Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings. Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects, and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself. Its aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”.
Surrealism is an International intellectual movement, which was centred mainly in Paris and occupied with the problems of thought and expression in all their forms The Surrealists perceived a deep crisis in Western culture and responded with a revision of values at every level, inspired by the psychoanalytical discoveries of Freud and the political ideology of Marxism. In both poetry and the visual arts this revision was undertaken through the development of unconventional techniques, of which Automatism was paramount The Parisian poets who formulated Surrealist theory and orientation were officially identified by André Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme (1924), the essay ‘Une Vague de rêves’ (October 1924) by Louis Aragon and the periodical La Révolution surréaliste, published two months later Under Breton’s guidance, the movement remained potent up to World War II, surviving until his death in 1966.
Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact. Leader André Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.
Surrealism developed out of the Dada activities during World War I and the most important center of the movement was Paris. From the 1920s onward, the movement spread around the globe, eventually affecting the visual arts, literature, film, and music of many countries and languages, as well as political thought and practice, philosophy, and social theory.
In 1929 the satellite group associated with the journal Le Grand Jeu, including Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Maurice Henry and the Czech painter Josef Sima, was ostracized. Also in February, Breton asked Surrealists to assess their “degree of moral competence”, and theoretical refinements included in the second manifeste du surréalisme excluded anyone reluctant to commit to collective action, a list which included Leiris, Georges Limbour, Max Morise, Baron, Queneau, Prévert, Desnos, Masson and Boiffard. Excluded members launched a counterattack, sharply criticizing Breton in the pamphlet Un Cadavre, which featured a picture of Breton wearing a crown of thorns. The pamphlet drew upon an earlier act of subversion by likening Breton to Anatole France, whose unquestioned value Breton had challenged in 1924.
The disunion of 1929-30 and the effects of Un Cadavre had very little negative impact upon Surrealism as Breton saw it, since core figures such as Aragon, Crevel, Dalí and Buñuel remained true the idea of group action, at least for the time being. The success (or the controversy) of Dalí and Buñuel’s film L’Age d’Or in December 1930 had a regenerative effect, drawing a number of new recruits, and encouraging countless new artistic works the following year and throughout the 1930s.
Disgruntled surrealists moved to the periodical Documents, edited by Georges Bataille, whose anti-idealist materialism formed a hybrid Surrealism intending to expose the base instincts of humans. To the dismay of many, Documents fizzled out in 1931, just as Surrealism seemed to be gathering more steam.
There were a number of reconciliations after this period of disunion, such as between Breton and Bataille, while Aragon left the group after committing himself to the French Communist Party in 1932. More members were ousted over the years for a variety of infractions, both political and personal, while others left in pursuit of their own style.
By the end of World War II the surrealist group led by André Breton decided to explicitly embrace anarchism. In 1952 Breton wrote “It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself.” “Breton was consistent in his support for the francophone Anarchist Federation and he continued to offer his solidarity after the Platformists supporting Fontenis transformed the FA into the Fédération Communiste Libertaire. He was one of the few intellectuals who continued to offer his support to the FCL during the Algerian war when the FCL suffered severe repression and was forced underground. He sheltered Fontenis whilst he was in hiding. He refused to take sides on the splits in the French anarchist movement and both he and Peret expressed solidarity as well with the new Fédération anarchiste set up by the synthesist anarchists and worked in the Antifascist Committees of the 60s alongside the FA.”
World War II and the Post War period
World War II created havoc not only for the general population of Europe but especially for the European artists and writers that opposed Fascism and Nazism. Many important artists fled to North America and relative safety in the United States. The art community in New York City in particular was already grappling with Surrealist ideas and several artists like Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell converged closely with the surrealist artists themselves, albeit with some suspicion and reservations. Ideas concerning the unconscious and dream imagery were quickly embraced. By the Second World War, the taste of the American avant-garde in New York City swung decisively towards Abstract Expressionism with the support of key taste makers, including Peggy Guggenheim, Leo Steinberg and Clement Greenberg. However, it should not be easily forgotten that Abstract Expressionism itself grew directly out of the meeting of American (particularly New York) artists with European Surrealists self-exiled during World War II. In particular, Gorky and Paalen influenced the development of this American art form, which, as Surrealism did, celebrated the instantaneous human act as the well-spring of creativity. The early work of many Abstract Expressionists reveals a tight bond between the more superficial aspects of both movements, and the emergence (at a later date) of aspects of Dadaistic humor in such artists as Rauschenberg sheds an even starker light upon the connection. Up until the emergence of Pop Art, Surrealism can be seen to have been the single most important influence on the sudden growth in American arts, and even in Pop, some of the humor manifested in Surrealism can be found, often turned to a cultural criticism.
The Second World War overshadowed, for a time, almost all intellectual and artistic production. In 1939 Wolfgang Paalen was the first to leave Paris for the New World as exile. After a long trip through the forests of British-Columbia, he settled in Mexico and founded his influential art-magazine Dyn. In 1940 Yves Tanguy married American Surrealist painter Kay Sage. In 1941, Breton went to the United States, where he co-founded the short-lived magazine VVV with Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and the American artist David Hare. However, it was the American poet, Charles Henri Ford, and his magazine View which offered Breton a channel for promoting Surrealism in the United States. The View special issue on Duchamp was crucial for the public understanding of Surrealism in America. It stressed his connections to Surrealist methods, offered interpretations of his work by Breton, as well as Breton’s view that Duchamp represented the bridge between early modern movements, such as Futurism and Cubism, to Surrealism. Wolfgang Paalen left the group in 1942 due to political/philosophical differences with Breton.
Though the war proved disruptive for Surrealism, the works continued. Many Surrealist artists continued to explore their vocabularies, including Magritte. Many members of the Surrealist movement continued to correspond and meet. While Dalí may have been excommunicated by Breton, he neither abandoned his themes from the 1930s, including references to the “persistence of time” in a later painting, nor did he become a depictive pompier. His classic period did not represent so sharp a break with the past as some descriptions of his work might portray, and some, such as André Thirion, argued that there were works of his after this period that continued to have some relevance for the movement.
During the 1940s Surrealism’s influence was also felt in England and America. Mark Rothko took an interest in biomorphic figures, and in England Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Paul Nash used or experimented with Surrealist techniques. However, Conroy Maddox, one of the first British Surrealists whose work in this genre dated from 1935, remained within the movement, and organized an exhibition of current Surrealist work in 1978 in response to an earlier show which infuriated him because it did not properly represent Surrealism. Maddox’s exhibition, titled Surrealism Unlimited, was held in Paris and attracted international attention. He held his last one-man show in 2002, and died three years later. Magritte’s work became more realistic in its depiction of actual objects, while maintaining the element of juxtaposition, such as in 1951’s Personal Values (Les Valeurs Personnelles) and 1954’s Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières). Magritte continued to produce works which have entered artistic vocabulary, such as Castle in the Pyrenees (Le Château des Pyrénées), which refers back to Voix from 1931, in its suspension over a landscape.
Other figures from the Surrealist movement were expelled. Several of these artists, like Roberto Matta (by his own description) “remained close to Surrealism”.
After the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Endre Rozsda returned to Paris to continue creating his own word that had been transcended the surrealism. The preface to his first exhibition in the Furstenberg Gallery (1957) was written by Breton yet.
Many new artists explicitly took up the Surrealist banner. Dorothea Tanning and Louise Bourgeois continued to work, for example, with Tanning’s Rainy Day Canape from 1970. Duchamp continued to produce sculpture in secret including an installation with the realistic depiction of a woman viewable only through a peephole.
Breton continued to write and espouse the importance of liberating the human mind, as with the publication The Tower of Light in 1952. Breton’s return to France after the War, began a new phase of Surrealist activity in Paris, and his critiques of rationalism and dualism found a new audience. Breton insisted that Surrealism was an ongoing revolt against the reduction of humanity to market relationships, religious gestures and misery and to espouse the importance of liberating the human mind.
Major exhibitions of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s
1942 – First Papers of Surrealism – New York – The Surrealists again called on Duchamp to design an exhibition. This time he wove a 3-dimensional web of string throughout the rooms of the space, in some cases making it almost impossible to see the works. He made a secret arrangement with an associate’s son to bring his friends to the opening of the show, so that when the finely dressed patrons arrived they found a dozen children in athletic clothes kicking and passing balls, and skipping rope. His design for the show’s catalog included “found”, rather than posed, photographs of the artists.
1947 – International Surrealist Exhibition – Galerie Maeght, Paris
1959 – International Surrealist Exhibition – Paris
1960 – Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain – New York
There is no clear consensus about the end, or if there was an end, to the Surrealist movement. Some art historians suggest that World War II effectively disbanded the movement. However, art historian Sarane Alexandrian (1970) states, “the death of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an organized movement.” There have also been attempts to tie the obituary of the movement to the 1989 death of Salvador Dalí.
In the 1960s, the artists and writers associated with the Situationist International were closely associated with Surrealism. While Guy Debord was critical of and distanced himself from Surrealism, others, such as Asger Jorn, were explicitly using Surrealist techniques and methods. The events of May 1968 in France included a number of Surrealist ideas, and among the slogans the students spray-painted on the walls of the Sorbonne were familiar Surrealist ones. Joan Miró would commemorate this in a painting titled May 1968. There were also groups who associated with both currents and were more attached to Surrealism, such as the Revolutionary Surrealist Group.
In Europe and all over the world since the 1960s, artists have combined Surrealism with what is believed to be a classical 16th century technique called mischtechnik, a kind of mix of egg tempera and oil paint rediscovered by Ernst Fuchs, a contemporary of Dalí, and now practiced and taught by many followers, including Robert Venosa and Chris Mars. The former curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Michael Bell, has called this style “veristic Surrealism”, which depicts with meticulous clarity and great detail a world analogous to the dream world. Other tempera artists, such as Robert Vickrey, regularly depict Surreal imagery. Other artists, such as the Italians Fabrizio Clerici and William Girometti, were influenced both by surrealist and by metaphysical suggestions.
During the 1980s, behind the Iron Curtain, Surrealism again entered into politics with an underground artistic opposition movement known as the Orange Alternative. The Orange Alternative was created in 1981 by Waldemar Fydrych (alias ‘Major’), a graduate of history and art history at the University of Wrocław. They used Surrealist symbolism and terminology in their large scale happenings organized in the major Polish cities during the Jaruzelski regime, and painted Surrealist graffiti on spots covering up anti-regime slogans. Major himself was the author of a “Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism”. In this manifesto, he stated that the socialist (communist) system had become so Surrealistic that it could be seen as an expression of art itself.
Surrealistic art also remains popular with museum patrons. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City held an exhibit, Two Private Eyes, in 1999, and in 2001 Tate Modern held an exhibition of Surrealist art that attracted over 170,000 visitors. In 2002 the Met in New York City held a show, Desire Unbound, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris a show called La Révolution surréaliste.
Surrealists groups and literary publications have continued to be active up to the present day, with groups such as the Czech Surrealist Group, Stockholm Surrealist Group, and the Chicago Surrealist Group. Jan Švankmajer of the Czech group continues to make films and experiment with objects.
Impact of Surrealism
While Surrealism is typically associated with the arts, it has been said[by whom?] to transcend them; Surrealism has had an impact in many other fields. In this sense, Surrealism does not specifically refer only to self-identified “Surrealists”, or those sanctioned by Breton, rather, it refers to a range of creative acts of revolt and efforts to liberate imagination. In addition to Surrealist ideas that are grounded in the ideas of Hegel, Marx and Freud, Surrealism is seen by its advocates as being inherently dynamic and as dialectical in its thought.[clarification needed]
Other sources used by Surrealism epigons
Surrealists have also drawn on sources as seemingly diverse as Clark Ashton Smith, Montague Summers, Horace Walpole, Fantômas, The Residents, Bugs Bunny, comic strips, the obscure poet Samuel Greenberg and the hobo writer and humourist T-Bone Slim. One might say that Surrealist strands may be found in movements such as Free Jazz (Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor etc.) and even in the daily lives of people in confrontation with limiting social conditions. Thought of as the effort of humanity to liberate imagination as an act of insurrection against society, Surrealism finds precedents in the alchemists, possibly Dante, Hieronymus Bosch, Marquis de Sade, Charles Fourier, Comte de Lautreamont and Arthur Rimbaud.
Surrealists believe that non-Western cultures also provide a continued source of inspiration for Surrealist activity because some may strike up a better balance between instrumental reason and imagination in flight than Western culture. Surrealism has had an identifiable impact on radical and revolutionary politics, both directly — as in some Surrealists joining or allying themselves with radical political groups, movements and parties — and indirectly — through the way in which Surrealists emphasize the intimate link between freeing imagination and the mind, and liberation from repressive and archaic social structures. This was especially visible in the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and the French revolt of May 1968, whose slogan “All power to the imagination” rose directly from French Surrealist thought and practice.
Postmodernism and popular culture
Many significant literary movements in the later half of the 20th century were directly or indirectly influenced by Surrealism. This period is known as the Postmodern era; though there’s no widely agreed upon central definition of Postmodernism, many themes and techniques commonly identified as Postmodern are nearly identical to Surrealism.
Many writers from and associated with the Beat Generation were influenced greatly by Surrealists. Philip Lamantia and Ted Joans are often categorized as both Beat and Surrealist writers. Many other Beat writers show significant evidence of Surrealist influence. A few examples include Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Artaud in particular was very influential to many of the Beats, but especially Ginsberg and Carl Solomon. Ginsberg cites Artaud’s “Van Gogh — The Man Suicided by Society” as a direct influence on “Howl”, along with Apollinaire’s “Zone”, García Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman”, and Schwitters’ “Priimiititiii”. The structure of Breton’s “Free Union” had a significant influence on Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”. In Paris, Ginsberg and Corso met their heroes Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Benjamin Péret, and to show their admiration Ginsberg kissed Duchamp’s feet and Corso cut off Duchamp’s tie.
William S. Burroughs, a core member of the Beat Generation and a postmodern novelist, developed the cut-up technique with former surrealist Brion Gysin—in which chance is used to dictate the composition of a text from words cut out of other sources—referring to it as the “Surrealist Lark” and recognizing its debt to the techniques of Tristan Tzara.
Postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon, who was also influenced by Beat fiction, experimented since the 1960s with the surrealist idea of startling juxtapositions; commenting on the “necessity of managing this procedure with some degree of care and skill”, he added that “any old combination of details will not do. Spike Jones, Jr., whose father’s orchestral recordings had a deep and indelible effect on me as a child, said once in an interview, ‘One of the things that people don’t realize about Dad’s kind of music is, when you replace a C-sharp with a gunshot, it has to be a C-sharp gunshot or it sounds awful.'”
Many other postmodern fiction writers have been directly influenced by Surrealism. Paul Auster, for example, has translated Surrealist poetry and said the Surrealists were “a real discovery” for him. Salman Rushdie, when called a Magical Realist, said he saw his work instead “allied to surrealism”. For the work of other postmodernists, such as Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, a broad comparison to Surrealism is common.
Magic realism, a popular technique among novelists of the latter half of the 20th century especially among Latin American writers, has some obvious similarities to Surrealism with its juxtaposition of the normal and the dream-like, as in the work of Gabriel García Márquez. Carlos Fuentes was inspired by the revolutionary voice in Surrealist poetry and points to inspiration Breton and Artaud found in Fuentes’ homeland, Mexico. Though Surrealism was a direct influence on Magic Realism in its early stages, many Magic Realist writers and critics, such as Amaryll Chanady and S. P. Ganguly, while acknowledging the similarities, cite the many differences obscured by the direct comparison of Magic Realism and Surrealism such as an interest in psychology and the artefacts of European culture they claim is not present in Magic Realism. A prominent example of a Magic Realist writer who points to Surrealism as an early influence is Alejo Carpentier who also later criticized Surrealism’s delineation between real and unreal as not representing the true South American experience.
See also: Category:Surrealist groups
Surrealist individuals and groups have attempted to carry on with Surrealism after the death of André Breton in 1966. The original Paris Surrealist Group was disbanded by member Jean Schuster in 1969.
Surrealism and the theatre
Surrealist theatre and Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” were inspirational to many within the group of playwrights that the critic Martin Esslin called the “Theatre of the Absurd” (in his 1963 book of the same name). Though not an organized movement, Esslin grouped these playwrights together based on some similarities of theme and technique; Esslin argues that these similarities may be traced to an influence from the Surrealists. Eugène Ionesco in particular was fond of Surrealism, claiming at one point that Breton was one of the most important thinkers in history. Samuel Beckett was also fond of Surrealists, even translating much of the poetry into English. Other notable playwrights whom Esslin groups under the term, for example Arthur Adamov and Fernando Arrabal, were at some point members of the Surrealist group.
Surrealism and comedy
Surreal humour (also known as absurdist humour), or surreal comedy, is a form of humour predicated on deliberate violations of causal reasoning, producing events and behaviours that are obviously illogical. Constructions of surreal humour tend to involve bizarre juxtapositions, incongruity, non-sequiturs, irrational or absurd situations and expressions of nonsense.[
Criticism of Surrealism
Some feminists have critiqued Surrealism, claiming that it is fundamentally a male movement and a male fellowship. Some feminist critics believe that it adopts archaic attitudes toward women, such as worshiping them symbolically through stereotypes and sexist norms. Women are often made to represent higher values and transformed into objects of desire and of mystery.
A pioneer in the feminist critique of Surrealism was Xavière Gauthier, whose book, Surréalisme et sexualité (1971), inspired further scholarship on the marginalization of women in relation to “the avant-garde”. This perspective was anticipated and critiqued as misunderstanding Surrealism’s point in being a social critique and a reflection on the individual’s presuppositions so that they may be critically questioned. Wolfgang Paalen eventually was the only Surrealist to defend feminism, although in a very archaic sense. However it was Leonora Carrington, who called Paalen “the only feminist of the whole group”.
Art historian Whitney Chadwick has countered the critique of Surrealism: “Surrealism also battled the social institutions – church, state, and family – that regulate the place of women within patriarchy. In offering some women their first locus for artistic and social resistance, it became the first modernist movement in which a group of women could explore female subjectivity and give form (however tentatively) to a feminine imaginary.”
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