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.
Founding of the movement
The word ‘surrealism’ was coined in March 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire three years before Surrealism emerged as an art movement in Paris. He wrote in a letter to Paul Dermée: “All things considered, I think in fact it is better to adopt surrealism than supernaturalism, which I first used” [Tout bien examiné, je crois en effet qu’il vaut mieux adopter surréalisme que surnaturalisme que j’avais d’abord employé].
Apollinaire used the term in his program notes for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Parade, which premiered 18 May 1917. Parade had a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau and was performed with music by Erik Satie. Cocteau described the ballet as “realistic”. Apollinaire went further, describing Parade as “surrealistic”:
This new alliance—I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds—has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress. (Apollinaire, 1917)
The term was taken up again by Apollinaire, in the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which was written in 1903 and first performed in 1917.
World War I scattered the writers and artists who had been based in Paris, and in the interim many became involved with Dada, believing that excessive rational thought and bourgeois values had brought the conflict of the war upon the world. The Dadaists protested with anti-art gatherings, performances, writings and art works. After the war, when they returned to Paris, the Dada activities continued.
During the war, André Breton, who had trained in medicine and psychiatry, served in a neurological hospital where he used Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from shell-shock. Meeting the young writer Jacques Vaché, Breton felt that Vaché was the spiritual son of writer and pataphysics founder Alfred Jarry. He admired the young writer’s anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition. Later Breton wrote, “In literature, I was successively taken with Rimbaud, with Jarry, with Apollinaire, with Nouveau, with Lautréamont, but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most.”
Back in Paris, Breton joined in Dada activities and started the literary journal Littérature along with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. They began experimenting with automatic writing—spontaneously writing without censoring their thoughts—and published the writings, as well as accounts of dreams, in the magazine. Breton and Soupault delved deeper into automatism and wrote The Magnetic Fields (1920).
Continuing to write, they came to believe that automatism was a better tactic for societal change than the Dada form of attack on prevailing values. The group attracted additional members and grew to include writers and artists from various media such as Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Jacques Baron, Max Morise, Pierre Naville, Roger Vitrac, Gala Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Georges Malkine, Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour, Antonin Artaud, Raymond Queneau, André Masson, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy.
As they developed their philosophy, they believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic. They also looked to the Marxist dialectic and the work of such theorists as Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse.
Freud’s work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious was of utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination. They embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness. As Salvador Dalí later proclaimed, “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”
Beside the use of dream analysis, they emphasized that “one could combine inside the same frame, elements not normally found together to produce illogical and startling effects.” Breton included the idea of the startling juxtapositions in his 1924 manifesto, taking it in turn from a 1918 essay by poet Pierre Reverdy, which said: “a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be−the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.”
The group aimed to revolutionize human experience, in its personal, cultural, social, and political aspects. They wanted to free people from false rationality, and restrictive customs and structures. Breton proclaimed that the true aim of Surrealism was “long live the social revolution, and it alone!” To this goal, at various times Surrealists aligned with communism and anarchism.
In 1924 two Surrealist factions declared their philosophy in two separate Surrealist Manifestos. That same year the Bureau of Surrealist Research was established, and began publishing the journal La Révolution surréaliste.
Leading up to 1924, two rival surrealist groups had formed. Each group claimed to be successors of a revolution launched by Guillaume Apollinaire. One group, led by Yvan Goll, consisted of Pierre Albert-Birot, Paul Dermée, Céline Arnauld, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Pierre Reverdy, Marcel Arland, Joseph Delteil, Jean Painlevé and Robert Delaunay, among others.
The other group, led by Breton, included Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard, Jacques Baron, Jacques-André Boiffard, Jean Carrive, René Crevel and Georges Malkine, among others.
Yvan Goll published the Manifeste du surréalisme, 1 October 1924, in his first and only issue of Surréalisme two weeks prior to the release of Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme, published by Éditions du Sagittaire, 15 October 1924.
Goll and Breton clashed openly, at one point literally fighting, at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées, over the rights to the term Surrealism. In the end, Breton won the battle through tactical and numerical superiority. Though the quarrel over the anteriority of Surrealism concluded with the victory of Breton, the history of surrealism from that moment would remain marked by fractures, resignations, and resounding excommunications, with each surrealist having their own view of the issue and goals, and accepting more or less the definitions laid out by André Breton.
Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto defines the purposes of Surrealism. He included citations of the influences on Surrealism, examples of Surrealist works, and discussion of Surrealist automatism. He provided the following definitions:
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.
Bureau of Surrealist Research
The Bureau of Surrealist Research (Centrale Surréaliste) was the center for Surrealist writers and artists to meet, hold discussions, and conduct interviews. They investigated speech under trance.
The movement in the mid-1920s was characterized by meetings in cafes where the Surrealists played collaborative drawing games, discussed the theories of Surrealism, and developed a variety of techniques such as automatic drawing. Breton initially doubted that visual arts could even be useful in the Surrealist movement since they appeared to be less malleable and open to chance and automatism. This caution was overcome by the discovery of such techniques as frottage and decalcomania.
Soon more visual artists became involved, including Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine Hugo, Méret Oppenheim, Toyen, Kansuke Yamamoto and later after the second war: Enrico Donati. Though Breton admired Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and courted them to join the movement, they remained peripheral. More writers also joined, including former Dadaist Tristan Tzara, René Char, and Georges Sadoul.
In 1925 an autonomous Surrealist group formed in Brussels. The group included the musician, poet, and artist E. L. T. Mesens, painter and writer René Magritte, Paul Nougé, Marcel Lecomte, and André Souris. In 1927 they were joined by the writer Louis Scutenaire. They corresponded regularly with the Paris group, and in 1927 both Goemans and Magritte moved to Paris and frequented Breton’s circle. The artists, with their roots in Dada and Cubism, the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, Expressionism, and Post-Impressionism, also reached to older “bloodlines” such as Hieronymus Bosch, and the so-called primitive and naive arts.
André Masson’s automatic drawings of 1923 are often used as the point of the acceptance of visual arts and the break from Dada, since they reflect the influence of the idea of the unconscious mind. Another example is Giacometti’s 1925 Torso, which marked his movement to simplified forms and inspiration from preclassical sculpture.
However, a striking example of the line used to divide Dada and Surrealism among art experts is the pairing of 1925’s Little Machine Constructed by Minimax Dadamax in Person (Von minimax dadamax selbst konstruiertes maschinchen) with The Kiss (Le Baiser) from 1927 by Max Ernst. The first is generally held to have a distance, and erotic subtext, whereas the second presents an erotic act openly and directly. In the second the influence of Miró and the drawing style of Picasso is visible with the use of fluid curving and intersecting lines and colour, whereas the first takes a directness that would later be influential in movements such as Pop art.
Giorgio de Chirico, and his previous development of metaphysical art, was one of the important joining figures between the philosophical and visual aspects of Surrealism. Between 1911 and 1917, he adopted an unornamented depictional style whose surface would be adopted by others later. The Red Tower (La tour rouge) from 1913 shows the stark colour contrasts and illustrative style later adopted by Surrealist painters. His 1914 The Nostalgia of the Poet (La Nostalgie du poète) has the figure turned away from the viewer, and the juxtaposition of a bust with glasses and a fish as a relief defies conventional explanation. He was also a writer whose novel Hebdomeros presents a series of dreamscapes with an unusual use of punctuation, syntax, and grammar designed to create an atmosphere and frame its images. His images, including set designs for the Ballets Russes, would create a decorative form of Surrealism, and he would be an influence on the two artists who would be even more closely associated with Surrealism in the public mind: Dalí and Magritte. He would, however, leave the Surrealist group in 1928.
In 1924, Miró and Masson applied Surrealism to painting. The first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925. It displayed works by Masson, Man Ray, Paul Klee, Miró, and others. The show confirmed that Surrealism had a component in the visual arts (though it had been initially debated whether this was possible), and techniques from Dada, such as photomontage, were used. The following year, on March 26, 1926 Galerie Surréaliste opened with an exhibition by Man Ray. Breton published Surrealism and Painting in 1928 which summarized the movement to that point, though he continued to update the work until the 1960s.
The first Surrealist work, according to leader Breton, was Les Champs Magnétiques (May–June 1919). Littérature contained automatist works and accounts of dreams. The magazine and the portfolio both showed their disdain for literal meanings given to objects and focused rather on the undertones, the poetic undercurrents present. Not only did they give emphasis to the poetic undercurrents, but also to the connotations and the overtones which “exist in ambiguous relationships to the visual images”.
Because Surrealist writers seldom, if ever, appear to organize their thoughts and the images they present, some people find much of their work difficult to parse. This notion however is a superficial comprehension, prompted no doubt by Breton’s initial emphasis on automatic writing as the main route toward a higher reality. But—as in Breton’s case—much of what is presented as purely automatic is actually edited and very “thought out”. Breton himself later admitted that automatic writing’s centrality had been overstated, and other elements were introduced, especially as the growing involvement of visual artists in the movement forced the issue, since automatic painting required a rather more strenuous set of approaches. Thus such elements as collage were introduced, arising partly from an ideal of startling juxtapositions as revealed in Pierre Reverdy’s poetry. And—as in Magritte’s case (where there is no obvious recourse to either automatic techniques or collage)—the very notion of convulsive joining became a tool for revelation in and of itself. Surrealism was meant to be always in flux—to be more modern than modern—and so it was natural there should be a rapid shuffling of the philosophy as new challenges arose.
Surrealists revived interest in Isidore Ducasse, known by his pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont, and for the line “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, and Arthur Rimbaud, two late 19th-century writers believed to be the precursors of Surrealism.
Examples of Surrealist literature are Artaud’s Le Pèse-Nerfs (1926), Aragon’s Irene’s Cunt (1927), Péret’s Death to the Pigs (1929), Crevel’s Mr. Knife Miss Fork (1931), Sadegh Hedayat’s the Blind Owl (1937), and Breton’s Sur la route de San Romano (1948).
La Révolution surréaliste continued publication into 1929 with most pages densely packed with columns of text, but also included reproductions of art, among them works by de Chirico, Ernst, Masson, and Man Ray. Other works included books, poems, pamphlets, automatic texts and theoretical tracts.
Early films by Surrealists include:
Entr’acte by René Clair (1924)
La Coquille et le clergyman by Germaine Dulac, screenplay by Antonin Artaud (1928)
L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray (1928)
Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1929)
L’Âge d’Or by Buñuel and Dalí (1930)
Le sang d’un poète by Jean Cocteau (1930)
The word surrealist was first used by Guillaume Apollinaire to describe his 1917 play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (“The Breasts of Tiresias”), which was later adapted into an opera by Francis Poulenc.
Antonin Artaud, an early Surrealist, rejected the majority of Western theatre as a perversion of its original intent, which he felt should be a mystical, metaphysical experience. He thought that rational discourse comprised “falsehood and illusion”. Theorising a new theatrical form that would be immediate and direct, that would link the unconscious minds of performers and spectators in a sort of ritual event, Artaud created the Theatre of Cruelty, in which emotions, feelings, and the metaphysical were expressed not through language but physically, creating a mythological, archetypal, allegorical vision, closely related to the world of dreams.
The other major theatre practitioner to have experimented with surrealism in the theatre is the Spanish playwright and director Federico García Lorca, particularly in his plays The Public (1930), When Five Years Pass (1931), and Play Without a Title (1935). Other surrealist plays include Aragon’s Backs to the Wall (1925) and Roger Vitrac’s The Mysteries of Love (1927) and Victor, or The Children Take Over (1928). Gertrude Stein’s opera Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938) has also been described as “American Surrealism”, though it is also related to a theatrical form of cubism.
In the 1920s several composers were influenced by Surrealism, or by individuals in the Surrealist movement. Among them were Bohuslav Martinů, André Souris, Erik Satie, and Edgard Varèse, who stated that his work Arcana was drawn from a dream sequence. Souris in particular was associated with the movement: he had a long relationship with Magritte, and worked on Paul Nougé’s publication Adieu Marie.
Germaine Tailleferre of the French group Les Six wrote several works which could be considered to be inspired by Surrealism, including the 1948 Ballet Paris-Magie (scenario by Lise Deharme), the Operas La Petite Sirène (book by Philippe Soupault) and Le Maître (book by Eugène Ionesco). Tailleferre also wrote popular songs to texts by Claude Marci, the wife of Henri Jeanson, whose portrait had been painted by Magritte in the 1930s.
Even though Breton by 1946 responded rather negatively to the subject of music with his essay Silence is Golden, later Surrealists, such as Paul Garon, have been interested in—and found parallels to—Surrealism in the improvisation of jazz and the blues. Jazz and blues musicians have occasionally reciprocated this interest. For example, the 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition included performances by David Honeyboy Edwards.
Surrealism and international politics
Surrealism as a political force developed unevenly around the world: in some places more emphasis was on artistic practices, in other places on political practices, and in other places still, Surrealist praxis looked to supersede both the arts and politics. During the 1930s, the Surrealist idea spread from Europe to North America, South America (founding of the Mandrágora group in Chile in 1938), Central America, the Caribbean, and throughout Asia, as both an artistic idea and as an ideology of political change.
Politically, Surrealism was Trotskyist, communist, or anarchist. The split from Dada has been characterised as a split between anarchists and communists, with the Surrealists as communist. Breton and his comrades supported Leon Trotsky and his International Left Opposition for a while, though there was an openness to anarchism that manifested more fully after World War II. Some Surrealists, such as Benjamin Péret, Mary Low, and Juan Breá, aligned with forms of left communism. Others fought for complete liberty from political ideologies, like Wolfgang Paalen, who, after Trotzky´s assassination in Mexico, prepared a schism between art and politics through his counter-surrealist art-magazine DYN and so prepared the ground for the abstract expressionists. Dalí supported capitalism and the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco but cannot be said to represent a trend in Surrealism in this respect; in fact he was considered, by Breton and his associates, to have betrayed and left Surrealism. Benjamin Péret, Mary Low and Juan Breá joined the POUM during the Spanish Civil War.
Breton’s followers, along with the Communist Party, were working for the “liberation of man”. However, Breton’s group refused to prioritize the proletarian struggle over radical creation such that their struggles with the Party made the late 1920s a turbulent time for both. Many individuals closely associated with Breton, notably Louis Aragon, left his group to work more closely with the Communists.
Surrealists have often sought to link their efforts with political ideals and activities. In the Declaration of January 27, 1925, for example, members of the Paris-based Bureau of Surrealist Research (including André Breton, Louis Aragon, and, Antonin Artaud, as well as some two dozen others) declared their affinity for revolutionary politics. While this was initially a somewhat vague formulation, by the 1930s many Surrealists had strongly identified themselves with communism. The foremost document of this tendency within Surrealism is the Manifesto for a Free Revolutionary Art, published under the names of Breton and Diego Rivera, but actually co-authored by Breton and Leon Trotsky.
However, in 1933 the Surrealists’ assertion that a ‘proletarian literature’ within a capitalist society was impossible led to their break with the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, and the expulsion of Breton, Éluard and Crevel from the Communist Party.
In 1925, the Paris Surrealist group and the extreme left of the French Communist Party came together to support Abd-el-Krim, leader of the Rif uprising against French colonialism in Morocco. In an open letter to writer and French ambassador to Japan, Paul Claudel, the Paris group announced:
“We Surrealists pronounced ourselves in favour of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the colour question.”
The anticolonial revolutionary and proletarian politics of “Murderous Humanitarianism” (1932) which was drafted mainly by René Crevel, signed by André Breton, Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, Yves Tanguy, and the Martiniquan Surrealists Pierre Yoyotte and J.M. Monnerot perhaps makes it the original document of what is later called ‘black Surrealism’, although it is the contact between Aimé Césaire and Breton in the 1940s in Martinique that really lead to the communication of what is known as ‘black Surrealism’.
Anticolonial revolutionary writers in the Négritude movement of Martinique, a French colony at the time, took up Surrealism as a revolutionary method – a critique of European culture and a radical subjective. This linked with other Surrealists and was very important for the subsequent development of Surrealism as a revolutionary praxis. The journal Tropiques, featuring the work of Césaire along with Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, Lucie Thésée, Aristide Maugée and others, was first published in 1941.
In 1938 André Breton traveled with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, to Mexico to meet Trotsky (staying as the guest of Diego Rivera’s former wife Guadalupe Marin), and there he met Frida Kahlo and saw her paintings for the first time. Breton declared Kahlo to be an “innate” Surrealist painter.
Throughout the 1930s, Surrealism continued to become more visible to the public at large. A Surrealist group developed in London and, according to Breton, their 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition was a high-water mark of the period and became the model for international exhibitions. Another English Surrealist group developed in Birmingham, meanwhile, and was distinguished by its opposition to the London surrealists and preferences for surrealism’s French heartland. The two groups would reconcile later in the decade.
Dalí and Magritte created the most widely recognized images of the movement. Dalí joined the group in 1929, and participated in the rapid establishment of the visual style between 1930 and 1935.
Surrealism as a visual movement had found a method: to expose psychological truth; stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance, to create a compelling image that was beyond ordinary formal organization, in order to evoke empathy from the viewer.
1931 was a year when several Surrealist painters produced works which marked turning points in their stylistic evolution: Magritte’s Voice of Space (La Voix des airs) is an example of this process, where three large spheres representing bells hang above a landscape. Another Surrealist landscape from this same year is Yves Tanguy’s Promontory Palace (Palais promontoire), with its molten forms and liquid shapes. Liquid shapes became the trademark of Dalí, particularly in his The Persistence of Memory, which features the image of watches that sag as if they were melting.
The characteristics of this style—a combination of the depictive, the abstract, and the psychological—came to stand for the alienation which many people felt in the modern period, combined with the sense of reaching more deeply into the psyche, to be “made whole with one’s individuality”.
Between 1930 and 1933, the Surrealist Group in Paris issued the periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution as the successor of La Révolution surréaliste.
From 1936 through 1938 Wolfgang Paalen, Gordon Onslow Ford, and Roberto Matta joined the group. Paalen contributed Fumage and Onslow Ford Coulage as new pictorial automatic techniques.
Long after personal, political and professional tensions fragmented the Surrealist group, Magritte and Dalí continued to define a visual program in the arts. This program reached beyond painting, to encompass photography as well, as can be seen from a Man Ray self-portrait, whose use of assemblage influenced Robert Rauschenberg’s collage boxes.
During the 1930s Peggy Guggenheim, an important American art collector, married Max Ernst and began promoting work by other Surrealists such as Yves Tanguy and the British artist John Tunnard.
Major exhibitions in the 1930s
1936 – London International Surrealist Exhibition is organised in London by the art historian Herbert Read, with an introduction by André Breton.
1936 – Museum of Modern Art in New York shows the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.
1938 – A new Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme was held at the Beaux-arts Gallery, Paris, with more than 60 artists from different countries, and showed around 300 paintings, objects, collages, photographs and installations. The Surrealists wanted to create an exhibition which in itself would be a creative act and called on Marcel Duchamp, Wolfgang Paalen, Man Ray and others to do so. At the exhibition’s entrance Salvador Dalí placed his Rainy Taxi (an old taxi rigged to produce a steady drizzle of water down the inside of the windows, and a shark-headed creature in the driver’s seat and a blond mannequin crawling with live snails in the back) greeted the patrons who were in full evening dress. Surrealist Street filled one side of the lobby with mannequins dressed by various Surrealists. Paalen and Duchamp designed the main hall to seem like subterranean cave with 1,200 coal bags suspended from the ceiling over a coal brazier with a single light bulb which provided the only lighting, as well as the floor covered with humid leaves and mud. The patrons were given flashlights with which to view the art. On the floor Wolfgang Paalen created a small lake with grasses and the aroma of roasting coffee filled the air. Much to the Surrealists’ satisfaction the exhibition scandalized the viewers.
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