AskDefine | Define surrealism

Dictionary Definition

surrealism n : a 20th century movement of artists and writers (developing out of Dadaism) who used fantastic images and incongruous juxtapositions in order to represent unconscious thoughts and dreams

User Contributed Dictionary

English

Pronunciation

sur-REE-ahl-izm

Hyphenation

sur·re·al·ism

Noun

surrealism
  1. An artistic movement and an aesthetic philosophy that aims for the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative powers of the subconscious.

Related terms

Translations

artistic movement and aesthetic philosophy

Extensive Definition

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early-1920s, and is best known for the visual artworks and writings of the group members. The 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, and leader André Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement. From the Dada activities of World War I Surrealism was formed with the most important center of the movement in Paris. From the 1920s on it spread around the globe, eventually affecting the visual arts, literature, film, music, and video games of many countries and languages, as well as political thought and practice and philosophy and social theory.

Founding of the movement

World War I scattered the writers and artists who had been based in Paris, and while away from Paris many involved themselves in the Dada movement, believing that excessive rational thought and bourgeois values had brought the terrifying conflict upon the world. The Dadaists protested with anti-rational anti-art gatherings, performances, writing and art works. After the war when they returned to Paris the Dada activities continued.
During the war Surrealism's soon-to-be leader André Breton, who had trained in medicine and psychiatry, served in a neurological hospital where he used the psychoanalytic methods of Sigmund Freud with soldiers who were shell-shocked. He also met the young writer Jacques Vaché and felt that he was the spiritual son of writer and 'pataphysician Alfred Jarry, and he came to admire the young writer's anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition. Later Breton wrote, "In literature, I am 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 the Dada activities and also 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 "automatic" writings, as well as accounts of dreams, in Littérature. Breton and Soupault delved deeper into automatism and wrote The Magnetic Fields (Les Champs Magnétiques) in 1919. They continued the automatic writing, gathering more artists and writers into the group, and coming to believe that automatism was a better tactic for societal change than the Dada attack on prevailing values. In addition to Breton, Aragon and Soupault the original Surrealists included Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Jacques Baron, Max Morise, Marcel Noll, Pierre Naville, Roger Vitrac, Simone Breton, Gala Éluard, Max Ernst, 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 felt that while Dada rejected categories and labels, 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 hidden unconscious was of the utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination. However, they embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness or darkness of the mind. (Later the idiosyncratic Salvador Dalí explained it as: "There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.")
The group aimed to revolutionize human experience, including its personal, cultural, social, and political aspects, by freeing people from what they saw as false rationality, and restrictive customs and structures. Breton proclaimed, the true aim of Surrealism is "long live the social revolution, and it alone!" To this goal, at various times surrealists aligned with communism and anarchism.
In 1924 they declared their intents and philosophy with the issuance of the first Surrealist Manifesto. That same year they established the Bureau of Surrealist Research, and began publishing the journal La Révolution surréaliste.

Surrealist Manifesto

Breton wrote the manifesto of 1924 (another was issued in 1929) that defines the purposes of the group and includes citations of the influences on Surrealism, examples of Surrealist works and discussion of Surrealist automatism. He defined Surrealism as:

La Révolution surréaliste

Shortly after releasing the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the Surrealists published the inaugural issue of La Révolution surréaliste and publication continued into 1929. Pierre Naville and Benjamin Péret were the initial directors of the publication and modeled the format of the journal on the conservative scientific review La Nature. The format was deceiving, and to the Surrealists' delight La Révolution surréaliste was consistently scandalous and revolutionary. The journal focused on writing with most pages densely packed with columns of text, but also included reproductions of art, among them works by Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, André Masson and Man Ray.

Bureau of Surrealist Research

The Bureau of Surrealist Research (Centrale Surréaliste) was the Paris office where the Surrealist writers and artists gathered to meet, hold discussions, and conduct interviews with the goal of investigating speech under trance.

Expansion

The movement in the mid-1920s was characterized by meetings in cafes where the Surrealists played collaborative drawing games and discussed the theories of Surrealism. The Surrealists developed techniques such as automatic drawing. (See Surrealist techniques and games.)
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 joined Surrealism including Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Enrico Donati, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine Hugo, Méret Oppenheim, Toyen, Grégoire Michonze, and Luis Buñuel. Though Breton admired Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and courted them to join the movement, they remained peripheral.
More writers also joined, including former Dada leader Tristan Tzara, René Char, Georges Sadoul, André Thirion and Maurice Heine.
In 1925 an autonomous Surrealist group formed in Brussels becoming official in 1926. The group included the musician, poet and artist E.L.T. Mesens, painter and writer René Magritte, Paul Nougé, Marcel Lecomte, Camille Goemans, 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. with The Kiss (Le Baiser) from 1927 by 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, where as 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 poete) 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, and his novel Hebdomeros presents a series of dreamscapes with an unusual use of punctuation, syntax and grammar designed to create a particular atmosphere and frame around its images. His images, including set designs for the Ballets Russes, would create a decorative form of visual Surrealism, and he would be an influence on the two artists who would be even more closely associated with Surrealism in the public mind: Salvador Dalí and Magritte. He would, however, leave the Surrealist group in 1928.
In 1924, Miro and Masson applied Surrealism theory to painting explicitly leading to the La Peinture Surrealiste exhibition.
Breton published Surrealism and Painting in 1928 which summarized the movement to that point, though he continued to update the work until the 1960s.
Major exhibitions in the 1920s
  • 1925 - La Peinture Surrealiste - The first ever Surrealist exhibition at Gallerie Pierre in Paris. Displayed works by Masson, Man Ray, 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), techniques from Dada, such as photomontage were used.
  • Galerie Surréaliste opened on March 26, 1926 with an exhibition by Man Ray.

Writing continues

The first Surrealist work, according to leader Breton, was Magnetic Fields (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 itself — 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 "Le 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 Crevel's Mr. Knife Miss Fork (1931), Aragon's Irene's Cunt (1927), Breton's Sur la route de San Romano (1948), Peret's Death to the Pigs (1929), and Artaud's Le Pese-Nerfs (1926).
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.

Films by Surrealists

Early films by Surrealists include:

Music by Surrealists

In the 1920s several composers were influenced by Surrealism, or by individuals in the Surrealist movement. Among them were Bohuslav Martinů, André Souris, 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 Nouge'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 have been interested in—and found parallels to—Surrealism in the improvisation of jazz and the blues. Surrealists such as Paul Garon have written articles and full-length books on the subject. Jazz and blues musicians have occasionally reciprocated this interest. For example, the 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition included performances by 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 political and in other places still, Surrealist praxis looked to supersize both the arts and politics. During the 1930s the Surrealist idea spread from Europe to North America, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and throughout Asia. As both an artistic idea and as an ideology of political change.
Politically, Surrealism was ultra-leftist, 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 Peret, Mary Low, and Juan Breá, aligned with forms of left communism. 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. Péret, Low, and 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. 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 Cesaire along with René Ménil, Lucie Thésée, Aristide Maugée and others, was first published in 1940.
It is interesting to note that when 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; he met Frida Kahlo and saw her paintings for the first time. Breton declared Kahlo to be an "innate" Surrealist painter.

Internal politics

In 1929 the satellite group around 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: Leiris, Limbour, Morise, Baron, Queneau, Prévert, Desnos, Masson and Boiffard. They moved to the periodical Documents, edited by Georges Bataille, whose anti-idealist materialism produced a hybrid Surrealism exposed the base instincts of humans.
Other members were ousted over the years for a variety of infractions, both political and personal, and others left of to pursue creativity of their own style.

Golden age

Throughout the 1930s, Surrealism continued to become more visible to the public at large. A Surrealist group developed in Britain 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.
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 by stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance, in order to create a compelling image that was beyond ordinary formal organization, in order to evoke empathy from the viewer.
1931 marked 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)http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/movement_work_md_Surrealism_92_2.html 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 are 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".
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 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 International Surrealist Exhibition 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 to do so. At the exhibition's entrance he placed Salvador Dalí's 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. He 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,http://www.toutfait.com/issues/volume2/issue_4/interviews/hirschhorn/popup_8.html so patrons were given flashlights with which to view the art. The floor was carpeted with dead leaves, ferns and grasses and the aroma of roasting coffee filled the air. Much to the Surrealists' satisfaction the exhibition scandalized the viewers.
Antonin Artaud, one of the original Surrealists, rejected Western theatre as a perversion of the original intent of theatre, which he felt should be a religious and mystical experience. He thought that rational discourse comprised "falsehood and illusion," which embodied the worst of discourse. Endeavouring to create a new theatrical form that would be immediate and direct, linking the unconscious minds of performers and spectators, a sort of ritual event, Artaud created the Theatre of Cruelty where emotions, feelings, and the metaphysical were expressed not through text or dialogue but physically, creating a mythological, archetypal, allegorical vision, closely related to the world of dreams.
These sentiments also led to the Theatre of the Absurd whose inspiration came, in part, from silent film and comedy, as well as the tradition of verbal nonsense in early sound film (Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers).

Surrealism and comedy

Criticism of Surrealism

Feminist

Feminists have in the past critiqued the Surrealist movement, claiming that it is fundamentally a male movement and a male fellowship, despite the occasional few celebrated woman Surrealist painters and poets. They believe that it adopts typical male attitudes toward women, such as worshipping them symbolically through stereotypes and sexist norms. Women are often made to represent higher values and transformed into objects of desire and of mystery. One of the pioneers in feminist critique of Surrealism was Xavière Gauthier. Her book Surréalisme et sexualité (1971) inspired further important scholarship related to the marginalization of women in relation to "the avant-garde." However these criticisms are perhaps more so of other avant-garde movements like Situationism, where women had a much more subordinate role to the men. Also, despite the theoretical objectification, Surrealism as a living praxis allowed room for women artists and painters in particular to work and produce work on their own terms.

Freudian

Freud initiated the psychoanalytic critique of Surrealism with his remark that what interested him most about the Surrealists was not their unconscious but their conscious. His meaning was that the manifestations of and experiments with psychic automatism highlighted by Surrealists as the liberation of the unconscious were highly structured by ego activity, similar to the activities of the dream censorship in dreams, and that therefore it was in principle a mistake to regard Surrealist poems and other art works as direct manifestations of the unconscious, when they were indeed highly shaped and processed by the ego. In this view, the Surrealists may have been producing great works, but they were products of the conscious, not the unconscious mind, and they deceived themselves with regard to what they were doing with the unconscious. In psychoanalysis proper, the unconscious does not just express itself automatically but can only be uncovered through the analysis of resistance and transference in the psychoanalytic process.

Situationist

While some individuals and groups on the core and fringes of the Situationist International were Surrealists themselves, others were very critical of the movement, or indeed what remained of the movement in the late 1950s and '60s. The Situationist International could therefore be seen as a break and continuation of the Surrealist praxis.

Timeline of Membership

Surrealist publications
  • Acéphale, a surrealist review created by Georges Bataille, published from 1936 to 1939
  • Documents, a surrealist journal edited by Georges Bataille from 1929 to 1930
  • Minotaure, a primarily surrealist-oriented publication founded by Albert Skira, published in Paris from 1933 to 1939
  • La Révolution surréaliste, a seminal Surrealist publication founded by André Breton, published in Paris from 1924 to 1929
  • View, an American art magazine, primarily covering avant-garde and surrealist art, published from 1940 to 1947
  • VVV, a New York journal published by émigré European surrealists from 1942 through 1944

References

André Breton
  • Breton, André, Manifestoes of Surrealism containing the first, second and introduction to a possible third manifesto, the novel The Soluble Fish, and political aspects of the Surrealist movement. ISBN 0-472-17900-4 .
  • Breton, André, What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings of André Breton. ISBN 0-87348-822-9 .
  • Breton, André, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism (Gallimard 1952) (Paragon House English rev. ed. 1993). ISBN 1-56924-970-9.
  • Breton, André, The Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism, reprinted in:
    • Bonnet, Marguerite, ed. (1988). Oeuvres complètes, 1:328. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.
Other sources
  • Alexandrian, Sarane. Surrealist Art London: Thames & Hudson, 1970.
  • Appollinaire, Guillaume 1917, 1991. Program note for Parade, printed in Oeuvres en prose complètes, 2:865-866, Pierre Caizergues and Michel Décaudin, eds. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.
  • Brotchie, Alastair and Gooding, Mel, eds. A Book of Surrealist Games Berkeley, CA: Shambhala, 1995. ISBN 1-57062-084-9.
  • Caws, Mary Ann Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology 2001, MIT Press.
  • Durozoi, Gerard, History of the Surrealist Movement Translated by Alison Anderson University of Chicago Press. 2004. ISBN 0-226-17411-5.
  • Lewis, Helena. Dada Turns Red. Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Ednburgh Press, 1990.
  • Lewis, Helena. The Politics Of Surrealism 1988
  • Low Mary, Breá Juan, Red Spanish Notebook, City Light Books, Sans Francisco, 1979, ISBN 087286-132-5 http://www.benjamin-peret.org/benjamin-peret/bibliotheque/carnets-de-la-guerre-d_espagne.html
  • Melly, George Paris and the Surrealists Thames & Hudson. 1991.
  • Moebius, Stephan. Die Zauberlehrlinge. Soziologiegeschichte des Collège de Sociologie. Konstanz: UVK 2006. About the College of Sociology, its members and sociological impacts.
  • Nadeau, Maurice. History of Surrealism Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1989. ISBN 0-674-40345-2.

External links

André Breton writings

Overview websites

Surrealism and politics

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