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A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art

Ian Chilvers,

John Glaves-Smith


Artistic, political, and literary movement which originated in Paris during the 1920s and has had an enormous impact on culture ever since. It went through too many changes to be defined in terms of a single style, but the fundamental feature was an engagement with Sigmund Freud's ideas of the unconscious (see Psychoanalysis). Freud believed that there was a deep-rooted conflict between the desires of the unconscious and the need to live in a socialized world. Whereas he sought, as far as possible, to heal the rift between the unconscious and society, Surrealism saw in his theories a basis from which that society could be attacked. Therefore Surrealism was not just a movement in art, and an understanding of Surrealism often requires the spectator to consider its products from a more than aesthetic point of view. The poet André Breton, the group's guiding figure, wrote that ‘the movement's main ambition is to produce a general crisis of consciousness both in the intellectual and moral realm’ (Second Surrealist Manifesto, 1929).

Surrealism grew out of Dada, as it had developed in Paris in the early 1920s. It became apparent to Breton and others that Dada's nihilism had reached a point where it could no longer take even itself seriously and that therefore any critical power it might have was fatally blunted. The Surrealist movement was officially launched by Breton in 1924. In that year he published the first Surrealist Manifesto, originally conceived as a preface to a text entitled Soluble Fish. Like much of Breton's writings, the manifesto presents difficulties for the reader, but it also provides a kind of point of rest within its polemics where Breton provides an unequivocal statement. Dictionary-fashion, he defines ‘Surrealism’ as ‘pure psychic automatism’. In later theory and practice, this definition was to be both refined and extended, but at this point Breton saw it in terms of the ‘automatic writing’—Soluble Fish was an example—on which he and fellow poet Philippe Soupault (1897–1990) had been engaged. This was a device to enter the world of dream and the imagination which, according to Breton, had been opened to investigation to an unprecedented extent by the discoveries of Freud. A more general account of the state of mind that Surrealism was trying to induce comes from this recollection of his first Surrealist experience. ‘It was in 1919 and in complete solitude and at the approach of sleep, that my attention was arrested by sentences more or less complete, which became perceptible to my mind without my being able to discover…previous volitional effort’. The name ‘Surrealist’ was chosen in homage to the recently dead Guillaume Apollinaire, who had used the term to describe his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Generally, in spite of Breton's enthusiasm for the visual arts, it was literature which at this stage provided the main point of reference. The Surrealists admired especially the writings of the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse, 1846–70), whose prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror is full of violence, irrationality, and blasphemy. One phrase of Lautréamont, in particular, has come to stand for what the Surrealists were trying to achieve: ‘Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.’

A Bureau of Surrealist Research was formed in 1924 to gather information on the workings of the unconscious mind. At this time Breton, who had a background in medicine, was considering Surrealism as a quasi-scientific activity. Also in that year, the journal La Révolution surréaliste (twelve issues, 1924–9) was published for the first time. In contrast to the exuberant graphic design of Dada publications, this deliberately took on the appearance of a sober scientific journal. Breton had participated in Dada manifestations in Paris and was anxious to establish distance between Surrealism and a movement which he now saw as discredited. The journal published automatic texts and accounts of dreams and was illustrated by photographs, drawings, and paintings. All these had the status not so much of works of art but as ‘evidence’ of exploration into the unconscious.

‘Evidence’ had already been provided for Breton by the visual arts. When, for instance, La Révolution surréaliste illustrated a painting by Paul Klee, the point was not so much to say ‘Klee is a Surrealist artist’ but that the painting, alongside the other visual material, was proof of Surrealist activity. A series of articles in the early issues of the journal were to provide the basis for Surrealism and Painting, a book Breton continued to add to throughout his life. The Cubism of Picasso represented for him neither a new kind of realism nor a stepping stone to abstraction. It was instead the path to a new liberty of seeing. Breton, predictably, treats with withering sarcasm the notion of a ‘cubist discipline’.

Even before the first Surrealist Manifesto there were other examples of proto-Surrealist painting. Giorgio de Chirico's mysterious paintings of shadowy city squares, which had already been championed by Apollinaire, were admired by Breton. Certain paintings of Max Ernst, such as Celebes (1921, Tate), which are very much an elaboration of his Dada photomontages, are sometimes regarded as the first fully Surrealist works of visual art. Both de Chirico and Ernst used relatively conventional pictorial techniques to make plausible the worlds of the irrational, and this stylistic conservatism was to be a feature of some later Surrealist art. The Surrealist paintings which followed the first Surrealist Manifesto combined a degree of automatism with a more structured approach. André Masson would frequently begin with an architectural framework, an almost Gris-like grid, from which would emerge fantastic images. In Joan Miró's paintings such as Birth of the World (1925, MoMA, New York) apparently random splashes of paint give rise to evocative shapes. It is now known that these paintings of Miró are less ‘automatic’ than one might assume and that he worked from preparatory drawings. Nonetheless they suggest a gateway into a world of imagination and dream. Ernst stimulated the imagination with rubbings of uneven surfaces, the technique known as frottage. Lurking in those paintings there is frequently an element of violent erotic fantasy. In 1926 a ‘Galerie Surréaliste’ opened on the left bank in Paris, so establishing Surrealism as an artistic movement, however much some of its adherents might deny it.

Both artistically and ideologically, Surrealism was initially at odds with the post-war era in France. After the militant secularism of the pre-war Third Republic, the French state in war time had sidled up to the Catholic Church. The Surrealists were vehemently atheist and blasphemous: a famous image in La Révolution surréaliste shows ‘Our Collaborator Benjamin Péret Insulting a Priest’. Artistically, the early 1920s were generally marked by a return to classicism and a cult of order (see Neoclassicism), not without a strong nationalist and conservative strain, which for a time even affected Picasso. In this context, Breton took the Surrealist movement increasingly from a generalized anti-authoritarian and libertarian stance to specific political commitment. The group protested against French imperialism in north Africa and in 1927 they announced their adhesion to the Communist party. The relationship would be a difficult one. Two of Breton's closest early allies, the poets Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, would eventually renounce Surrealism for Communism.

This emphasis on political discipline was accompanied by a rethinking of the principle of automatism, which was to be redefined in the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929, in which there was a greater emphasis on social and political revolt. This followed a series of expulsions from the movement of those considered half-hearted in their attitude to collective action or too concerned with their artistic or literary careers. Among those expelled was André Masson, whose allegiance had shifted to Georges Bataille, excoriated with special force in the second manifesto. Bataille, the editor of Documents, was very much a rival to Breton's leadership, and proposed a version of Surrealism based not so much on the imagination and dream as on base materialism. The expulsions and anathemas of 1929 have, more than anything else, given Breton a reputation for intolerance which, for some, sits at odds with the libertarian claims of the movement. He notoriously placed Surrealist purity above any personal friendship. Christopher Green has argued that Breton was influenced by the ruthless group discipline of the Communist Party and that ‘He learned from the Party to treat others as they treated him’. After the Second Manifesto Breton wanted Surrealism to be ‘occulted’, making it available only to the most committed. La Révolution surréaliste was to be replaced by Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (six issues, 1930–3), a far more austere publication with the visual material relegated to the back pages.

The events of 1929 revealed a tension central to Surrealism. ‘Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point in the mind at which life and death, the real and imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low cease to be perceived as contradictions’ (Second Surrealist Manifesto). The motivation of Surrealism was ‘the finding and fixing of this point’. The ‘finding’ might be achieved when the will was at its weakest. The ‘fixing’ was the result of control. The different manifestations of Surrealism need to be understood in terms of this dilemma.

‘Finding’ might be achieved as in the early days of Surrealism through automatic procedure and through dreams. It was essentially a passive process by which the Surrealist was ‘open’ to the discovery of ‘that certain point’. Photography was important to Surrealism as a potential ‘objective’ evidence of that point. Breton's novel Nadja (1928) was illustrated by photographs, and photography was to become a significant form of Surrealist activity in the work of such figures as Man Ray, Claude Cahun, and Raoul Ubac. The art historian Rosalind Krauss has controversially argued that photography rather than painting should be seen as central to Surrealism.

Discovery of the point might also be sparked off by an object, encountered in dreams, or perhaps in wandering about Paris (French Surrealism was uncompromisingly urban in its vision). One account by Breton conflates the two experiences as though there were no distinction between them. ‘Thus recently, while I was asleep, I came across a rather curious book in the open-air market at Saint-Malo’; he goes on to describe the book with great precision, the spine being formed by ‘a wooden gnome, whose white beard, clipped in the Assyrian manner, reached to his feet’. The finding and choosing of objects as an alternative to making them had been developed in Dada, especially by Marcel Duchamp, but whereas he claimed ‘indifference’, the point of the Surrealist object lay in its affective and psychic charge. The object might be found in a flea-market, like the spoon ending in a shoe, photographed by Man Ray, or it might be constructed. Some of the early works of Giacometti, associated with the movement in the early 1930s, should, for all the technical skill involved in their making, be thought of as ‘objects’ rather than sculptures in the normal sense of the term. Part of Dada's legacy to Surrealism was also this indifference to the traditional cult of painting. Louis Aragon wrote an essay entitled A Challenge to Painting in which he extolled the collages of Picasso and the ready-mades of Duchamp. An exhibition of Surrealist objects was held in Paris in 1936.

The most dramatic event for visual Surrealism at the end of the 1920s was the arrival of Salvador Dalí. Initially associated with the rival group around Bataille and Documents, he brought to Surrealism a dazzling technical skill, an extraordinary flair for publicity, and above all, an obsessive imagination. His paintings and flamboyant personality were increasingly to become the most public face of Surrealism, somewhat to the chagrin of Breton, who also strongly rejected his right-wing political stance, which included fascination with Hitler and support for Franco. Nonetheless Dalí's literal renderings of the dream experience, knowingly filtered through psychoanalytic theory, are now the movement's best known products.

In spite of Breton's authoritarian stance, the exact boundaries of Surrealism are not easy to draw. The Belgian Surrealist movement, with René Magritte at its centre, operated in a largely independent manner and was more concerned to undermine the bourgeois sense of the real than to probe the unconscious. It also tended to be far more orthodoxly Stalinist in its political line. Other artists, like Balthus, Paul Delvaux, or Frida Kahlo, have been claimed for Surrealism, were published in Surrealist journals, or admired by Breton, even if they did not necessarily subscribe to Surrealist thinking. Some publications, especially older ones, place Marc Chagall within the orbit of Surrealism, although the religious nature of much of his work is quite foreign to Surrealist values and his work deals with nostalgia and conscious memories more than the dream. Two special cases were Picasso and Duchamp, figures for whom Breton had such high regard that they were exempt from the usual vitriolic criticism when they failed to support fully his position.

The movement's influence spread widely in the 1930s. This was partly achieved through Surrealist exhibitions, an especially important one taking place in London at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 with the assistance of Herbert Read and Roland Penrose. Advanced British artists such as Paul Nash and Henry Moore were already influenced by Surrealism, but this exhibition, which coincided with increased political radicalization among the British avant-garde, brought wider public awareness of the ideology behind the art. Paradoxically, in Britain, this originally very urban movement led to new ways in representing the landscape. In a rather different category was the exhibition staged at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, entitled ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’. By incorporating Surrealism into a wider tradition of irrationality in modernist art, it provided an important alternative to the visions of the modern as abstract and mechanistic which had been presented by previous MoMA events such as ‘Machine Art’ and ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’, but it necessarily, and probably deliberately, diluted the political force of the movement. In 1938 the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris, a kind of environment in which the paintings were shown among coal sacks, brought further notoriety to the movement. Also significant in bringing Surrealism into the artistic mainstream was the journal Minotaure (1933–9), a far glossier affair than its predecessors and a publication which, to some extent, succeeded in reconciling Surrealism's warring factions. The political stance of Surrealism shifted during the decade. Breton broke with the Communist Party in the mid-1930s in protest against political repression in the Soviet Union, especially its imposition of Socialist Realism, although he remained committed to Marxism and political revolt. He met the dissident Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1938; the upshot was the publication of the Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art. This was nominally signed by Breton and Diego Rivera, although the real authors were Trotsky and Breton.

Paris remained the centre of Surrealism until the Second World War, when the emigration of many artists to the USA made New York its new hub. The exhibition ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ was held there in 1942. It had a spectacular installation by Duchamp in which the entire room was criss-crossed by string, an early example of this form of art, and presented Surrealism as a very broad church indeed, with works by Chagall and even Mondrian. Through the work of Gorky and Pollock, the process of ‘automatism’ became a crucial component of Abstract Expressionism.

Surrealism lost much of its prestige in post-war Paris. Nonetheless, an exhibition at the Galerie Maeght, Paris, in 1947, organized by Breton and Duchamp, reunited some of the original members. A further exhibition, dedicated to EROS, was held in Paris in 1959; this included American artists such as Louise Nevelson and Robert Rauschenberg, to emphasize the continuing influence of the movement. Some of the most significant artists in post-war Paris, including Giacometti and Dubuffet, had strong Surrealist backgrounds. The impact of Surrealism on younger Parisian artists could be found in the strange world evoked by semi-abstract means in the works of Wols, Yolande Fièvre, and Bernard Réquichot, or the Yugoslav-born Dado (1933–2010), who transformed the traumatic memories of war into compositions in which human and animal, organic and inorganic, merge in an appropriately Surrealist manner. Surrealism did not so much die as fracture into a number of distinct tendencies and groupings, such as COBRA and Lettrism, which itself became one of the sources of the Situationist International. The artistic legacy of Surrealism can be found even today, for instance in the ‘object sculptures’ of Richard Wentworth or the bizarre juxtapositions of images surviving from the wreckage of Communism in the paintings of Neo Rauch.

The term ‘surreal’ has entered ordinary language as a way of describing anything strange. ‘An almost surreal experience’ is liable to be heard from members of the public in any news programme. This can lead to a simple equation between Surrealism and the unusual, which tends to obscure the real political and artistic force of the original movement. The moral and political dimension of Surrealism has remained controversial. Some feminist critics, such as Xavière Gauthier in her study Surréalisme et sexualité (1971), have alleged that Surrealist artists objectified women. In response to this, there has been considerable research into the contributions of women artists to the movement, although by and large these participated in the later stages and were not the innovators. Surrealist politics have continued to be debated with passion, as happened in the wake of an article by the French art historian Jean Clair (Le Monde, 21 November 2001), in which he accused the movement of complicity in the demoralization of the West. Written in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, this argument was widely condemned as ahistorical in its ignoring of the context of the anti-colonial politics of the inter-war period, but it did have the effect of taking Surrealism out of the realm of the high cultural reliquary and drawing attention back to its iconoclastic origins.

Further Reading

Durozoi (2005)Find this resource:

Green (2000)Find this resource:

Krauss (1986)Find this resource:

Mundy (2000)Find this resource: