An Introduction to Surrealism: The Big Aesthetic Ideas Presented in Three Videos

Before sur­re­al­ism became Mer­ri­am Web­ster’s word of the year in 2016 for its use­ful descrip­tion of real­i­ty, it applied to art that incor­po­rates the bizarre jux­ta­po­si­tions of dream log­ic. We know it from the films of David Lynch and paint­ings of Sal­vador Dalí. We may not, how­ev­er, know it from the poet­ry of Andre Bre­ton, “but the move­ment actu­al­ly began in lit­er­a­ture,” points out the Scot­tish Nation­al Gallery intro­duc­to­ry video above. Bre­ton, influ­enced by Freud and Rim­baud, railed against medi­oc­rity, pos­i­tivism, the ‘real­is­tic atti­tude,” and the “reign of log­ic” in his 1924 “Man­i­festo of Sur­re­al­ism.”

If this sounds some­what famil­iar, it’s because Sur­re­al­ism was “built on the ash­es of Dada.” The first group of artists who worked under the term Sur­re­al­ism includ­ed Tris­tan Tzara, who had penned the “Dada Man­i­festo” only six years ear­li­er. Where Tzara had claimed that “Dada means noth­ing,” Bre­ton declared Sur­re­al­ism in favor of dream states, sym­bol­ism, and “the mar­velous.”

He also defined the term—a word he took from the Sym­bol­ist poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire—“once and for all.”

SURREALISM, n. 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. Dic­tat­ed by the thought, in the absence of any con­trol exer­cised by rea­son, exempt from any aes­thet­ic or moral con­cern.

The artists and writ­ers who coa­lesced around Bre­ton rep­re­sent­ed a hodge­podge of styles, from the pure abstrac­tion of Joan Miro to the hyper­re­al­ist fan­tasies of Dali and play­ful sym­bol­ist conun­drums of Magritte and art pranks of Mar­cel Duchamp.

As artists, theirs was fore­most an aes­thet­ic rad­i­cal­ism invest­ed in Freudi­an exam­i­na­tions of the psy­che through the imagery of the uncon­scious. “But when [the move­ment] emerged in Europe,” notes the PBS Art Assign­ment video above, “dur­ing the ten­u­ous, tur­bu­lent years fol­low­ing World War I and lead­ing up to World War II, Sur­re­al­ism posi­tioned itself not as an escape from life, but as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary force with­in it.”

Bre­ton joined the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty in 1927, was tossed out in 1933, and in 1934 deliv­ered a speech, which became a pam­phlet enti­tled “What is Sur­re­al­ism?” Here Bre­ton rede­fined Sur­re­al­ism as an anti-fas­cist posi­tion, “a liv­ing move­ment, that is to say a move­ment under­go­ing a con­stant process of becom­ing…. sur­re­al­ism has brought togeth­er and is still bring­ing togeth­er diverse tem­pera­ments indi­vid­u­al­ly obey­ing or resist­ing a vari­ety of bents.”

Here he alludes to pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal tur­moil in the Sur­re­al­ist ranks: “The fact that cer­tain of the first par­tic­i­pants in sur­re­al­ist activ­i­ty have thrown in the sponge and have been dis­card­ed has brought about the retir­ing from cir­cu­la­tion of some ways of think­ing.” The ref­er­ence is part­ly to Dali, whom Bre­ton expelled from the Sur­re­al­ist group that same year for “the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian fas­cism.”

As World War II began, many Sur­re­al­ists fled Europe for the Unit­ed States. Bre­ton trav­eled the Caribbean, set­tled in New York, and devel­oped a friend­ship with Mar­tini­can poet, writer, and states­man Aime Cesaire. He met Trot­sky, Fri­da Kahlo, and Diego Rivera in Mex­i­co, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the bur­geon­ing Sur­re­al­ist move­ment in the U.S. and Latin Amer­i­ca.

The influ­ence of Bre­ton and his Sur­re­al­ist lit­er­ary peers on mid-cen­tu­ry fic­tion and poet­ry in the decol­o­niz­ing glob­al south was sig­nif­i­cant. Bre­ton “insist­ed art be cre­at­ed for rev­o­lu­tion not profit”—points out the video above, “Sur­re­al­ism: The Big Ideas.” Dali, on the oth­er hand,“wasn’t real­ly into all that.” The painter retreat­ed to the U.S. in 1940 with his wife Gala, spend­ing his time on both coasts and becom­ing a pop­u­lar sen­sa­tion. Amer­i­ca “offered Dali end­less oppor­tu­ni­ties for his tal­ents.”

Dali “intro­duced Sur­re­al­ism to the gen­er­al pub­lic, and made it fun!… Amer­i­ca loved it, and him. They made Dali a celebri­ty,” and he helped pop­u­lar­ize a Sur­re­al­ist aes­thet­ic in Hol­ly­wood film and Madi­son Avenue adver­tis­ing. But to real­ly under­stand the move­ment, we must not look only to its visu­al vocab­u­lary and its influ­ence on pop cul­ture, but also to the poet­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and pol­i­tics of its founder.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

Read and Hear Tris­tan Tzara’s “Dada Man­i­festo,” the Avant-Garde Doc­u­ment Pub­lished 100 Years Ago (March 23, 1918)

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

Sal­vador Dalí Goes to Hol­ly­wood & Cre­ates Wild Dream Sequences for Hitch­cock & Vin­cente Min­nel­li

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.