It’s no secret that the conscious imagination can be a powerful driver of creativity. But what about the unconscious? Can ideas born from dreams and other forms of subconscious sources be equally powerful drivers of creativity? During the 1920’s and 30’s one group of international artists and writers centered in Paris believed this to be the case. They thought true creative freedom came not from the ego of the artist but from those elements just under conscious control. These artists called themselves Surrealists after a word invented by French modernist poet Apollinaire signifying the strange place between the real and the unreal.
Poet André Breton was the founder and leader (often dubbed Pope) of the Surrealist movement. It was he who established its definition and mission and acted as arbiter of its rules. He was famous for excommunicating members for not being sufficiently ‘surreal’ or a million other reasons. It was Breton who made the Surrealist movement possible.
The Surrealist movement had a number of precursors and influences that it sought to co-opt into its philosophy and output. The first was Dada. Dada was started in Zurich in 1916 at the height of the First World War and was a reaction to the madness into which the continent had descended. To protest this irrationality they utilized irrationality in their art in order to force society out of its coma. From Zurich, it spread to Berlin, Paris, and New York among other cities.
These artists began to create art that was so radical that it shunned all previous forms of artistic expression and all other movements and concentrated on those such as sound poetry, provocative performance, collage, radical typography and graphic design, photography and photo-montage, experimental film, and object making. During and just after the war it was notable for anarchic spirit, its hatred of authority, and its bravery in standing up to reactionary forces during a time when societies were much more homogeneous in their beliefs in traditions and trust in authority.
A reenactment of one of Hugo Ball’s early Dadaist performances in Zurich from 1916:
By the early 1920’s, Dada was running out of steam and to some in the Parisian Avant-Garde its Nihilism had become counterproductive. Breton was first drawn into the Dada movement. But during the early 1920’s, he decided he wanted to move towards an idealistic vision and back to art from what the Dadaists had called ‘anti-art.’ He became interested in dreams and to believe that the only way to real freedom was through a revolution of the mind to free it from its conscious constraints.
Surrealist expression through manifestos, literature, and visual art was a method to make this possible. As opposed to the Dadaists who tried to work against art, culture, and taste, to destroy the remnants of the stuffy and nationalistic nineteenth century mentality once and for all, the Surrealists really were idealists and they thought they could change the world through art and literature through high-minded expression and radical politics. It was in a way a Romantic movement and though very different in almost every other way, recalled in its marriage of a sensuous and emotional art with socialism in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphealites of the previous century.
Much of the forms of art invented or developed by Dadaists such as collage, assemblage and experimental film were co-opted by Surrealism. Additionally, many who had worked in the Dadaist mode such as Max Ernst, Man Ray, Jean Arp, Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard, and Francis Picabia became important members of the new movement.
Surrealism would not be possible without the insights and work of Sigmund Freud. Although Freud cared very little for Modernism or for Breton and his movement, the Surrealists worshiped him as the man who’s discovery of the unconscious and developments in the therapeutic benefits of dream analysis had made their art possible.
However, Freud’s belief that the unconscious could tell us a lot about ourselves yet it needed to be suppressed for the individual and civilization to function was lost on or ignored by the Surrealists. Instead they believed that the unconscious should be let loose from its moorings to free the individual from what they believed was the tyranny of civilization and consciousness that had made it possible.
They were anti-rationalists and stood in direct opposition to the philosophy of the Enlightenment with the importance it placed on an objective reality over the subjectivity of the inner mind. Freud was himself a rationalist and saw irrationality as a symptom of pathology not freedom from it. Nonetheless, Freud’s insights were very important to the Surrealists and formed the basis for a lot of their thinking.
In their search for the irrational and the unconscious they also showed an interest in the art of children and the insane. Because neither group was locked up in the straitjacket of modern adulthood and its concentration on the rational, they were able to be completely free and express their unconscious as they wished. They of course did not take in to account either the suffering of the mentally ill or the nascent science of childhood development. As with Freud, they idealized the parts of the unconscious they wanted to and discarded the rest.
Additionally, the Surrealists were interested in the work of amateur artists like Henri Rousseau who created magical worlds while being naïve and unpolished in their style. They thought the amateur was able to tap into something that was lost when an artist began to hone his or her skills. In this way, Surrealists wanted to get back to basics and even though much of their paintings in particular were polished and technically proficient, they admired art that seemed to go back to basics.
One of the more perplexing influences on Surrealism was Communism. Many members of the Surrealist movement were avowed Communists. Breton himself was a Trotskyite and later became friends with Leon Trotsky in Mexico shortly before his assassination there. Trotsky himself, also had a hand in writing elements of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in the early 1930’s, the treatise that made the Communist influence explicit. Poet Max Jacob went even further, becoming a strident Stalinist during this time.
The turn towards Communism was no doubt multifaceted in nature, however it seems strange looking back as Marxists were interested in a purely objective and materialist reality, while Surrealism embraced the opposite. Additionally, the Soviet Union, beginning during those early years of Stalinism in the 20’s, became increasingly hostile towards the Avant-Garde. Some artists were forced to change to new national propaganda style of Socialist Realism, which celebrated great Communists, national leaders, and the people in a traditional way. Others left, were jailed, or even killed.
The state and realistic content in art were what Surrealism was rebelling against, so what accounts for this contradiction? Like with the Freud influence, it is clear that the Surrealists cherry-picked those elements of the Communist doctrine that fit their own philosophy, but intentionally ignored those that didn’t. For instance, the Surrealists embraced the fact that Communism like Surrealism was intended to be an international revolutionary movement while ignoring its censorship (or worse) of artists and writers within the Soviet Union.
Both saw the Bourgeoisie and Capitalism as being responsible for World War I and Communism for helping to end it through the 1917 revolution that took Russia out of the war. They also were perhaps influenced by the Communist revolts that occurred in Germany around 1919 after the German defeat and the overthrow of the Kaiser. There is also the fact that many on the far-left during the early twentieth century embraced Communism as a new and exciting form of government. They also saw Capitalism as the status quo which they wished to overthrow and Communism provided seemingly the best mechanism to do this.
Not all Surrealists were Communists, however. Salvador Dali for instance, embraced his strong Catholic roots and Fascism, in particular the Franco regime in his home country of Spain who the Communists backed by Stalin had fought in a bloody civil war.
Forms of Expression:
Surrealist Games and Literature:
Surrealism was like Dada in that it was playful in spirit yet deadly serious about that playfulness. The most notable form of this was the Surrealist games that various members of the movement, most notably Breton, devised as ways of inserting the unconscious into everyday experience. These games came in various forms and involved different ways of tapping into the unconscious from passing a paper around adding elements to a story or picture without seeing what came before it (known popularly as ‘Exquisite Corpse’) to The Dadaist Poem, ie: putting pieces of cut up newsprint text in a bag and writing poetry by pulling the words out in a random order, to automatic writing. They allowed a new way into the creative process that avoided the conscious mind and decision making. They were also interested in seances and the occult, as the realm of spirits did not behave in a rational manner and therefore could be another point of unconscious contact.
Surrealist literature came out of several previous literary movements in France and elsewhere including Symbolism, the absurdest poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont, the dreamlike visions of Arthur Rimbaud, the modernist poetry collages of Apollinaire, the extremity and violence of Antonin Artaud’s plays and the works of the Marquis De Sade, the irrationality and energy of Futurist and Dadaist sound poetry, and the wild plays and poetry of Jean Cocteau. All these influences combined along with an interest in chance in the work of poets and writers such as Breton, Paul Eluard, and Max Jacob. They created in words something very similar to what Surrealists artists later created in images.
Artist Max Ernst proved that you didn’t need words to create works of Surrealist literature. Ernst constructed elaborate, bizarre, and uncanny ‘novels’ made out of collages of nineteenth century book and magazine illustrations that he created by cutting and reassembling and then printing from this hybrid of the original plates on which they were printed creating bizarre and frightening worlds.
There were two main strands of Surrealist painting. One was to create a vision of a dreamworld through the combination of a realistic painting style and juxtapositions of strange objects. This strand saw its precedents in the strange meeting of objects in The Comte De Lautremont’s prose poem Maldoror and in the ‘metaphysical’ paintings of Giorgio Di Chirico.
The two most famous artists of this style were René Magritte and Salvador Dali. Magritte’s art was as much about language as it was about images. His paintings seemed real but always made you question what you saw. A giant apple would take up an entire room, dark buildings lit like it was nighttime would sit below a blue daylight sky, hundreds of business men would fall from the sky like rain, and a miniature steam-powered train would come flying out of a fireplace. A pipe would be labeled with the statement “This is not a pipe.”
Magritte’s paintings were of the slippery place were reality meets fantasy and language loses its meaning. Magritte is one of the most famous and beloved of the Surrealists because his art was fun (though sometimes violent or scary) and it was either easily understood or wonderfully enigmatic as a visual pun or joke or as a mysterious moment where the world began to stop making sense.
The smoothness and realism of his Flemish-influenced Belgian style meant that his art took on an extra surreal quality. What you were seeing didn’t seem possible yet looked as real as anything you could encounter in life.
Salvador Dali is the most famous of the Surrealists. His images are immensely popular because even in their strangeness and dark character they seem to somehow relate to us directly through our own dreams and nightmares.
The famous image of the melting clock in The Persistence of Memory is one of the iconic images of modern art precisely because it seems at once funny and unsettling. Dali’s paintings depict what seem to be realistic worlds, strange as they may be but also appear to be slightly out of control. Like the melting watches they are full of references to time slipping away, to disillusion and decay, to mortality.
Dali’s works also evoke feelings of shame, violence, lust, paranoia, and nightmares. They speak to us because they are universal in a way. Unlike Magritte’s straightforward yet highly intellectual dreamscapes, Dali’s images seem to come directly out of the Id. They are the remnants of the reptile brain bubbling to the surface like out of a fever dream. Despite Dali’s ego, atrocious political beliefs, and extreme pretension his art still speaks to us because it taps into our own unconscious desires and fears in a way few artists besides perhaps Goya were able to before.
The other strand in painting was one of abstraction. It was interested in chance and in the lack of premeditation in the painted subject or in the juxtaposition of abstraction and realistic imagery. The most famous artist of this trajectory of Surrealism was Joan Miró. Like Dali, Miró was a Spaniard (more precisely a Catalan) and his early work is injected with the spirit of his native country. The yellow plains and blue skies, the rich soil, the heat. They combined a somewhat abstracted world with a completely abstract one in the same image.
Later Miró would go on to move to towards total abstraction, using elements that might allude to reality yet were hard to decipher. He painted on the backs of canvases adding new and interesting textures to his images. They seem childlike and playful and do not have the kind of dread or violence found in either Magritte or Dali’s work. They also come from an even more elemental place that evoke the curiosity of children’s drawings or the mystery of the cosmos. Miró was one of the few artists who was actually able to transcend Surrealism because his vision was so inclusive. It was fun, unlike the work of many of the Surrealists that could be so serious that they verged on self-parody.
Check out Part II of this article coming next week, featuring other forms of Surrealist expression including photography and film and more great images and video.