A Brief, Visual Introduction to Surrealism: A Primer by Doctor Who Star Peter Capaldi

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?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Lynch Presents the His­to­ry of Sur­re­al­ist Film (1987)

Restored Ver­sion of Un Chien Andalou: Luis Buñuel & Sal­vador Dalí’s Sur­re­al Film (1929)

Watch Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, a Sur­re­al­ist Film by Man Ray, Mar­cel Duchamp, Alexan­der Calder, Fer­nand Léger & Hans Richter

When The Sur­re­al­ists Expelled Sal­vador Dalí for “the Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian Fas­cism” (1934)

30 Hours of Doc­tor Who Audio Dra­mas Now Free to Stream Online

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.

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