Surrealism is a philosophy, a cultural and
artistic movement, and a term used to describe unexpected juxtapositions.
Philosophy. The philosophy of Surrealism aims for liberation of
the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative faculties of
the "unconscious mind", thus bringing about personal,
cultural, political and social revolution. At various times surrealist
groups aligned with communism and anarchism to advance radical political,
as well as social and artistic, change.
Cultural and artistic movement. The Surrealism movement originated
in post-World War I European avant-garde literary and art circles,
and many early Surrealists were associated with the earlier Dada
movement. Movement participants sought to revolutionize life with
actions intended to bring about change in accordance with Surrealism
philosophy. While the movement's most important center was Paris,
it spread throughout Europe and to North America during the course
of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Some historians mark the end of the
movement at World War II, some with the death of André Breton,
while others believe that Surrealism continues as an identifiable
Unexpected juxtapostion. The word "surreal" is often used
to describe unexpected juxtapositions or use of non-sequiturs in
art or dialog, particuarly where such juxtapositions argue for their
own self-consistency. This usage is often independent of any direct
connection to Surrealism the movement, and is used in both formal
and informal contexts.
The term Surrealism was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire to in the
program notes describing Parade (1917), a collaboration of Jean
Cocteau, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso and Léonide Massine:
From this new alliance, for until now stage sets and costumes on
one side and choreography on the other had only a sham bond between
them, there has come about, in 'Parade', a kind of super-realism
('sur-réalisme'), in which I see the starting point of a
series of manifestations of this new spirit ('esprit nouveau').'
Surrealist philosophy emerged around 1920, partly as an outgrowth
of Dada, with French writer Breton as its leader.
In Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 he defines Surrealism
Dictionary: SurrealISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one
proposes to express, either verbally, or 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 all other psychic
mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the
principal problems of life."
By Breton's admission, however, as well as by the subsequent developments,
these definitions were capable of considerable expansion.
While Dada rejected categories and labels and was rooted in negative
response to the First World War, Surrealism advocates the idea that
ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but
that the sense of arrangement must be open to the full range of
imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic. (The three Hegelian
dialectical stages of development are: 1) a thesis, giving rise
to its reaction, 2) an antithesis which contradicts or negates the
thesis, and 3) the tension between the two being resolved by means
of a synthesis.)
Surrealists diagnosis of the "problem" of the realism
and capitalist civilisation is a restrictive overlay of false rationality,
including social and academic convention, on the free functioning
of the instinctual urges of the human mind.
Surrealist philosophy connects with the theories of psychiatrist
Sigmund Freud. Freud asserted that unconscious thoughts (the thoughts
one is not aware of) motivate human behavior, and he advocated free
association (uncensored expression) and dream analysis to reveal
It is through free association and dream interpretation, that Surrealists
believe the wellspring of imagination and creativity can be accessed.
Surrealism also embraces idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea
of an underlying madness or darkness of the mind. Salvador Dalí,
who was quite idiosycratic, explained it as, "The only difference
between myself and a madman is I am not MAD!"
Surrealists promote looking to primitive art as an example of expression
that is not self-censored.
The radical aim of Surrealism is to revolutionize human experience,
including its personal, cultural, social, and political aspects,
by freeing people from what is seen as false rationality, and restrictive
customs and structures. As Breton proclaimed, the true aim of Surrealism
is "long live the social revolution, and it alone!"
To this goal, at at various times Surrealists have aligned with
communism and anarchism.
Not all Surrealists subscribe to all facets of the philosophy.
Historically many were not interested in politcal matters, and this
lack of interest manifested rifts in the Surrealism movement.
By the turn of the 21st century, Surrealist philosophy varied amongst
Surrealist groups around the globe.
History of Surrealism
Cover of the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste,
December 1924.Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 and the publication
of the magazine La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist
Revolution) marked the beginning of the Surrealism as a public agitation.
Five years earlier, Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote the first
"automatic book" (spontaneously written), Les Champs Magnétiques.
By December of 1924, the publication La Révolution surréaliste
edited by Pierre Naville and Benjamin Perét and later by
Breton, was started. Also, a Bureau of Surrealist Research began
in Paris and was at one time, under the direction of Antonin Artaud.
In 1926, Louis Aragon wrote Le Paysan de Paris, following the appearance
of many Surrealist books, poems, pamphlets, automatic texts and
theoretical works published by the Surrealists, including those
by René Crevel.
Many of the popular artists in Paris throughout the 1920s and 1930s
were Surrealists, including René Magritte, Joan Miró,
Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine Hugo,
Méret Oppenheim, Man Ray, Toyen and Yves Tanguy. Though Breton
adored Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, and courted them to join
the movement, they did not join.
The Surrealists developed techniques such as automatic drawing
(developed by André Masson), automatic painting, decalcomania,
frottage, fumage, grattage and parsemage that became significant
parts of Surrealist practice. (Automatism was later adapted to the
Games such as the exquisite corpse also assumed a great importance
Although sometimes considered exclusively French, Surrealism was
international from the beginning, with both the Belgian and Czech
groups developing early; the Czech group continues uninterrupted
to this day. Some of what have been described as the most significant
Surrealist theorists such as Karel Teige from Czechoslovakia, Shuzo
Takiguchi from Japan, Octavio Paz from Mexico, also Aime Cesaire
and Rene Menil from Martinique, who both started the Surrealist
journal Tropiques in 1940, have hailed from other countries. The
most radical of Surrealist methods have also hailed from countries
other than France, for example, the technique of cubomania was invented
by Romanian Surrealist Gherasim Luca.
Interwar Surrealism: Centrality of Breton
Paul Éluard and André Breton. (Man Ray. Private collection.)Breton,
as the leader of the Surrealist movement, not only published its
most thorough explanations of its techniques, aims and ideas, but
was the individual who drew in, and expelled, writers, artists and
thinkers. Through the interwar period he formed the focus of Surrealist
activity in Paris, and his writings were enormously influential
in spreading Surrealism as a body of thought, in such works Nadja
(1928), the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), Communicating Vessels
(1932), and Mad Love (1937).
To further the revolutionary aim of Surrealism, in 1927 Breton
and others joined the Communist Party. (Breton was ousted in 1933.)
The late 1920s were turbulent for the group as several individuals
closely associated with Breton left, and several prominent artists
Surrealism continued to expand in public visibility, in Breton's
own estimation the high water mark was the 1936 London International
In 1937, Breton and Leon Trotsky co-authored a Manifesto for an
independent revolutionary art on the need for a permanent revolution,
and attacked Stalinism and Socialist realism, as the "negation
Surrealism also attracted writers from the United Kingdom to Paris
including David Gascoyne, who became friends with Paul Éluard
and Max Ernst, and translated Breton and Dalí into English.
In 1935 he authored A Short Study of Surrealism, and then returned
to England during the World War II, where he roomed with Lucian
Freud, and continued to write in the Surrealist style for the remainder
of his life.
Acéphale was one splinter group that formed (mid-1930s).
The group was comprised of some of those disaffected by Breton's
increasing rigidity, and structured as a "secret society".
Led by Bataille, they published Da Costa Encyclopedia meant to coincide
with the 1947 Surrealist exhibition in Paris.
Surrealism during World War II
The rise of Adolf Hitler and the events of 1939 through 1945 in
Europe, for a time, overshadowed almost all else. However, after
the war, Breton continued to write and espouse the importance of
liberating of the human mind. For example in The Tower of Light
In 1941, Breton went to the United States, where he founded the
short lived magazine VVV, which boasted high production values and
a great deal of content, however, its content was increasingly in
French, not English. It was American poet Charles Henri Ford and
his magazine View which offered Breton a channel for promoting Surrealism
in the United States. Ford and Breton had an on again, off again
relationship, Breton felt that Ford should work more specifically
for Surrealism, and Ford, for his part, resented what he felt to
be Breton's attempts to make him "toe the line". Nevertheless,
View published an interview between Breton and Nicolas Calas, as
well as special issues on Tanguy and Ernst, and in 1945, on Marcel
The special issue on Duchamp was crucial for the public understanding
of Surrealism in America, it stressed his connections to Surrealist
methods, offered interpretations of his work by Breton, as well
as Breton's view that Duchamp represented the bridge between early
modern movements such as Futurism and Cubism with Surrealism.
Breton's return to France after the Second World War, began a new
phase of surrealist activity in Paris, one which attracted considerable
attention; Breton's idea of the phoenix came to symbolize the new
effort, and for a time it appeared that Surrealism's ability to
combine older perspectives and techniques with new insights (for
example, the deemphasis on Marxism) might bolster the argument for
its continued importance in the context of 20th century philosophy,
art and literature.
Breton's critiques of rationalism and dualism, found a new audience
after the Second World War, as his argument that returning to old
patterns of behavior would ensure a repeated cycle of conflict seemed
increasingly prophetic to French intellectuals while the Cold War
mounted. Breton's insistence that Surrealism was not an aesthetic
movement, nor a series of techniques and tools, but instead the
means to an ongoing revolt against the reduction of humanity to
market relationships, religious gestures and misery, meant that
his ideas and stances were taken up by many, even those who had
never heard of Breton, or read any of his work. The importance of
living Surrealism was repeated by Breton and by those writing about
The "end" of Surrealism
There is no clear consensus about the end of the Surrealist movement:
some historians suggest that the movement was effectively disbanded
by WWII, others treat the movement as extending through the 1950s;
art historian Sarane Alexandrian (1970) states that "the death
of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an
organized movement." However, some who knew Breton, and were
part of groups he founded or approved continued to be active until
well after his death. For example, Czech Surrealism Group in Prague,
though driven underground in 1968, re-emerged in the 1990s. Still
other groups and artists, not directly connected to Breton, have
claimed the Surrealist label. In addition, Surrealism, as a prominent
critique of rationalism and capitalism, and a theory of integrated
aesthetics and ethics had influence on later movements, including
many aspects of postmodernism.
People involved in Breton's Surrealist group
Giorgio de Chirico
Surrealism in the arts
In general usage, the term Surrealism is more often considered a
movement in visual arts than the original cultural and philosophical
movement. As with many terms, the relationship between the two usages
is a matter of some debate outside the movement. (Other examples
are romanticism and minimalism, which apply to different ideas and
periods in differing contexts.)
Surrealism in visual arts
René Magritte's "The Betrayal of Images" (1928-9)The
relationship between the movement in visual arts and Surrealism
as a political and philosophical movement is complex. Many Surrealist
artists regarded their work as an expression of the philosophical
movement first and foremost, and Breton was explicit in his belief
that Surrealism was first and foremost a revolutionary movement.
Early visual arts Surrealism
Since so many of the artists involved in Surrealism came from the
Dada movement, the demarcation between Surrealist and Dadaist art,
as with the demarcation between Surrealism and Dada in general,
is a drawn differently by different scholars.
The roots of Surrealism in the visual arts run to both Dada and
Cubism, as well as the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky and Expressionism,
as well as Post-Impressionism. However, it was not the particulars
of technique which marked the Surrealist movement in the visual
arts, but an the creation of objects from the imagination, from
automatism, or from a number of Surrealist techniques.
Masson's automatic drawings of 1923, are often used as a convenient
point of difference, since these reflect the influence of the idea
of the unconscious mind.
Another example is Alberto Giacometti's 1925 Torso, which marked
his movement to simplified forms and inspiration from pre-classical
sculpture. However, a striking example of the line used to divide
Dada and Surrealism among art experts is the pairing of 1925's Von
minimax dadamax selbst konstruiertes maschinchen with Le Baiser
from 1927 by Max Ernst. The first is generally held to have a distance,
and erotic subtext, where as the second presents an erotic act openly
and directly. In the second the influence of Miró and Picasso's
drawing style 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 was one of the important joining figures between
the philosophical and visual aspects of Surrealism. Between 1911
and 1917, he adopted a very primary colour palette, and unornamented
epictional style whose surface would be adopted by others later.
La tour rouge from 1913 shows the stark colour contrasts and illustrative
style later adopted by Surrealist painters. His 1914 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 which defies conventional
realistic explanation. He was also a writer. 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
Ballet Russe, would create a decorative form of visual Surrealism,
and he would be an influence on the two that would be even more
closely associated with Surrealism in the public mind: Dalí
In 1924, Miro and Masson applied Surrealism theory to painting
explicitly leading to the La Peinture Surrealiste Exposition at
Gallerie Pierre in 1925, which included work by Man Ray, Masson,
Klee and Miró among others. It 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.
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 Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dalí.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
La Voix des airs is an example of this process, where three large
spheres representing bells hanging above a landscape. Another Surrealist
landscape from this same year is Tanguy's 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 clocks that sag as if they are made out of
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 ones individuality".
Long after personal, political and professional tensions broke
up 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 this Man Ray
self portrait whose use of assemblage influenced Robert Rauschenberg's
During the 1930s Peggy Guggenheim, an important art collector married
Max Ernst and began promoting work by other Surrealists such as
Yves Tanguy. However, by the outbreak of the Second World War, the
taste of the avant-garde swung decisively towards Abstract Expressionism
with the support of key taste makers, including Guggenheim.
World War II and beyond
As with many artistic movements in Europe, the coming of the Second
World War proved disruptive: both because of the rift between Breton
and Dalí over Dalí's support for Francisco Franco,
and because of a diaspora of the members of the Surrealist movement
itself. Dalí said to remain a Surrealist forever was like
"painting only eyes and noses", and declared he had embarked
on a "classic" period; Max Ernst in 1962 said "I
feel more affinity for some German Romantics". Magritte began
painting what he called his "solar" or "Renoir"
The works continued. Many Surrealist artists continued to explore
their vocabularies, including Magritte. Many members of the Surrealist
movement continued to correspond and meet. (In 1960, Magritte, Duchamp,
Ernst, and Man Ray met in Paris.) While Dalí may have been
excommunicated by Breton, he neither abandoned the themes from the
1930s, including references to the "persistence of time"
in a later painting, nor did he become a depictive "pompier".
His classic period did not represent so sharp a break with the past
as some descriptions of his work might portray.
During the 1940s Surrealism's influence was also felt in England
and America. Mark Rothko took an interest in bimorphic figures,
and in England Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Paul
Nash used or experimented with Surrealist techniques. However, Conroy
Maddox, one of the first British Surrealists, beginning in 1935,
remained within the movement, organizing an exhibition of current
Surrealist work in 1978, in response to an exhibition which infuriated
him because it did not properly represent Surrealism. The exhibition,
titled Surrealism Unlimited was in Paris, and attracted international
attention. He held his his last one man show in 2002, just before
his death in 2005.
Magritte's work became more realistic in its depiction of actual
objects, while maintaining the element of juxtaposition, such as
in 1951's Personal Values and 1954's Empire of Light. Magritte continued
to produce works which have entered artistic vocabulary, such as
Castle in the Pyrenees which refers back to Voix from 1931, in its
suspension over a landscape.
Other figures from the Surrealist movement were expelled, Roberto
Matta for example, but by their own description "remained close
Many new artists explicitly took up the Surrealist banner for themselves,
some following what they saw as the path of Dalí, others
holding to views they derived from Breton. Duchamp continued to
produce sculpture and, at his death, was working on an installation
with the realistic depiction of a woman viewable only through a
peephole. Dorothea Tanning and Louise Bourgeois continued to work,
for example with Tanning's Rainy Day Canape from 1970.
The 1960s saw an expansion of Surrealism with the founding of The
West Coast Surrealist Group as recognized by Breton's personal assistant
Jose Pierre and also Surrealist Movement in the United States.
That Surrealism has remained commercially successful and popularly
recognized has lead many people associated with the Breton's Surrealist
group to criticise more general uses of the term. They argue that
many self-identified Surrealists are not grounded in Breton's work
and the techniques of the movement.
Surrealistic art remains enormously popular with museum patrons.
In 2001 Tate Modern held an exhibition of Surrealist art that attracted
over 170,000 visitors in its run. Having been one of the most important
of movements in the Modern period, Surrealism proceeded to inspire
a new generation seeking to expand the vocabulary of art.
Surrealism in literature
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Surrealism in music
In the 1920s several composers were influenced by Surrealism, or
by individuals in the Surrealist movement. Among these were Bohuslav
Martin, Andre Souris, and Edgar Varese, who stated that his work
Arcana was drawn from a dream sequence. Souris in particular was
associated with the movement: he had a long, if sometimes spotty,
relationship with Magritte, and worked on Paul Nouge's publication
French composer Pierre Boulez wrote a piece called explosante-fixe
(1972), inspired by Breton's mad love.
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 (as alluded to above), 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 such
performances by Honeyboy Edwards.
Readers of the Surrealists have also analysed reggae and, later,
rap, and some rock bands such as The Psychedelic Furs. In addition
to musicians who have been influenced by Surrealism (including some
influence in rock — the title of the 1967 psychedelic Jefferson
Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow was obviously inspired by the
movement), such as the experimental group Nurse With Wound (whose
album title Chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine
and umbrella is taken from a line in Lautreamont's Maldoror), Surrealist
music has included such explorations as those of Hal Rammel.
Surrealism in film
Surrealist films include Un chien andalou and L'Âge d'Or by
Luis Buñuel and Dalí.
Surrealist and film theorist Robert Benayoun has written books
on Tex Avery, Woody Allen, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers.
Some have described David Lynch as a Surrealist filmmaker. He has
never participated in the Surrealist movement or in any Surrealist
activity, but there are arguably some aspects of many of his films
that are of Surrealist interest.
Surrealism in television
Some have found the television series The Prisoner to be of Surrealist
Impact of Surrealism
While Surrealism is typically associated with the arts, it has been
said to transcend them; Surrealism has had an impact in many other
fields. In this sense, Surrealism does not specifically refer only
to self-identified "Surrealists", or those sanctioned
by Breton, rather, it refers to a range of creative acts of revolt
and efforts to liberate imagination.
In addition to Surrealist ideas that are grounded in the ideas
of Hegel, Marx and Freud, Surrealism is seen by its advocates as
being inherently dynamic and is dialectic in its thought. Surrealists
have also drawn on sources as seemingly diverse as Clark Ashton
Smith, Montague Summers, Fantomas, Bugs Bunny, comic strips, the
obscure poet Samuel Greenberg and the hobo writer and humourist
T-Bone Slim. One might say that Surrealist strands may be found
in movements such as Free Jazz (Don Cherry, Sun Ra, etc.) and even
in the daily lives of people in confrontation with limiting social
conditions. Thought of as the effort of humanity to liberate imagination
as an act of insurrection against society, Surrealism dates back
to, or finds precedents in, the alchemists, possibly Dante, various
heretical groups, Hieronymus Bosch, Marquis de Sade, Charles Fourier,
Comte de Lautreamont and Arthur Rimbaud. Surrealists believe that
non-Western cultures also provide a continued source of inspiration
for Surrealist activity because some may strike up a better balance
between instrumental reason and the imagination in flight than Western
Some artists, such as H.R. Giger in Europe, who won an Academy
Award for his stage set, and who also designed the "creature,"
in the movie Alien, have been popularly called "Surrealists,"
though Giger is a visionary artist and it is speculated the he doesn't
claim to be Surrealist.
The Society for the Art of Imagination has come in for particularly
bitter criticism from a self-characterised Surrealist movement (although
this criticism has been characterized by at least one anonymous
individual as coming from "the Marxists [sic] Surrealist groups,
who maintain small contingents worldwide;" he has also pointed
out what he considers the hypocrisy of any Surrealist criticism
of the Society for the Art of Imagination given that Kathleen Fox
designed the cover of issue 4 of the bulletin of the Groupe de Paris
du Mouvement Surrealiste and also participated in the 2003 Brave
Destiny show at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center.
Though some presented Brave Destiny as the largest-ever exhibit
of Surrealist artists, the show was officially billed as exhibiting
"Surrealism, Surreal/Conceptual, Visionary, Fantastic, Symbolism,
Magic Realism, the Vienna School, Neuve Invention, Outsider, Naïve,
the Macabre, Grotesque and Singulier Art.)"