"Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life."
The Surrealist movement was founded in Paris by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Disdaining rationalism and literary realism, and powerfully influenced by, the Surrealists believed the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighting it down with taboos. Influenced also by , they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution. Their emphasis on the power of the imagination puts them in the tradition of , but unlike their forbears, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life. The Surrealist impulse to tap the subconscious mind, and their interests in myth and primitivism, went on to shape the , and they remain influential today.
Though the Surrealist movement was officially founded in 1924, the term was first coined in 1917, whenused it in program notes for the ballet Parade, written by , , , and . It began as a literary group strongly allied to the movement, and emerged in the wake of the collapse of the group in Paris, when André Breton's eagerness to bring purpose to the group clashed with anti-authoritarianism. Breton - who is occasionally described as the 'Pope' of Surrealism - would go on to be the most important figure in the movement, the impresario whose strong leadership gave it cohesion through its many reincarnations until his death in 1966.
Concepts and Styles
Surrealism shared much of the anti-rationalism of Dada, the movement out of which it grew. However, Breton, who was a part of the Dada group, wanted to form a movement in which artists could unite to protest war by accessing subconscious thoughts. The original Parisian Surrealists organized group activities as a reprieve from violent political situations and to address the unease they felt about the world's uncertainties. Surrealists were interested in exposing the complex and repressed inner worlds of sexuality, desire, and violence, and interest in these topics fostered transgressive behavior. Many of the artists underwent psychoanalysis to study and uproot their latent feelings and behaviors as a cure for what they believed to be the constraining and repressed codes and morals of society.
The Surrealists generated creative works that exposed the artists' inner minds in bizarre, symbolic ways in order to uncover anxieties and to treat them analytically through visual means. The Surrealists depicted dream imagery and archetypal symbols derived from their unconsciousness. The collage aesthetic was significant to the Surrealists, as they believed it tapped into the subconscious by creating unlikely juxtapositions using imagery garnered from popular culture. The Surrealists employed collage in every medium including film.
Rise and Decline of Surrealism
Though Surrealism originated in France, strains of it can be identified in art throughout the world. Particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, many artists were swept into its orbit as increasing political upheaval and a second global war encouraged fears that human civilization was in a state of crisis and collapse. The emigration of many Surrealists to the US during WWII spread their ideas further. However, following the war, the group's ideas were challenged by the rise of. And in the arts, the Abstract Expressionists usurped their dominance by pioneering new techniques for representing the unconscious. Breton became increasingly interested in revolutionary political activism as the movement's primary goal. The result was the dispersal of the original movement into smaller factions of artists. The Bretonians, such as , believed that art was inherently political. Others, like , , and , remained in America to separate from . , likewise, retreated to Spain, believing in the centrality of the individual in art.
In 1936, thein New York staged an exhibition entitled Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, and many American artists were powerfully impressed by it. Some, such as , began to experiment with automatism, and with imagery that seemed to derive from the unconscious - experiments which would later lead to his 'drip' paintings. , similarly, is said to have been "stuck between the two worlds" of abstraction and automatism.
New York quickly stole the focus from Paris as the emergent center of a new vanguard, one that favored tapping the unconscious through abstraction as opposed to the "hand-painted dreams" of. 1942 exhibition of Surrealist-influenced artists ( , , , , , , and ) alongside European artists , , and , underscores the speed with which Surrealist concepts spread through the New York art community.
Feminism and Women Surrealists
The Surrealists have often been depicted as a tightly knit group of men, and their art often envisioned women as wild 'others' to the cultured, rational world. Work byhistorians has since corrected this impression, not only highlighting the number of women Surrealists who were active in the group, particularly in the 1930s, but also analyzing the gender stereotypes at work in much Surrealist art. Feminist art critics, such as Dawn Ades, Mary Ann Caws, and Whitney Chadwick, have devoted several books and exhibitions to this subject.
While most of the male Surrealists, especially, , and , repeatedly distorted the female form, and depicted women as muses, much in the way that male artists had for centuries, female Surrealists such as , , , , and , sought to address the problematic adoption of psychoanalysis that often cast women as somehow monstrous. Thus, many female Surrealists experimented with cross-dressing and depicted themselves as animals or mythic creatures.
"Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality."
- André Breton
"Contrary to prevalent misdefinitions, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine, nor a philosophical system, nor a mere literary or artistic school. It is an unrelenting revolt against a civilization that reduces all human aspirations to market values, religious impostures, universal boredom and misery."
- Franklin Rosemont, from André Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism
"Creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition."
- Max Ernst
"Putting psychic life in the service of revolutionary politics, Surrealism publicly challenged vanguard modernism's insistence on 'art for art's sake.' But Surrealism also battled the social institutions - church, state, and family - that regulate the place of women within patriarchy. In offering some women their first locus for artistic and social resistance, it became the first modernist movement in which a group of women could explore female subjectivity and give form (however tentatively) to a feminine imaginary."
-Whitney Chadwick, from Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation
"[the contribution was in their determination] to tap the creative and imaginative forces of the mind at their source in the unconcious and, through the increase in self-knowledge achieved by confronting people by their real nature, to change society"
-Simon Wilson, from preface to Dali exhibition at Tate Gallery, London, 1980