Wavescapes in the Anthropocene

Jean Painlevé’s Surrealism, Marine Life and Non-Ocular Modes of Sensing

Christina Heflin

Research Article
Accepted: Oct 22, 2019


The obsessive representation of and violence against the eye is inescapable in surrealist art, with works like Un Chien andalou and Histoire de l’oeil being the most renowned for their depictions of acts of ocular defilement. Over the years, scholars have questioned these artists’ intentions and have even gone so far as to position them as anti-ocular. Compromising the physical integrity of the eye is not necessarily an outright rejection of vision, as Martin Jay claims. Instead, it questions the hierarchy of the senses and promotes an enrichment of different sensory modes. The use of marine animals in surrealism seen in works by artists like Jean Painlevé represents beings which rely on other modes of sensing, thus navigating their worlds without visual primacy. I argue they are not anti-ocular but anti-ocularcentristic. Surrealism’s depictions of marine life reflect an interest in alternative sensory regimes and rejects the primacy of vision above other senses. These representations express a desire to move beyond the eye to expand perception and explore faculties of perception denied to the human eye. Moreover, these works also challenge other concepts such as gender roles, anthropocentrism/the human-animal boundary and C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures Theory.

surrealism, marine biology, modernism, anthropocentrism, Jean Painlevé