De-Blackboxing Meaning Processes and Surrealist Art (Katie Oberkircher)


Surrealist art is one of the most elusive genres to define. It is rendered realistically, but represents unrealistic, dreamlike states. As André Breton maintained in Manifestoes of Surrealism, surrealist art is based on the “play of thought” and “omnipotence of dream” (Breton 26). This representation complicates how we make meaning. I will use the Peircean semiotic model combined with Ray Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture to explore feature extraction within paintings under the genre of surrealist art.

The process of feature extraction is dependent on culture and socialization. According to Dr. Irvine, “Peirce saw that one of the most important affordances of human symbolic cognition is precisely that which is combined in the dual necessary “platform” of semiosis: symbolic thought and expression necessarily require material-perceptible sign systems functioning in necessarily social, collective, and intersubjective communities of meaning-making (Irvine, “A Student’s Annotable Peirce” 3). In other words, semiosis is dependent not only on an interpreter’s ability to think symbolically, but it depends on the social context he or she uses to assign meaning, in this case, to the pieces of the paintings. It is important to acknowledge the tension between the individual nature of interpretation and the social context in which it is based in order to explore our semiotic understanding from a more well-informed perspective. This exploration will begin with the question: How does the combination of culturally implied meaning and feature extraction impact our understanding of surrealist art? How does a de-blackboxing process occur?

To achieve a deeper understanding of the de-blackboxing process that occurs when unpacking the surrealist tradition, I will focus on two paintings: René Magritte’s The Human Condition, (or La Condition Humaine,) (1933) and Salvador Dali’s Melting Watch (1954). These paintings are instances of the surrealist genre where viewers draw meaning by simultaneously understanding and subverting reality. From these paintings, I will explore the dialogic nature of these cultural artefacts in the context of the continuous historical, social and artistic network in which they reside.


The research question stated above prompts an understanding of Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic model and Ray Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture as they apply to other meaning systems besides language. These models and ideas will serve as a foundation to explore my research question: Peirce’s triadic model includes the representamen, interpretant and object.

  1. The representamen is the perceptible sign to which we associate meaning. In art, this would mean the elements of a painting (color, brush strokes, subject of image, etc.).
  2. The interpretant is the relationship between the viewer (or cognitive agent) who makes associations and the representamen. In art, this would be the recognition of the connection between elements of a painting.
  3. The object relates to the meaning associated with the representamen. In art, the emotional and/or social response generated by style and composition of a work.

Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture can be leveraged beginning with this explanation: To comprehend language, Jackendoff gives us parallel architecture as a way to understand the relationship between semantics, syntax and phonology. These elements only produce sentences because they happen simultaneously (Jackendoff 126). Further, different combinations of these elements impact the construction and meaning of sentences, which we understand in the context of our environment/community. This idea will be extrapolated by focusing on the combinatorial power of various sign and symbol systems.

To understand how unpacking art is both similar and different than the process we use to understand language, I will include a historical and conceptual recovery, where I will use Jackendoff and Peirce’s ideas to make discoveries about surrealist art. Further, I will investigate what constitutes an appropriate interpretive possibility within the meaning system the paintings reside in (as well as the viewers who interpret them).

The historical perspective will include an examination into the meanings of these works in the dialogic network that precedes the artists as well as the interpreters in today’s community. The conceptual recovery will explore how signs and symbols are determined by possible meanings, and further, clusters of meanings within a genre. By presenting a simultaneously historical, contextual and conceptual perspective of surrealist art, the fluid, ongoing nature of sign formation can be more effectively understood. From here, we can see how signs gain symbolic significance when examining specific surrealist works as a whole. It is the combination, or marriage, of elements within a painting that allows us to enact meaning.

Main body of paper

In its simplest terms, the surrealist art movement was just that: a movement away from traditional bourgeois styles of art toward a newly subversive genre that “probed the structure of consciousness itself” (Hopkins 20). The movement was officially born in 1924 and grew to become a global phenomenon before its demise in the 1940s (Hopkins 15). In that time, artists such as a Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and André Masson and René Magritte used various approaches to transcribe “dreams” using “considerable conscious deliberation” (Hopkins 37). Their motivation to create realistically unrealistic paintings stemmed a belief that modern art could “forge a new relationship with its audience,” (Hopkins 21). This relationship changed the social experience viewers had when interpreting surrealist works through a “two-pronged attack on bourgeois social conventions and the aestheticism of an earlier Modernism” (Smith and Wilde 405).

In his work Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction, Hopkins articulates “surrealist artists such as Dalí or Magritte are frequently denigrated as ‘literary’” (Hopkins 82). Although a less currently relevant critique, Hopkins aligns their work with poetry. The word poetic suggests that these artists had the ability to appreciate complex emotional or aesthetic themes. Coupled with their sensibility, the word literary brings me to my unpacking of The Human Condition and Melting Watch in terms of Peirce and Jackendoff.

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” -René Magritte

With Peirce’s model as a foundation, we can see dense clusters of tokens and types within The Human Condition that impact our understanding of the relationship between normal and extraordinary.

The Human ConditionSource:

We begin by recognizing the painting as a cultural artefact of the surrealist movement, which allows us to recognize and extract the “Magritte” features and establish multiple chains or levels of Interpretants (Irvine, “A Student’s Annotable Peirce” 6). By conceptually labeling the painting as a piece of this larger genre, we look at it through the surrealist lens. In this way, the painting itself is a “complex Interpretant of many other paintings and types and styles of painting” (Irvine, “A Student’s Annotable Peirce” 9). This is what Peirce would refer to as an “immediate interpretant,” and is thus, the first layer of meaning (Irvine, “A Student’s Annotable Peirce” 6).

This interpretation begins we see this painting in its entirety, as one token, or instance of a type. When we break down the elements within the painting, we see a window with a view of a tree and forest area framed by curtains. These icons, in Peirce’s terms, are: the window itself, curtains, tree, tree line/forest, dirt path, and the blue sky and clouds (indicating that the scene looks from the perspective of inside to outside).

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These aspects of the painting are defined as icons because they are not necessarily symbolic. They are images that resemble or imitate an object. Our ability to recognize these icons connects to our pre-established meaning environment. As Dr. Irvine explains, much of what exists around thought and meaning is culturally implied. We reference our “encyclopedia” of “conceptual/symbolic cultural shared” knowledge (Irvine, “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition and, Technology” 32). Through this action, we imagine a window, window dressings and a landscape as we have been taught to recognize them. Thus, these icons are representamen in Peirce’s terms.

However, once the eye moves to the three legs of the easel, our interpretation is complicated.


The view outside the window is interrupted by a few uncharacteristic icons: The clip at the top of the easel interrupts the image of the sky.


The sides of the easel break the seamlessness of the landscape as well as the line of the curtain.

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Therefore, what we first identify as icons is problematized by the fact that they stretch onto multiple plains (the painting itself and the painting within the painting). Viewers must understand how the icons are simultaneously as they appear, and not as they appear. For example, what looks like one, single dirt path that extends across the image is actually two separate renderings. This subtle shift from a seemingly normal landscape to something entirely different reflects two themes associated with Magritte: repetition and “masquerading as ordinary” (Magritte et al. 20). This landscape appears to resemble a common, familiar outdoor scene, as does the painting on the easel. However, that the painting does not necessarily reflect what the viewer cannot see. Therefore, the themes of repetition and replication are complicated, since viewers cannot actually determine what exists behind the painting on the easel. We cannot determine the painting on the easel as an accurate representation and it cannot fill in the gap of what we, as viewers, cannot see when looking out the window. In his works, Magritte used “normalness” to invoke memorability (Magritte et al. 20). Once these elements outlined above are identified as dissonant, and in this way not ordinary, we can begin to dissect the painting as something other than a landscape through a window.

The Human Condition becomes symbolic when we see that there is a painting within a painting. The painting itself represents a cultural artefact in the surrealist genre, and it functions as a singular piece of art completed by Magritte. Within this image is another painting. We know it is a painting because of the way it is depicted on the easel and canvas. Viewer expectations are subverted due to the realistic representation of the painting and the assumption that the painting reflects the view that is blocked by the canvas. In this way, reality is questioned because viewer assumption is based on a false premise. The icons situated in Magritte’s work are “real” if the painting on the easel iconically represents that reality. In keeping with Magritte’s stylistic features, “His paintings from this period are invitations to look closely and to pay careful, critical attention to what is seen, both in each image and, when turned away from them, in the surrounding world (Magritte et al. 21). Thus, the viewer sees one depiction as real and the other as a representation. The painting itself appears as real, while the painting within it appears as a replication.

This view, however, is not possible when looking at the surrealist work as a whole. Both the painting and the painting inside are a part of the same work, suggesting that all of the elements work in parallel to contribute to a unified sense of meaning of the whole image. In his work Foundations of Language, Ray Jackendoff articulates the “multiple parallel sources of combinatoriality, each of which creates its own characteristic type of structure” (Jackendoff 107). His explanation centers around the properties of language (phonology, syntax, and semantics), but if we extrapolate his understanding of the combinatorial power of one symbolic-cognitive system to the interface of surrealist art, we can see how separate elements of the painting come together to form one whole image, or instance of surrealist art. When discussing the linguistic structure, Jackendoff explains it as a “collection of independent but linked levels of structure” (Jackendoff 131). This explanation connects to Peirce, who articulated that sign/ symbol structures are stacks of features developing in parallel as a result of logical sequences (Irvine, Presentation for discussion: “Cognition, Symbols, Meaning” Slide 53).

In this way, the icons represented in The Human Condition, link together to form multiple combinations of meaning. These icons establish the connection between certain syntactic constituents with conceptual structures (Jackendoff 131). For example, the painting on the easel is only identified as a replication of a landscape because of the way it is portrayed. It is sitting on an easel, painted on a canvas, inviting viewers to think that the painter used the portion of the scene that we cannot explicitly see as his or her subject matter. All of the separate pieces of the image come together simultaneously when viewers make the connection that the portion of the window scene that they cannot see is not necessarily what is represented in the painting on the easel. Thus, we can understand the work as a meta-painting. All at once, The Human Condition becomes one whole image as well as a series of separate renderings.

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” -Salvador Dalí

Much like Magritte’s work challenges what is ordinary, Salvador Dalí’s Melting Watch challenges how we conceive time and reality. He does this by presenting the concept of time in a way that is unfamiliar to us. According to Hopkins in Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction, Dali’s paintings discredited reality (Hopkins 100). Melting Watch discredits reality by showing how time is warped in a dream setting. This type of work falls into the surrealist genre, and it should be noted that this conceptual label is an immediate interpretant. By assigning this label, we can begin to understand how the components of the painting impact the syntactical and conceptual interfaces of surrealist art.


In keeping with the surrealist genre, Dalí uses the distorted watch to symbolize how time passes while we are dreaming (MoMA). In this way, the watch acts to subvert our understanding of time. To come to this conclusion, though, we have to first identify that the object in the picture as a clock, then we have to analyze how it is being represented differently than a normal clock, so that we can understand that Dalí is actively portraying the construct of time as arbitrary and useless.

Therefore, while we do recognize the object as a watch, we have to do so by acknowledging it is less watch-like. This process, when described by Dr. Irvine, involves “Meanings, intentions, or values [which] are not properties of — or “baked into” — any substrate or medium used to produce perceptible, interpretable forms” (Irvine, “Introduction to Technical Theory of Information” 5). Meaning does not come from the medium of art, but it is enacted by viewers who use their collectively understood material sign structures in the context in which they reside to interpret and understand what they see.

We can label the watch as an “icon” because it “resembles or imitates” an object, but there are characteristics that do not match up with our mental image, creating a tension between what we see and our previously established reference to a clock (Irvine, “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology” 31). We see the object is circular, has two hands to denote the hours and minutes, and has numbers spaced out evenly. However, its distorted, exploding state suggests it is more of a “hypoicon,” specifically a metaphor, which denotes the representative character of a sign by representing a parallelism in something else (“Semiotic Elements and Classes of Signs” 7). In this case, the shape informs us that the watch symbolizes something other than time as we understand it. It does not represent it as structured and powerful.

Other icons include the moth, fly, water, numbers on the clock and numbers separated from the clock and the mountains in the lower right hand corner of the image.

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In connection with Peirce’s theory of semiotics, signs and symbols are replicable expressions that are only recognized to have meaning because they are understood (Irvine, “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information” 6). Viewers understand the separate pieces of this painting as replicable objects that they have seen, or experienced before, which enables them to identify the objects. This is the first layer of meaning.

Once these objects are examined in the context of Melting Watch, their status becomes both iconic and symbolic. To further interpret the theme of time, we can look at the icons as they relate to the clock. To demonstrate this process, I will look specifically at the moth and the number five. The presence of a moth in close proximity to the clock could indicate that it represents something other than just an insect.


This leads to the question: is the moth connected to the watch? Is it connected to how we conceptualize time? This realization bridges the gap between iconic and symbolic significance. Moths are a nocturnal species, which indicate nighttime and connect to a manipulation of time during a dream. They are also attracted to light. The shadows in the image suggest that there is some source of light. There are many connotations associated with moths, which open up a wide range of possible meanings depending on how viewers combine aspects of the image. Moths can signify vulnerability, death, faith, transformation and sensibility (Leith 56). These possibilities alone offer multiple interpretations of Dalí’s work and relate back to the specifically “Dalí” features of this surrealist work, which centered on “dream painting” and subversion of reality (Hopkins 40).

Similarly, the number five, which is separated from the clock as an object, questions what is real with regard to time.


Frozen in time, it no longer marks the hours or minutes, but exists as an object in opposition to the structure of time. To interpret the number in this way, viewers have to acknowledge the way we tell time and the role that the numbers on a watch play in framing our conception of time. To connect this discovery to Peirce’s explanation of semiosis, the number five is first identified as an icon because it resembles an object, then as an index in how it is used in relation to keeping time, then as a symbol in how it is positioned away from the clock, suggesting its disassociation with the traditional understanding of time.

The process of sign formation is fluid, though. That is, to understand why the number five is separated from the watch is to understand its relation to clocks, time and reality. Jackendoff explores this idea when he says “The parallel constraint-based architecture is logically non-directional: one can start with any piece of structure in any component and pass along logical pathways provided by the constraints to construct a coherent larger structure around it” (Jackendoff 198). The sign systems work concurrently in a parallel architecture in which all of the layers are engaged simultaneously in the sign processes of any one of images individually. Further, as Dr. Irvine writes, “creating combined symbolic expressions that require engaging two or more sign systems in parallel…” involves “visual representations with many “vocabularies” of image-making…” (Irvine, “Introduction to Linguistics and Symbolic Systems” 16). In other words, when viewers look upon Melting Watch, they are drawing upon collective memory to engage in a contextual and conceptual way, creating a parallel between symbol systems.


 Surrealism as an artistic movement challenged how viewers interact with and understand subject matter using various sign and symbol systems through feature extraction. Surrealist art provided a new opportunity for viewers to use their imaginations to actively subvert what they believed they knew about art, culture and most generally, about the themes of time and space. By reinforcing this narrative through feature extraction, we build upon the culturally constructed meaning system.

These meaning systems are part of complex and deep ideologies and value systems that we activate in order to produce interpretant expressions for the meaning, in this case, of two surrealist paintings (Irvine, “A Student’s Annotable Peirce” 8). Surrealist paintings can act as an interface to a larger system of meanings and values. From here, feature extraction is used to identify the perceptible features that appear in the images, in the way they are presented (e.g., in a museum) and the way they are described. These features are situated in the context of historical and conceptual interpretation associated with the paintings. Both The Human Condition and Melting Watch are a part of a cultural meaning system framed by institutional contexts.

It is important to note that meaning comes when we, as cognitive agents, enact it. This process happens on a few levels and can be understood by bringing together Peirce’s semiotic model and Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture. The layers established within and around each surrealist painting are pieces of a greater network of sign systems. The sign systems work concurrently in a parallel architecture in which all of the layers are engaged simultaneously in the sign processes of any one of images individually. This is because the layers of abstraction and representation are in an evolutionary ecosystem of sign systems. As previously noted, the surrealist movement of art declined in the 1940s. Viewer understanding of The Human Condition and Melting Watch is impacted by the current community of interpretation in which they reside. These communities offer spaces for discovery of the meaning processes behind surrealist art.

Further, it should be noted that while this paper concentrated on feature extraction in a historical and conceptual context, it did not focus on the construction of meaning within the physical space at a museum. There are opportunities for further research when exploring museums as systems of categorization, memorialization and classification.

Even still, these surrealist works serve as examples of how dreamlike features prevent viewers from rationally understanding what a picture represents. To interpret the dense clusters of signs and symbols within these paintings, it is important to acknowledge the combinatorial power of the elements as well as the fluid, ongoing nature of interpretation and sign formation. Especially with regard to surrealist, and therefore subversive, imagery, understanding how each sign works both separately and in conjunction with the rest of the image is crucial to de-black boxing the function of illusionistic representational paintings. Combinatorial power is relevant in how it reveals the significance of realistically depicted, yet simultaneously dreamlike renderings presented by surrealist artists.

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