Many Surrealist artworks use distorted imagery of the natural world to create uncanny and bizarre landscapes. In creating these unnatural versions of nature, the Surrealists tried to capture their inner worlds. The subconscious and dreams served as rich resources to explore hidden thoughts and desires. In an attempt to reflect the perceived vastness and strangeness of the human mind, Surrealists often turned to nature for inspiration.
This tendency can be seen in Max Ernst’s La Fôret (1928). His painting conjures up a fantasy world inviting the viewer to explore the dense forest. The piece also draws on the Romanticism movement, which praised nature as a space for self-reflection and discovery. If a viewer seeks to reflect on or connect with a Surrealist artwork, one approach might be slow looking. For example, when looking at this painting by Ernst imagine yourself inside the work. What happens in this imagined world? How does it make you feel? How would you interact with such an environment?
Trying out this exercise for ourselves led us to develop a playlist inspired by Max Ernst's The Forest (1928). The following story is the written version of the playlist featured below:
The tale of the journey through the forest begins with a lonesome young person. Their dark and dense world feels like a heavy weight on their shoulders. Wandering through the seemingly never-ending forest in search of answers to humanity’s questions is their only source of comfort. This kind of meditation allows them to recall childhood feelings of peace and blissful freedom when curiously exploring their environment.
Happy memories are replaced with a sudden intense loneliness that hits them like a bolt of lightning. Their growing frustration creates the need to escape to another world. They begin running through the woods in search of their true feelings and desires. However, they tire quickly before resting underneath massive trees. As strength returns and night looms, they rise to find themselves utterly lost. Attempting a journey home, a wall of mile high trees blocks their path. Suddenly, the wall invites them in by creating a small gap between the trees.
The person enters and is immediately overcome with a feeling of wonder and magic. The forest’s enchanting quality begins to lull them into a deep sleep. Just before fading away, they notice the forest’s hidden terror. The trees close in and the moon rises, magically revealing the person’s dark and buried memories. Overwhelmed and afraid, they frantically run around the endless maze of trees as though being chased by the moon. Finding no escape, they stop and shut their eyes trying to wake up from what they now wish was merely a nightmare.
Swirling emotions begin to settle and they open their eyes to see a small ghostlike figure glowing before them. It gestures for them to follow. Unsure if they can trust this figure but seeing no other choice, they follow it around the forest. They realize that the believed taunting moon is actually guiding with its soft light. The glow of the moon and the ghost light a path to a small gap in the distant trees. Excitedly, they run to escape this inner world. Just as they slip through, they turn around to see the moon and little ghost. They wave a thankful goodbye to their guiding lights and begin their journey home.
Find the musical playlist version of this story on The National Galleries of Scotland Spotify profile.