Book Jungle 2010 edn

[6] Sir Frances Dalton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development 1883 Published by, 2012 edn

[7] John Tag – Evidence, Truth and Order: Photographic Records and the Growth of the State in The Photography Reader by Liz Wells published by Routledge 2003

[8] Anne Maxwell, Picture Imperfect Photography and Eugenics 1870-1940, Published by Sussex Academic Press 2008, 2010 edn

[9] Anne Maxwell, Picture Imperfect Photography and Eugenics 1870-1940, Published by Sussex Academic Press 2008, 2010 edn

[10] Anne Maxwell, Picture Imperfect Photography and Eugenics 1870-1940, Published by Sussex Academic Press 2008, 2010 edn

[11] Socialism Today,Issue 120 July August 2008 Surrealism’s revolutionary heart, [online]


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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