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The Ultimate Guide to Surrealism

what is surrealism?

What is Surrealism?

Surrealism is breaking down the boundaries of what is considered to be normal. 

It grew out of Dadaism – an avant-garde European art movement of the early twentieth century. Dada prized nonsense and rejected reason.

The term ‘Surrealist’ was first used in 1917 by Apollinaire to describe his farcical play ‘Les Mamelles de Tiresias’. He described it as a ‘drame surréaliste’.

Surrealism as a full movement began in 1924. In this year, Andre Breton published ‘The Surrealist Manifesto’. A statement of the book’s intentions is indicated by its other title – ‘Soluble Fish’. 

‘The ground beneath my feet is nothing but an enormous unfolded newspaper.’ (Soluble Fish)

The manifesto stated that the Surrealists were non-conformist. It began as a literary movement (Breton was a poet) but it soon became a way for all artists to break away from rationalism.

‘Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.’ – Salvador Dali.

dali at work

The Surrealists were influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. His psycho-analytic research had just been published and the Surrealists became interested in depicting the mechanisms of dreams. They brought dreams and reality together and created a ‘sur-reality’.

Surrealist art disorientates the viewer and disrupts their sense of reality. Dream-like narratives are created, sometimes bordering on nightmarish. Surrealists desire to let the deepest thoughts in the recesses of our mind take over.

Automatic writing (writing that is not done on a conscious level, and reveals 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.

‘We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we are in love’ Sigmund Freud.

(Freud was later to criticise the movement, 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, the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition held by these artists was a high point of the period.

It can be argued that Surrealism 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 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.

Major artists of the Surrealist movement include;

Giorgio De Chirico
Unanimously acknowledged as the founder of the surrealist aesthetic. His painting ‘The Red Tower‘ 1913 (below), shows the illustrative style and striking colour contrasts which came to be adopted by other Surrealist artists.

the red tower

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.

max ernst

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 KleineNachtmusik‘ (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 darkened room, and then exposed to light) created the stark and unexpected effects of negative imaging, and unusual juxtapositions of identifiable objects.

man ray

Joan Miro
In his Surrealist period Miro developed ideas by letting his mind wander. ‘ 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.

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 everyday 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 (below), 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 relativity 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.

persistence of memory dali

Rene Magritte

Magritte’s work is tightly finished and artificially created using realistic objects but in a fantastical setting. It is 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 provoke unsettling thoughts.

les valeurs personelles

‘Les Valeurs Personelles’ (1952)

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