The Surrealist Movement
In the sense that Surrealism is an expression of the subconscious mind, it has always existed in art. This can be seen in the fantastic work of Hieronymous Bosch or the visionary work of William Blake. However, in the strictest sense of the term, Surrealism was a 20th-century avant-garde movement which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of artistic images or literary imagery. Those who joined the movement thought that traditional Western culture had nothing left to offer the world, so they sought a clean break from the past.
As such, Surrealism emerged alongside Futurism, which emphasized speed, technology, youth, and violence, among other things. More to the point, juxtaposition, dislocation, and transformation became the basic Surrealist elements. Of course, Surrealism is about so much more than just melting clocks. The artistic movement was about creating a new kind of reality, to form a “surreality” if you will. Essentially, this was a movement aimed at the wholesale liberation of individuals. Plus, the Surrealists were able to find beauty in unusual places, as well as in everyday objects placed in unexpected settings. This was all the result of their planning to do things that were unplanned.
Of course, to truly understand what Surrealism is, you have to understand how France was. You see, in the early 1900s, Paris was a very proper place, full of rational well-mannered people buying bland decorative art. Then, the world went to war for the first time, from 1914 to 1918. Afterward, Europe was a disaster, and Surrealism grew out of the aftermath of global conflict. Simply put, WWI made people question society and start to look for a different way to live. As Max Ernst put it, the horrors of war had made him “a young man determined to find the myths of his time.” With that being said, since the traditional approach to life had ended in failure, the Surrealists thought that maybe it was time to try something new. Therefore, Surrealists weaponized nonsense and used it against the institutions that had brought about a global catastrophe.
Originally, the word “surrealism” was first coined in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire, a French poet, playwright, novelist, art critic, and short story writer. Since then, the word “surreal” has entered into our language to describe anything that is bizarre or dreamlike, not simply in art, but in life itself.
For Apollinaire, Surrealism meant the fruits of the imagination freed from the task of imitating nature. Thus, in a letter to Paul Dermee in March of 1917, Apollinaire wrote:
All things considered, I think in fact it is better to adopt surrealism than supernaturalism, which I first used.
Leading up to 1924, two rival Surrealist groups had formed, with both claiming to be the true successors of the revolution launched by Apollinaire. One group was led by Yvan Goll, the other by Andre Breton. Goll published the Surrealist Manifesto on October 1st of 1924, two weeks prior to the release of Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto on October 15th of 1924. They were both tapped into the zeitgeist, and as a result, they changed the course of art history forever.
Yvan Goll was a French-German poet who had close ties to both German Expressionism and French Surrealism. It was in Paris that his Expressionist style began to develop towards Surrealism, as witnessed in the drama and film scenarios he wrote while living there, such as The Chaplinade and Methusalem. More importantly, in many ways, Surrealism was looking back toward Symbolism and Cubism, among other styles. For instance, its roots lay in the ethos of Romanticism. Furthermore, much like Dadaism, Surrealism found logic to be drab and boring, so people began to embrace the absurd.
In the 1920s, the writer Andre Breton broke with Dadaism because he thought it was far too silly. Thus, Breton became the principal theorist and chief apologist of Surrealism. In the Surrealist Manifesto, he defined Surrealism as:
Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.
The idea was that Surrealists should just write or paint whatever came into their head, sort of like a stream of consciousness but with even less control. As such, they engaged in chance operations in pursuit of automatism, often outsourcing creative control to their materials. They employed frottage, or rubbings, brulant, which is the burning of photographic negatives, and decalcomania, meaning the process of transferring designs from specially prepared paper on to glass or porcelain. They did all of this and more to surrender control to the process. The Surrealists even played literary and drawing games, such as the famous “exquisite corpse” where the final poem or image was the product of their collective imagination.
After months of experimental writing, finally Breton had a breakthrough one day. He had an inspiring dream about a man cut in half by a window. Then, when he woke up, Breton realized that we’re not in control of everything that goes on in our mind. This set the stage for everything to come. Breton came to believe that when people suppress their irrational thoughts they become imbalanced and that leads to an imbalanced society. As such, he wanted to access the unconscious mind and set his irrational thoughts free for the benefit of humanity.
Above all else though, Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement. His branch of Surrealism was about communism and anarchism. From the 1920s onward, this spread around the globe, eventually affecting the visual arts, literature, film, and music of many different cultures, as well as political, philosophical, psychological, and social theories. More importantly, Surrealism developed out of the Dada activities during World War I.
The very first Surrealist exhibition took place in the Galerie Pierre, Paris, in 1925. This included several different contributors including Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Jean Miro, Paul Klee, and Giorgio de Chirico. In contrast to the Impressionist movement some half a century earlier, the Surrealists were an eclectic group of painters without a common style. The only thing that united their work was the fact that they had all turned to their subconscious for inspiration.
Tristan Tzara was a former Symbolist and Dadaist, turned Surrealist. He was a Romanian poet, essayist, composer, journalist, playwright, literary and art critic, film director, and performance artist. Tzara was also a forerunner of automatist techniques, who eventually aligned himself with Breton’s Surrealism, and under its influence wrote his celebrated poem The Approximate Man.
One of the first two Surrealist films was made by Germaine Dulac and Antonin Artaud. In it, they explored the perverse mind of a clergyman afflicted with impure thoughts toward a married woman. In the movie, conflicts between the protagonist, played by Alex Allin, and a soldier symbolically examine the effects of conformity and authority on society. The 44-minute long indie film was advertised as a dream on the screen and it premiered in Paris on February 9th of 1928.
By the time that Salvador Dali came to Paris with his great muse, the poet Gala, Surrealism was in crisis. He joined the group in 1929 and participated in the rapid establishment of the visual style between 1930 and 1935. Luckily for the movement, Dali was a never-ending idea machine who brought enthusiasm back to the group. As such, Surrealism quickly spread to all types of media, including but not limited to drawings, sculptures, collages, and films. Plus, Dali was one of the only Surrealists who created something in nearly every single medium. In fact, Salvador Dali created the most widely recognized images of the Surrealist movement.
Sigmund Freud’s work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious was of utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing new methods to liberate the imagination. Dedicated Surrealists like Dali even lived their lives in a surreal way, performing consciously eccentric antics. Just as one example among many, in 1936 Dali visited a diving shop in the southeast of England and asked to be fitted for a deep-sea diving suit. When the salesman asked how deep that he intended to venture, Dali replied that his dive was to be into the depths of the human subconscious. Moreover, he hoped to encourage the British public to make the journey with him.
As part of this, the legendary Spanish Surrealist fully embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness.
As Dali put it:
The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.
The thing is that Dali didn’t see eye to eye with Breton on what Surrealism was supposed to be and do. For instance, Breton had insisted that art be created for revolution, not for profit. Dali strongly disagreed with this. In fact, he left the French communists to be with American capitalists, instead. In the process, Salvador Dali brought the Surrealist movement with him, proclaiming:
I am not a Surrealist. I am Surrealism.
In the end, the outbreak of WWII in 1939 marked a major shift in the Surrealist movement itself. Once France was occupied by the Nazis many Surrealists escaped to America. At that point, Paris was no longer the center of the art world, and New York became the new hub for the next wave of the Surrealist movement.
The thing is that, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, Surrealism was profoundly interested in Realism and the ways that it fails to convey the truth of human existence. In line with this, Surrealists like Dali were interested in altered states of consciousness, especially dreams, hallucinations, and visions. So, to unleash the unconscious, they did things like transcribing their dreams and recording the speech of those in trance states, all under the auspices of their Bureau of Surrealist Research. This gave way to a similarly conceived institute in Amsterdam which bore the name until at least 1970. The point is that these were daring psychonauts exploring the innermost recesses of the human psyche, and one could argue that they may have cracked the code.
Ultimately, the Surrealists chose to embrace subjectivity in favor of objectivity, and irrationality in favor of rationality, and this made all the difference in the world. The movement left in its wake a wide range of techniques that artists still use to this very day. This includes things like integrating found objects, experimenting with automatism, or the disorienting effects of collage, and summoning the uncanny body to critical ends. Surrealism also gives us a way to think about the connection between individual creative freedom and collective liberation. So, in the end, for all of these reasons and more, the Surrealists were able to leave behind a legacy like no other.
Long live the spirit of Surrealism!!!