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Revision of the Surrealist Movement in the 1940s and 1950s – The Artist Kay Sage (1898–1963) and the 'American Dream' (DFG)


Research Project


Exhibition Poster at Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, M.A. (2018). Photo: J. Jäger
Exhibition Poster at Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, M.A. (2018). Photo: J. Jäger
The overall aim of the Research Project (DFG) is to establish a more accurate picture of the Surrealist movement, its aesthetics and semantics, as well as its social practices and exhibition strategies in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. This is achieved by means of a comprehensive analysis of a thus far marginalized artistic position. Reflection on the conditions and dynamics of transatlantic exchange provides insights into a potentially idiosyncratic survival of Surrealism and its 'dream constructs' in the USA – beyond a Modernism embodied in Abstract Expressionism, which continues to dominate the art histography of this period to this day. The project integrates itself into the research agenda of a Global Surrealism, which aims to contour both common and unifying as well as cultural-historical and local qualities of Surrealism. Additionally, it contributes to the pluralization of Modernism and its narratives by developing and visualizing supposedly marginal or subaltern positions, in particular of women.


This research project conducts an art-historical investigation and contextualization of the work of Kay Sage (1898-1963), an American Surrealist. The project aims to investigate the genuinely surrealist features of Sage's artworks, her different roles in the social fabric of Surrealist artists and the different stages of her life and career path. Using the concrete example of Sage's artistic work and her personal biography, the aim is to demonstrate and investigate which shifts and expansions in perspectives developed, which aesthetic and epistemic enrichments are bestowed upon the research field of Surrealism and whether it will be possible to see other, thus far equally neglected, positions.


One further objective of the project is the systematic investigation and analysis of surrealist dream constructs within the cultural-historical context of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s inspired by Sage's artworks and also drawing upon other artistic positions. Artists of the post-war Surrealism – inspired by texts written by, among others, Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung, as well as by art-historical predecessor phenomena and genuine visual-artistic or art-political concerns respectively – have pushed the work on the 'dream' as a discursive and aesthetic construct. This contribution to a possibly specific American dream culture shall be explored for the first time.





Workshop: "Hein Heckroth (1901-1970): Bühnenbildner, Filmdesigner, Maler. Bausteine einer Werkbiografie". The surrealist artist became internationally known mainly as a stage designer and film designer, less as a painter. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, he created some remarkable surrealist paintings in exile in France, England and Australia, which have been published in a first overview. Principal Investigator Sigrid Ruby will give a lecture based on archival material relating to the artist's time at Dartington Hall (Devon, UK) (in german). The complete programme can be found here. University of Giessen, Margarete-Bieber-Saal/Oberhessisches Museum, Netanya-Saal, 23.-24.06.2022
Paper (Jennifer Jäger): "'Painting is dead – long live painting!' Dalís homerische Apotheose" (in german). In: Katrin Dolle & Semjon A. Dreiling (eds.): Space Oddities: Die homerische Irrfahrt in Bildkünsten und Populärkultur 1800–2021 (Europa – USA – Südamerika). Heidelberg (arthistoricum) 2022, p. 445-460
On the occasion of the "Georgia O'Keeffe" exhibition (23.01.-22.05.2022), the project team undertook an excursion to Basel, Switzerland. With its major retrospective, the Fondation Beyeler provided an overview of the different work phases of the US-American artist (1887-1986), spanning six decades. As a contemporary of Kay Sage (1898-1963), O'Keeffe dealt artistically with similar themes - also alternating between figuration and abstraction - which makes her particularly interesting to our project. The exhibition was organised by the Fondation Beyeler, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Centre Pompidou together with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.
Lecture (Prof. Dr. Sigrid Ruby): "Deep Time and Modern History: Charles Willson Peale's 'Excavation of the American Mastodon'", Conference "New Worlds, Old Worlds, Lost Worlds: Picturing Prehistory in American Art and Visual Culture", INHA - Institut national d'histoire de l'art, Paris, 07.-08.04.2022

Lecture (Prof. Dr. Sigrid Ruby): "Traumbilder als Metabilder - Fallstudien zur Kunst des Surrealismus", lecture series "Radical Dreaming. Visionen, Imaginationen, Abgründe", Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen, 29.03.2022

Artikel uniforum


Our research project is featured in the uniforum issue 5/2021. You can read the article "Pendeln zwischen den Welten" on page 7 (in german)

Conference Poster ISSS



Lecture (Jennifer Jäger): "'A Bird in the Room'. Dystopian Dreamscapes in the Work of Kay Sage", Conference ʺISSS SURREALISMS 2021. Nuits blanches: Noches en Blanco: Around the Clockʺ, International Society for the Study of Surrealism, 11.-14.11.2021, Worldwide Virtual Conference Event

Lecture (Prof. Dr. Sigrid Ruby): "Hein Heckroth – Surrealismus und Exil", on the occasion of the awarding of the Hein Heckroth Stage Design Prize, Hein-Heckroth-Gesellschaft Gießen e.V., 19.09.2021, Stadttheater Gießen

Conference: "Surreal Worlds – Surrealist Networks: Revisiting Women Artists Across Cultures and Media", Co-Organization: Andrea Gremels (University of Frankfurt) and Ingrid Pfeiffer (SCHIRN), 23.-25.04.2020, SCHIRN Kunsthalle Frankfurt [cancelled on short notice due to the COVID-19-pandemic]




Research Team


Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Sigrid Ruby
Research Assistant: Jennifer Jäger, M.A.
Student Assistant: N. N.





since 2019





Filed under: DFG, 2021