Surrealism, according to this short Unlock Art video from the Tate, began in Paris, at the cafe Les Deux Magots, in 1924. You can still go there, but among its habitués you won’t find the fellow on whom the camera zooms in: André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto. That influential text drew inspiration from the work of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, specifically his book The Interpretation of Dreams.
“Breton believed art and literature could represent the unconscious mind,” says the video’s narrator Peter Capaldi, well known as one of the Doctors of Doctor Who. He then names some artists who agreed with Breton on this point, such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Rene Magritte — just a few of the Surrealists. “Surreal,” as an adjective, has perhaps fallen victim to debasement by overuse in the past 84 years. But Breton had specific ideas about Surrealism’s potential effects, its sources of power, and its methods.
Desire, for instance, “was central to the Surrealist vision of love, poetry, and liberty. It was the key to understanding human beings.” Surrealist artistic practices included putting objects “that were not normally associated with one another together, to make something that was playful and disturbing at the same time in order to stimulate the unconscious mind.” Think of Dalí’s 1936 Lobster Telephone, made out of those very objects. “It’s about food and sex,” Capaldi pronounces. The Surrealist vision also extended to more complicated endeavors, such as elaborate paintings and films that still fascinate today.
You can catch up on Surrealist film here on Open Culture, beginning with Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí’s nightmarish 1929 short Un Chien Andalou, continuing on to the Surrealist feature Dreams That Money Can Buy (a collaboration by the likes of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and Hans Richter), and the history of Surrealist cinema as presented by David Lynch, a filmmaker widely considered one of the movement’s modern heirs. Whether Breton would recognize the Surrealist sensibility in its current manifestations will remain a matter of debate, but who could watch this Unlock Art primer and fail to sense the fascination its basic ideas — or basic compulsions, perhaps — still hold today?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.