We often use the term “surreal” to describe the exotic and strange. This characterization could be correct, but Surrealism is certainly more than that.
The early origins of Surrealism, which “officially” began as a movement in 1924 in Paris, can be traced back to the Dada movement. Indeed, the First World War, as a deep trauma that haunted Europe’s intellectuals, founded the two movements in succession: If governments called rational can give rise to all of this horror, then a scourge plagues the mind and crushes language, its foremost instrument.
The two movements thus reserved a place for themselves in the history of Western irrationality. But while the Dada movement remained one of demolition and destruction, Surrealism presented itself as also having something positive to put forward: yes, it opposes the bourgeoisie and Catholicism and denounces patriotism and the establishment, raising the banner of scandalous behavior, but it is also a model of life and an attempt to change the world, promoting itself as a philosophy rather than a mere school of art and literature.
What is certain is that Surrealism, a word of French origin that means above (sur) reality that was coined by the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917, is an aesthetic approach to dealing with the trauma of war through which suffering is channeled into creative pursuits. In this regard, the influence of Sigmund Freud, whose theories were making waves around Europe, was decisive.
A community of creatives exploring new paths rallied around the French writer, poet, and theorist Andre Breton. Captivated by Freud, Breton and his friends found that the work emerges “automatically” when consciousness does not interfere with it, producing a transparent image of one’s real psychological state.
Freudian dream theory seemed an extremely apt source of inspiration for the Surrealist project, as dreams are a direct manifestation of the unconscious, in its desires, fears, and ideas, whereby figures of speech and metaphors circuitously reveal our feelings and experiences.
Thus, the Surrealists wanted to access, through “automatic” writing and painting, the unconscious sections of the mind and discover “man’s real nature.” Some of them even took drugs and underwent hypnotherapy to this end.
And because scenes that emerge from a compilation of opposites are seen only in a dream, the Surrealists’ paintings of dreams, especially those of the Spanish artist Salvador Dali, depicted an irrational mix of subjects imbued with connotative (mostly sexual) symbolism. This blending of opposites can also be seen in the paintings of the Belgian Rene Magritte or the metaphysical paintings, with their courtyards and buildings, of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico.
That is why the Surrealists undertook difficult exercises that facilitate access to the unconscious. Automatism was the most important of these exercises; that is, improvisation that is neither planned nor thought out beforehand, meaning that it sidelines our conscious mind and gets rid of our demands for order and meaning, leaving us to focus, instead, on instinct and immediate occurrences. When we close our eyes to the world and retreat deep inside ourselves, the elements of artistic and literary works come to us in the form of precise images that have been cleansed of reality.
Automatism gave rise to the principle of Juxtaposition before it was subsequently appropriated by the postmodernists. Juxtaposition refers to works that place subjects that do not come together in reality side by side, creating a visual contrast, as well as making the reader or spectator laugh, anxious, or perhaps unsettled. From Juxtaposition arose Assemblage, art that assembles different things together into a painting or sculpture, which was also a novel approach at the time. Many of the Surrealists arranged their subjects such that once they were placed together, they produced no rational meaning.
Thus, Dali put a lobster over a phone, and minor modifications were made to cheap everyday commodities, mirroring the broad industrial production of the time and depicting these items in bizarre or ridiculous ways. And so, the German artist Max Ernst, in “The Triumph of Surrealism,” painted colored shapes from which a small monster emerges. Magritte called his pipe “This is not a pipe,” referring to the fact that it is only a picture of the pipe.
Dali’s painting, “The Persistence of Memory,” is considered among the most representative of Surrealism, as the betrayal of images peaks with its melted and twisted clocks, and its optical illusions become a state of delirium that Dali completed with his style, appearance, and some of his strange aphorisms. Spanish artist Pablo Picasso joined the Surrealists in their early days, and it is with them that he developed his sensitivity to the primitive, the erotic, and the violent.
However, if Freud’s original goal was therapeutic, the Surrealists did not care about the therapeutic side of psychoanalysis. Their concerns were limited to exploring humanity’s creative potential. In turn, the founder of psychoanalysis did not respond to Breton’s invitation to write the introduction to his anthology of dreams. In 1921, when the founder of Surrealism decided to meet Freud in Vienna, the latter showed little enthusiasm.
The Surrealists sought to give the theories of psychoanalysis a poetic expression through art. And so, they produced many great works that were influenced by a long list of figures and themes that included Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, de Sade, Jewish Kabbalism, as well as Einstein’s theory of relativity, primitive art, the second-hand market, and other sources.
The movement was not political, and early on, the Surrealists opposed the Russian Revolution just as they hated bourgeois society. However, their penchant for rebellion, which was not lacking in ambiguity and generalities, created some intersection, sometimes broad, with Communist and Marxist creative symbols.
Thus, many Surrealists came to identify with Communism, and in 1927 Berton and the poets Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon joined the French Communist Party. However, Berton and Eluard were kicked out in 1933 after expressing views on “proletarian literature” that diverged from those of the party, though the latter eventually returned to the fold. At the same time the model that was being consolidated in the Soviet Union killed any prospect of the Communist and Surrealist models accepting one another.
However, Berton and Leon Trotsky, the exiled Communist dissident, co-wrote “The Manifesto for An Independent Revolutionary Art” in 1938, albeit with the Communist Mexican painter Diego Rivera signing his name instead of Trotsky. The manifesto ends by defining “our aims” as:
“Art’s independence - for the revolution.
Revolution - for the total liberation of art.”
In the meantime, Surrealism, which was born of the First World War, was waning and in retreat before the outbreak of the Second World War. However, its impact remains palpable to this day, just like that left by preceding and subsequent movements that were simultaneously irrational and creative.