André Breton declared in his 1924 essay “The Surrealist Manifesto” that he believes in “the future resolution of…dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”
It is post-World War I Europe, Breton has read some Freud and, along with a handful of other free-thinkers, spearheads the new artistic movement of Surrealism, which seeks to marry the freedom of subconscious thought with expression in literature and the visual arts.
In literature, Surrealism influenced writers to write automatically — just to allow the pen to write across the paper whatever thoughts they were thinking, uninhibited by a purpose to write other than as a stream of consciousness. Works of poetry, such as Guillaume Apollinaire’s book “L’alcool” from 1913, went one step further than the Symbolists of the late 19th century — rather than just use a word as metaphor for an emotion, his poems actually were structured into symbols. Before his time in many ways, the avant garde Apollinaire was the first person to coin the phrase “Surrealism” in 1917 when writing about the play “Parade” — a underappreciated play in its time, written by Jean Cocteau, set designed by Pablo Picasso and with music by Erik Satie, and attended by Breton.
Oil painting, with its elevated status in the fine arts, transformed during the Surrealist movement. Max Ernst made figures that possessed both bird and human characteristics; René Magritte painted impossible scenarios with life-like precision, questioning the notion of representation; Frida Kahlo and her self-portraits included heart-wrenching motifs and symbols of both personal turmoil and pain, and her Mexican heritage.
While artists had been liberated in the subjects they could paint since Impressionism, Surrealism truly tapped into the potential of what could be represented on canvas because of the influence of one’s imagination.
Of the Surrealist painters, the most recognizable is Salvador Dali — recognizable both in the sense of being identified by his outrageous mustache and exotic pets, and his iconic artworks which have become synonymous with the movement. Melting clocks, cracked eggs and elephants with stilts for legs are among his most popular artworks. Along with paintings, Dali also produced drawings and sculptures, and even collaborated with filmmaker Luis Buñuel on the film “Un Chien Andalou” (An Andalusian Dog) in 1929. The film is best known for its disturbing image of a razorblade slicing open an eye.
The Surrealism movement also influenced photography and film. Works like Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which inspired later beloved film versions, marries spectacular visuals with a fantastical story grounded in the real human themes of love and acceptance. Is it possible for a table to serve its guests? For mirrors to transport us from one place to another” Or for a dirty rope to be transformed into priceless jewels? Not likely. However, it is possible to show kindness to another person and to be transformed by kindness.
In photography, Man Ray pays homage to 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres in his work “Le Violon d’Ingres” from 1924. The woman photographed is wearing a headdress like several of the subjects in Ingres’ paintings, particularly “The Turkish Bath” (1863) and sports f-holes on her back like the violin of which Ingres was a master.
Just like any cultural movement, it can be hard to pin down a person, a date or a place which initiated the movement. While the term Surrealism emerged in the late 1910s-early 1920s, artists such as Hilma af Klint from Sweden, a pioneer in abstract art, was creating large-scale paintings based on automatic drawing as early as 1896. Her abstractions aimed to tap into a common geometric visual language to conceptualize forces seen and unseen, such as the spiritual.
Preceding Surrealism and running concurrent to it was Dada. However, Surrealism is NOT Dada. Rather than be anti-art establishment like the Dadaists, Surrealists very much wanted to use art as a means of expressing the subconscious, and finding a way to represent and combine these ideas with their reality.
Surrealism is a lobster telephone, a fur cup and multiple eyes on one face. It is a painting of a pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” beneath it. It is a steampunk elephant.
In fact, the only limit to Surrealism is your imagination.
Story by Caitlin Duerler, UP staff writer