Surrealism was a visual and literary movement that flourished in Europe between the first and second World Wars. Surrealism grew primarily out of the earlier Dada movement, which, before World War 1, produced works of anti-art that deliberately seemed to defy reasonable assumptions of what art was. The Surrealists’ emphasis was on what art was capable of unlocking and the positive associations of this. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism was not founded by Salvador Dali, though because of his outlandish nature he is easily the most well known Surrealist artist. In fact, it was Andre Breton, a poet, and art critic, who published The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Surrealism was a means of reuniting the unconscious and unconscious realms of experience so that the worlds of dream and fantasy could be joined by the everyday, rational world.
The Surrealists sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. They despised rationality and literary realism and were powerfully influenced by psychoanalysis. The Surrealists believed the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighing it down with taboos. Influenced by people like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, the Impressionists hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in everyday life and spur on a new thought revolution. Their emphasis on the power of personal imagination puts them within the same realm as traditional Romanticism, but unlike their forebearers, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life.
The Surrealist impulse to tap into the unconscious mind is what led to their bizarre, otherworldly images and paintings. This combined with their interest in myth and primitivism went on to shape many later movements and the style remains highly influential today. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud placed a substantial amount of value on the importance of dreams and the subconscious mind as a form of recognizing and understanding human emotions and desires. He exposed the complexity of sexuality, desire, and violence, both repressed and not, and this was a major theoretical platform for Surrealism.
Surrealism has been defined as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.” This was said by Andre Breton and essentially what he was proposing was that artists are capable of erasing reason and rationality by accessing their unconscious mind. In practice, these techniques became known as automatism or automatic writing, which allowed artists to forgo conscious thought and embrace the aspect of chance when creating their art.
The imagery used by the Surrealists is probably the most recognizable element of the movement yet it still somehow remains one of the most elusive aspects to categorize or define. Each artist relied on their own recurring symbols or motifs, arising from their dreams or subconscious minds. At its most basic, the imagery used is often outlandish, out of place, confusing and uncanny. It is meant to jolt the viewer out of their own preconceived assumptions. Nature seems to be the most frequently tapped into subject matter. For example, Max Ernst was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego. Salvador Dali’s work often included ants or eggs and Joan Miro relied strongly on vague, biomorphic imagery.
The world of Surrealism was rife with exaggerated actions and fantastical behaviors. The artists themselves often lived their artworks and a notable example of this is Salvador Dali. During the 1936 International Surrealist Exposition held in London, Dali addressed his audience costumed head-to-toe in an old fashioned diving suit. He had two dogs on leashes in one hand and a billiard cue in the other. Mid-lecture, constrained by the scuba mask, the Spanish artist began to suffocate and flailed about for help, brandishing his arms. The audience however simply assumed this was all a part of the performance. The Surrealist poet David Gascoyne eventually rescued Dali. As art legend would have it, upon his recovery Dali simply stated, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind.” He then finished his speech and to no-one’s surprise, his accompanying slides were all presented upside down. This story truly outlines the most absurd and even clownish elements of the Surrealist movement, though Dali very much epitomized them. He was considered something of a joke figure by even the movement itself. The movement was actually a lot more serious and far-reaching than is widely known, spanning various disciplines, styles, and geographies from 1924 until its end in 1966.
It has always been considered the realm of play and artists today even refer to is as an inspiration for the creation of more fantastical and wonderful artworks that rely heavily on symbolism and conceptualism.