‘Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.’ – Salvador Dali.
Surrealism began in the 1920s. Many of the Surrealist artists began working in the Dada movement, an avant-garde European art movement of the early twentieth century which prized nonsense and rejected reason. The term Surrealist was first used in 1917 before the proper artistic movement had started. It was used by Guillaume Appollinaire in the preface to his play ‘Les Mamelles de Tiresias’.
Surrealism wasn’t used as a name for the movement until 1924 when Andre Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto, also published under the title ‘Soluble Fish’. The manifesto acknowledged the influence of Dadaism and stated that the Surrealists were non-conformists. Breton was a poet, and the movement began as a literary one. It came to be a release from all previous restraints for writers and artists, the aim being for all parts of the movement to explore the world of psychic experience and denounce rationalism.
Sigmund Freud had recently revealed his psycho-analytic research and this greatly influenced the Surrealists. One of their aims was to preproduce the mechanisms of dreams. In doing this they would bring dream and reality together to create an absolute reality – a ‘sur-reality’ which has greater significance than realiy itself, rather than being a mere copy of what we see.
Surrealist art can be seen as a return to representational art, depicting ordinary objects although often stripping them of their normal significance. It disorientates the viewer and disrupts their sense of reality, creating a dream-like narrative sometimes bordering on nightmarish. Surrealism was set apart from other Realist movements by the desire to let the deepest thoughts in the recessses of our mind take over. The inner more ‘primitive’ self and the real functioning of thought would be revealed. Automatic writing (writing that is not done on a conscious level, and therefore can reveal the innermost thoughts of the writer) was a technique used by Freud as it allowed images from the subconscious to come to the surface, and this idea of the ‘automatic’ became very influential in Surrealism. Freud was later to criticise the movement, however, saying that the works were not manifestations of the subconscious, as they were highly shaped and processed by the Ego of the artist, and therefore the conscious mind.
The Bureau of Surrealist Research (Centrale Surréaliste), Paris, became the meeting place for Surrealist writers and artists to hold discussions, and conduct interviews. The first group exhibition was held in Paris in 1925.
Surrealism continued to develop and became more visible to the public at large throughout the 1930s. A Surrealist group developed in Britain and, according to Breton, the1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition held by these artists was a high water mark of the period and became the model for further international exhibitions.
Major artists of the Surrealism movement include;
Giorgio De Chirico Unanimously acknowledged as the founder of the surrealist aesthetic. His painting ‘The Red Tower‘ 1913, shows the illustrative style and striking colour contrasts which came to be adopted by other Surrealist artists.
Max Ernst Used frottage (taking a rubbing from a surface using a pencil or other drawing tool) as an automatic method of creative production. He also used collage to create unexpected juxtapositions, taking cuttings from magazines and then manipulating their arrangement.
Dorothea Tanning Tanning joined the Surrealist group after visiting the New York Dada and Surrealist exhibition of 1936-7. Her paintings depict nightmares and surreal, erotic dreams. One of her most famous examples of this is ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik‘ (1943) which depicts young girls encountering supernatural events. The girl in the foreground seems to be drawn towards the sunflower by the approaching vines while the girl wearing torn garments in the background holds one of the petals from the flower, suggesting an encounter has already taken place.
Man Ray. His rayographs (objects placed on photographic material in a darkend room, and then exposed to light to create the images of the objects) created the stark and unexpected effects of negative imaging, and unusual juxtapositions of identifiable objects.
Joan Miro In his Surrealist period Miro developed ideas by letting his mind wander. This was seen to free the mind, revealing the real process of thought in the same way as automatic writing. ‘ The Tilled Field‘ 1923-4 is seen as his first Surrealist masterpiece. A complex arrangement of figures and objects with the dualities and contradictions inherent in his work of this period.
Some of the most recognisable works of the artistic Surrealist movement were created by Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.
Salvador Dali Dalí joined the group in 1929, and participated in the rapid establishment of its visual style between 1930 and 1935. He would mix everday objects painted in meticulous detail with a context that is wholly unfamiliar to that object, creating a surprising or seemingly incoherent composition. ‘The Persistence of Memory’ 1931, is an example of this, and one of the most widely recognised Surrealist paintings. Here Dali introduces the idea of the soft melting pocket watch which was perceived to have been inspired by the Theory of Relativity. The relaitivity of space and time and the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order. Dali maintained, however, that the watches were inspired, not by The Theory of Relativity, but by the Surrealist perception of a Camembert cheese melting in the sun. The central figure, of ambiguous shape, can be perceived to be a ‘fading’ creature – one which often appears in dreams where the dreamer cannot pinpoint the creature’s exact form and composition.
Magriite’s work is tightly finished and artificially created using realistic objects but in a fantastical setting. It was more representational than ‘automatic’. His use of ordinary objects in unfamiliar surroundings plays with reality. This juxtaposition was, he said ‘a union that suggests the essential mystery of the world. Art for me is not an end in itself, but a means of evoking that mystery.’ His images, often beautiful, can also provoke unsettling thoughts.
It has been said that Surrealism as an organised movement effectively disbanded after WWII. It can be argued, however, that it continued until the death of Andre Breton in 1966, or even that of Salvador Dali in 1989. What is clear is that the symbolism, techniques, and disdain for convention central to Surrealism certainly lived on and profoundly inspired American art of the latter 20th century. The practice of automatism, for example, was part of the basis for the Abstract Expessionist movement. It influenced the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock. Pollock is quoted as saying that he was ‘in’ his drip paintings as he worked on them, unaware of what he was doing until he stepped back from them afterwards.
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