‘A 20th-century literary and artistic movement that attempts to express the workings of the subconscious. It is characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter.’
‘a controversial movement in art and literature between the two World Wars in which the artists attempted to portray, express, or interpret the workings of the subconscious mind.’
‘Surrealism was an artistic and literary movement, dedicated to expressing the imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and convention. Surrealism inherited an anti-rationalist sensibility from Dadaism, and was shaped by emerging theories on our perception of reality, especially Sigmund Freud’s model of the subconscious.’
Founding of the Movement
The Movement was founded in Paris in 1924 by André Breton with his Manifesto of Surrealism. The aim of Surrealism was to reveal the unconscious and reconcile it with rational life. Surrealism also aimed at social and political revolution and for a time was affiliated to the Communist party. 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. 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. Breton wrote the manifesto of 1924 that defines the purposes of the group and includes citations of the influences on Surrealism, examples of Surrealist works and discussion of Surrealist automatism. 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 other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. “We Surrealists pronounced ourselves in favour of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the colour question.”
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. There is no clear consensus about the end, or if there was an end, to the Surrealist movement. Some art historians suggest that World War II effectively disbanded the movement. However, art historian Sarane Alexandrian (1970) states, “the death of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an organized movement.” There have also been attempts to tie the obituary of the movement to the 1989 death of Salvador Dalí. During the 1980s, behind the Iron Curtain, Surrealism again entered into politics with an underground artistic opposition movement known as the Orange Alternative. The Orange Alternative was created in 1981 by Waldemar Fydrych (alias ‘Major’), a graduate of history and art history at the University of Wroclaw. They used Surrealist symbolism and terminology in their large scale happenings organized in the major Polish cities during the Jaruzelski regime, and painted Surrealist graffiti on spots covering up anti-regime slogans. Major himself was the author of a “Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism”. In this manifesto, he stated that the socialist (communist) system had become so Surrealistic that it could be seen as an expression of art itself. Surrealistic art also remains popular with museum patrons.
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. 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 imagination in flight than Western culture. Surrealism has had an identifiable impact on radical and revolutionary politics, both directly — as in some Surrealists joining or allying themselves with radical political groups, movements and parties — and indirectly — through the way in which Surrealists’ emphasize the intimate link between freeing imagination and the mind, and liberation from repressive and archaic social structures. This was especially visible in the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and the French revolt of May 1968, whose slogan “All power to the imagination” rose directly from French Surrealist thought and practice.