The History of Surrealism

Surrealism is a technique that is part of a much broader artistic period known as Modernism.   This particular style reached its height with artists such as Salvador Dali who was inspired by the early works of Georgio de Chirico. For example, in paintings such as The Persistence of Memory by Dali, or The Great Metaphysician by de Chirico, we see clean lines, well defined images and shapes with strong outlines on the canvas.  

The brush strokes are meticulous and complete.   While the name Salvador Dali is often associated with Surrealism (often for his incessant self-marketing as well as his artistic achievements), he was not among the first of the Surrealists. These were Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Joan Miro and Rene Magritte.  

The Influences

Surrealists were highly influenced by the writings and work of Sigmund Freud.   In particular, his theories and writings on dream interpretation proved to be an emotional and artistic starting point for Surrealist art.   Surrealism could be described as using recognizable scenes, images and objects “[…] taken out of natural context, distorted and combined in fantastic ways as they might be in dreams” (Chipp 12).   The disturbing images often seen in Surrealist art were in fact a way of creating paintings borne of psychoanalytical theory.   One interpretation of these paintings is that they depict the images that play in our unconscious mind.   Therefore, the human psyche itself served as subject matter for the Surrealists.   In Surrealism, the dream-like images and almost disturbing scenes were an attempt to recreate the unconscious mind on the canvas.   “Surrealism, then, in its original manifestation, attempted to come as close to a documentation of the unconscious mind through works of art” (Silsbe par.1).

The Beginning

There seems to be agreement that Surrealism began at the end of World War I and flourished in the 1920’s and 30’s. By the late 30’s an international exhibition encompassed fourteen countries (Fowlie 11). One researcher suggests that trying to access the ideas that are stored in the unconscious mind was one of the prime motivating forces for the development of surrealism. This controversial form of art blossomed between the two world wars and the contexts within which it was developed are critical to the themes one sees in the paintings. Many of the surrealists were informed by politics and to some degree this art form became just as famous for what the artists were against as the images in their paintings. “Surrealism, during the years which separate the two world wars, seemed particularly concerned with negation, with revolution and the demolishing of ideals and standards. The surrealists were “anti” everything, but especially anti-literature and anti-poetry” (Fowlie 15).  

There is reason to suggest that Surrealism was a movement that tried to negate reality. Thus the term — surreal. These artists were working at a time when the unthinkable had come to pass — the entire world was at war. There was a sense of a great cosmic unbalance in the world and a need to express that in their art. Surrealism was an attempt to express the sense of instability the world was feeling as a result of World War I.  

Yet the surrealists were not entirely politically influenced. To some degree their work can be seen as a reaction to Romanticism and even French Symbolism (Silsbe). The style of the romantic artists was fluid and graceful. These paintings use strong colors and are less interpretive while being more about a distinct subject (such as war, nature, society, etc.). Surrealists seem less inclined to create paintings that are obviously ‘about something or someone’ even if their titles suggest they are. They are strong in symbolism and imagery and leave much to interpretation. Surrealist paintings are not only disturbing, but often contain startling and unpredictable images in order to evoke the emotions of the painter and the viewer. Some would suggest that the more unpredictable the better (Silsbe).  

The Surrealist movement as embodied in the writings of French poet and psychiatrist Andre Breton were expressed in his book, The Surrealist Manifesto. Breton had been a powerful member of the Dadaist movement which like Surrealism had its roots in rejecting certain aspects of European culture such as its brutality (again the influence of World War I) and turned to small-scale cultures for some of their inspiration. “The Surrealists appear to have been obsessed with an idealized ‘primitive’, and they searched for manifestations of uninhibited desire and primitive states of consciousness, while seeking to integrate the sacred into everyday experience” (Hitchcock 926).  

The Two Movements — Veristic and Automatist

The influence of psychology and psychiatry on Surrealism was enormous. However, Freud was not the only psychoanalytic figure to influence the Surrealists. Jung was a central figure as well. In fact, those who tended to follow Jung were often labeled as Automatists and those who followed Freud were often described as Veristics. “Jung had talked about not judging the images of the subconscious, but simply accepting them as they came into consciousness so they could be analyzed. This was termed Automatism” (Sanchez). This group of Surrealists strove to interpret the unconscious mind rather than the conscious mind. As well they wanted to paint with and about emotion and not be strapped down to the ‘literal meanings of their paintings’. The Veristics took a different approach.  

Veristic Surrealists, saw academic discipline and form as the means to represent the images of the subconscious with veracity; as a way to freeze images that, if unrecorded, would easily dissolve once again into the unknown. They hoped to find a way to follow the images of the subconscious until the conscience could understand their meaning (Sanchez).  

The Automatists felt that the academic discipline and form of art was merely a way of suppressing the freedom they sought to express in their work. These artists did not want to be strapped down by form but rather sought to interpret the unconscious mind through abstract ideas. In this way they more or less rebelled against any notion of using form to interpret unconscious imagery.  

There are some who would suggest that the Surrealists not only wanted to express the world in a new way but to transform the world around them. They believed in the principle that art actually had the power to change the world and it is not surprising that they aligned themselves with political philosophies that were on the left side of the spectrum such as Communism and Socialism (Lewis). As stated earlier, the Surrealists were also highly influenced by the fact of World War I and what they saw as growing movements of nationalism. ”In a seminal text, “Le Surrealisme et la peinture” |Surrealism and painting~, which appeared in the July 1925 issue of La Revolution surrealiste, Breton asserted that the Surrealists were in the vanguard of the struggle for the total liberation of mankind…” (Lewis 3). The Surrealists were appalled by the human toll of World War I and profoundly influenced to use their art and their collective voices as a means of fighting against violence and nationalistic tendencies. “Between the years 1925 and 1927, Clarteistes and the Surrealists joined forces in their struggle against war, nationalism, and capitalism” (Lewis 4).  

The Surrealists were dually influenced by politics and psychoanalysis and saw connecting threads between the two. They envisioned politics as a means of revolutionizing the world for humanity (as evidenced by the quote above) and psychoanalysis as a means of revolutionizing the way humanity thinks and accesses his/her deepest dreams and desires. To represent those dreams on canvas was an important aspect in the development of Surrealism. However, it was not only their own unconscious minds the Surrealists sought to portray but the unconscious minds of others. In this way they re-interpret through visual means the famous Jungian notion of the ‘collective unconscious.’  

The tirade against nationalism, capitalism and the bourgeois of Europe was a strong triad of principles in the Surrealist movement. There was also a belief that anyone could be an artist and it had absolutely nothing to do with training but merely the desire to paint and create. The Surrealists did not think of themselves nor did they construct their work in an elitist fashion. “Once radicalized, several of the more prominent Surrealists, including Breton, actually joined the French Communist Party, an action that committed the whole group to becoming fellow travelers” (Lewis 5).

Another thread in the development and history of Surrealism was its blatant portrayal of sexuality. The Surrealists used sexuality as strong theme in many of their paintings which was part of their belief that psychological freedom and sexual liberation go hand in hand. In their minds there is absolutely no need to hide the fact that humans are strongly sexual being with desires that are often hidden or repressed for no reason. The Surrealists wanted to bring these desires out into the open. Certainly their interest in exploring the unconscious mind sent a message that many of these images in our dreams are about our sexual desires. Unfortunately, the political ideals and the obvious sexual imagery in their paintings brought Communists and the Surrealists into conflict with each other. “However, the Surrealists never enjoyed the trust and confidence of the French Communist Party, which was always skeptical of their commitment. The Party condemned their lack of discipline as much as their scandalous art with its dream symbols and blatant sexuality” (Lewis 5).

There is no doubt that the Surrealist movement was truly revolutionary and unique in every aspect. From the flamboyant individuals who epitomize their work (like Dali) to the bizarre images in their paintings, the Surrealists sought to excite and disturb people around them. They invited controversy and interpretation. Their paintings were like nothing ever seen before with strange creatures, faces with no features, liquid clocks and sexual titles such as The Great Masturbator (by Salvador Dali). The Surrealists did all with a purpose — to challenge humanity’s way of thinking not only of themselves but the world around them and the deepest images in their unconscious minds.


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