Upon beginning this project, I struggled vainly, trying to get a firm
grasp on what “Surrealism” is. I wanted a definition that was clear defined
and presented with the definite boundaries of all that it is and is not composed
of. With further learning and growth on my own part, I have found that this is
Surrealism is rooted in the subconscious, in the thoughts, yet the “thought” of Surrealism is one that can never be completely grasped. This is part of the controversial beauty that lies in the heart of the Surrealist.
Although the Surrealist movement has impacted the world through many outlets and in many powerful ways, it is often overlooked and disregarded by society. Until I began this project I knew little about it. What I hope to share here is what the Surrealist movement is, why the movement began and who is accredited with starting it. Also, I want to share what affect the movement has had on me, what affect it may have on the open mind, and where the movement might go from here.
“So what is Surrealism?” many people will say upon hearing the term. Surrealism: (n.) – a style of art and literature developed principally in the 20th century, stressing the subconscious or non-rational significance of imagery arrived at by automatism or the exploitation of chance effects, unexpected juxtapositions, etc.
However, I have learned it is foolish to accept such a simple answer to this question. “It is better to ask ‘What is the sound of two hands clapping’” than to ask what surrealism is, it has been said, and this rings true.
The 20th century literary and artistic movement developed surrealism. It started in Europe during World War I and really flourished between this and the Second World War. Finding its roots in many things, it is primarily a descendent of the Dadaists and the Dada movement.
Beginning in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916, Dada began as a reaction against the war and tradition. The Dada philosophy was of absurdity, meaninglessness and a negation of everything previously considered “normal”.
Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is
Dada; Protest by fists with all
one’s might in taking destructive action is Dada;...abolition of
logic...is Dada;...abolition of memory is
Dada; abolition of property is Dada; abolition of history is Dada;
abolition of property is Dada; abolition of the future is Dada;
absolute and indisputable god-like faith in every product of immediate
spontaneity is Dada.
" -Tristian Tzara
The numbers of Dada followers
increased as the war gave many a feeling of despair, destruction and
disillusionment. Dada served as a means of escape. Seeking relief from the war,
artists and intellectuals alike began putting on Dada performances of which the
primary goal was to shock their audiences. The artist’s satisfaction in these
came from enraging their observers.
After the war, the basic Dada philosophy began to change. Andre Breton
became a follower and began to gain power within the groups members. It became
obvious that Breton had a different vision for the group that that of it’s
original leader, Tristian Tzara.
The main goal of the Dadaists was to stand against society’s standards
of what was normal or appropriate and hoped to present to the world an alternate
form of logic. Tzara believed in maintaining a nihilistic point, while Breton
saw the potential for the Dadaists and wanted the movement to have more
Dadaism divided into mini-groups and began disintegrating. However, with
his ideas and momentum gained from the Dadaists, Andre Breton split from the
group when he realized that it didn’t have the potential to create the
large-scale changes in French bourgeois culture that he wanted. (The Dada
movement was declared dead a few years after Breton’s departure.) Breton
started what soon became known as the Surrealist movement. A work called The
Magnetic Fields by Breton and Philippe Soupault appeared in 1919 and is now
known as the first Surrealist work. Breton, who was the movement’s principal
theorist, then published the first Surrealist Manifesto in October of
1924. That same month, the Bureau of Surrealist Research opened and the premiere
issue of La Revolution surrealiste appeared. From here, Surrealism
Before becoming involved in the Surrealist movement and eventually
dedicating his life’s work to it, Breton had a completely different plan for
his life. He was trying to become a doctor, working in a hospital in Nantes
during World War I. The death and suffering that was present there had a
profound impact on him. He soon gave up this career to fully devote himself to
the work of an artist.
Surrealism was, to Breton, the key to a social revolution. He was very
much influenced by the new theories of Freud, and ideas of the human conscious
were brought into the Surrealist philosophy.
Like Dadaists, Surrealists still believed that what the world needed was
an alternate form of logic, due to the unacceptable condition with which it was
in. Unlike Dadaists, Surrealism’s focus or emphasis was not on negation or on
the destructive criticism of the world, but on positive expression. According to
Breton, Surrealism was “ a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms
of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined
to the everyday rational world in an absolute reality, a surreality.’”
Surrealism sought to bring about freedom and liberation of the thoughts and
unconscious “dreamland” that exists in al of us. The Surrealist believes
that it is in this realm of thought that differences vanish, contradictions
become complements, and all grows to a coherent unity. Here, there is no class,
there is only thought, and all is placed on an equal plane. Man is thus
liberated from the confinements of this physical world – be it poverty, or
captivity, or wealthiness. In thought, all becomes on and art and truth lie
there. The Surrealists thus sought to explore the land of thought and
imagination and bring it to life through artistic expression.
Breton, during a lecture given in Brussels on June first, 1934, at a
public meeting, brought much clarity to the aim of the Surrealists. “In
capitalistic society, hypocrisy and cynicism have now lost all sense of
proportion and are becoming more outrageous every day.” He went on to say
“…today, more than ever before, the liberation of the mind, demands
as primary condition, in the opinion of the Surrealists, the express aim of
Surrealism, the liberation of man, which implies that we must struggle
with our fetters with all the energy of despair; that today more than ever
before the surrealists entirely rely for the bringing about of the liberation of
man upon the proletarian Revolution.”
The Surrealists were in direct revolt with the 19th century
ideals, believing that society was too reason based and ignored the creative
side. The movement rejected and rebelled against the Western culture, as well as
the ideals and morals of bourgeois society. With the Surrealists ideas, it is
easy to see why. In a commercially driven, capitalist society, Surrealism from
the start seemed to be up against the rest of the world.
As quickly as our thoughts travel, so has Surrealism. Just as it was
established, it began to change and develop and explore lands never before
discovered, all with the exploration of thought and dream.
The Surrealist must be able to access the realm of the subconscious in
order to get pure surrealistic art. While there are many ways to let your
subconscious speak, there are two that are most famous:
Automatism – “the act of free writing or painting,
allowing your mind to drift off and say anything it wishes without thinking
Critical Paranoia – “forcing your mind into a waking
Through these methods the Surrealists started a new era in art and
literature and poetry, among other aspects of the art world. Surrealism is, in
fact, credited with being the forefather of modern abstract art.
The Surrealists believed that their art is the method through which the
minds of people use to communicate with each other. Looking at or reading
surrealistic art allows the subconscious to communicate with that of the artist,
thus gaining new thoughts or ideas in the mind. These ideas are then passed on
to still more people through the observer’s art and expression. Thus
communication plays a large role in the Surrealist movement. (We will se more of
communication, or lack of it, and the effect it had on the decline of the
movement further ahead.)
Surrealists studied ideas in the subconscious to gain truth. The unknown
of the mind could become known through art and writings and it needed to be
expressed so as to interpret its meaning and truth. Surrealism is “to make the
abnormal look normal and the normal look abnormal,” Salvador Dali has said.
More than finding freedom, the Surrealists wanted to discover how this
freedom was found – through what means. They wanted to find and express
thought as purely as one thinks it, in an uncontaminated form. They sought a
childlike innocence in this expression. They celebrated various art forms, all
in an untainted expression. The movement became a means of escape for its
members, as they lost a sense of reality in the land of the imagination.
It was impossible to avoid the fact that Surrealists were making a mark.
This fact was also displayed in the fact that Surrealism was banned in
Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain, Hirohito’s Japan, and
Mao’s China, among many other dictatorships. For a movement seeking liberation
and freedom, Surrealism was criticized, ridiculed, overlooked and misinterpreted
by people and the press alike. It has been said that Surrealism “remains the
best-hated and most-lied-about ‘cultural’ movement of our time.” In a
capitalist society, this comes as no surprise, for it is capitalism that the
By 1933, Surrealism was growing and entering a phase of worldwide
expansion. Surrealist groups were being founded everywhere from Great Britain to
Japan. In 1935, International Bulletin of Surrealism was published and
the movement was flourishing. However, this success was short lived.
As World War II broke out, many people crucial to the movement left
Europe for the United States. While they continued to practice and publish
within the movement, we will see here how a lack of communication took much of
the fervor from the Surrealists. Breton himself went to New York, however
America in general wasn’t responsive to the Surrealists. Added to this, Breton
refused to learn English and here began the steady decline of the movement.
The United States does not have as many means for communication as
Europe, as in cafés and the like. Also, many of the Surrealist artists were
dispersed across the U.S., and the distance was straining.
Lack of communication and conversation inhibits the growth of ideas and
the furthering of personal and worldwide knowledge. So as disagreements arose,
the physical distance and lack of speech aggravated them. Members were leaving
to start their own groups, one in which they could selfishly be in
charge. Abstract Expressionism was beginning to make an impact in art at this
time, and Surrealism in Europe had almost completely diminished. These things
became the main factors in the dwindling of the Surrealist movement.
Breton returned to Paris in 1945, and by this time Surrealism was already
being viewed as a thing of the past – the movement had been declared dead in
1941. Maurice Nadeau published Histoire du surrealisme at this time, in
which he cemented Surrealism in the past. With the death of Andre Breton in
1966, many felt Surrealism was now pointless.
We see that individualism can be overstressed at the cost of the growth
that comes from conversation (intellectual or not) and communication with
others. This exchange between people arouses something within the subconscious
that causes growth and expansion of the mind. We miss this opportunity for
growth when we limit ourselves to merely our own opinions and our own thoughts.
Gaps are thus furthered between ourselves and those surrounding us, whether in
individual misunderstandings or cultural wars.
In spite of the “disappearance” of Surrealism, many strongly oppose
the thought that the movement ever died. With groups still active throughout the
world, even in Chicago, it seems the Surrealist movement truly didn’t die, but
continues to develop. While it may not stand where it’s founding members had
envisioned, its existence is undeniable, even on a worldwide level. The groups
in many different countries have differing cultural interpretations of various
aspects of Surrealist ideas, but this displays the unity and coherence that can
exist between different lifestyles. Contemporary Surrealists seem to work in a
silent contentment, believing in their cause and ideals in the face of ridicule.
Will they make an impact? Perhaps that is up to us. With laziness
becoming a prevalent attitude in society, and the satisfaction that many seem to
be gaining from petty, non-intellectual outlets, will the Surrealists ever with
their battle? Will any be willing to challenge their minds by exploring new
interpretations of art and idea, seeking for a greater communication between
people? We can bring about a change.
While I may not fully agree with everything that Surrealism represents
and stands for, I do believe there is much truth to be gained from their ideas.
The basic principles behind Surrealism can be brought to a new level. We can
look inside our thoughts and dreams to find that which we truly desire and
strive to bring these things to reality – not necessarily through a medium of
painting or literature, but to life. We can seek our bliss. What we dream we can
do can become our reality through realization and concentration n that
which we attain to. We can “consciously develop our human potential”.
Surrealism, I feel, will always exist in some form. Any time we find
ourselves dreaming or thinking, and then growing from our contemplation, it is,
perhaps, a “surreal” experience. Let us explore our imaginations and allow
ourselves to be influenced by art and culture and new ideas, and then grow in
understanding. Continue to explore your dreams.