The Surrealist movement is a really complicated one to write about because it spread far and wide over Europe and America, was bound up in other big artistic movements like modernism and comprised artists who painted, wrote, created the first kinds of installation art, produced music and photography and sometimes just horsed about playing stupid games in the name of original creativity. I’m going to write about some of the bits I know, and the well-informed can fill in the gaps I leave.
Surrealism grew out of the Dada movement that began in Switzerland during the First World War. Dadaism was all about anarchy – it was this huge big rebellion against the reason and logic and bourgeois repression that the group considered was the cause of the war in the first place, and it declared itself anti-art. Well, it was anti-everything really. When you boil it down it was a bunch of complete nutters, headed by the manic chump Tristan Tzara, who would take over some unsuspecting location, read aloud solemn manifestos, then take turns in yelling out nonsense poetry to the beat of a drum etc., until someone leaped into the crowd and started throwing punches and the whole thing would end in a big brawl. As evenings out go, it’s not so unfamiliar to the modern age, but it was considered pretty unusual then, particularly when labeled performance art. In the early 1920s a young Frenchman called André Breton joined the Dada group but fairly quickly formed his own breakaway movement, known as the Surrealists. Breton had been working as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital helping to care for the shell shock victims of the war, and during this time he had become interested in the then new work of Sigmund Freud. He was fascinated by the concept of the unconscious as the hidden and unexplored part of the subject, and his idea was to form a revolutionary artistic movement that concentrated on drawing out this huge untapped reservoir of creativity. So with his buddies Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Phillipe Soupault and Paul Eluard, he set about mining the unconscious by means of techniques like automatic writing – a fancy name for writing down without censorship just whatever comes into your head (this is not as easy as it sounds – you’ll find your mind continually intervenes to tidy up) and word games. These latter were things like consequences, crazy question and answer sessions and time traveler’s potlatch, in which a couple of people decide what gift they would most like to bestow on a historical figure. When it was recreated with a group of players in Chicago in 1999, the Marquis de Sade was chosen as a recipient and it’s entertaining how many people suggested he might like an internet connection.
Anyway. Despite the fact that copious quantities of drink and drugs gave the Surrealists that delightful sensation of being the funniest, most inventive group of people on the earth, a lot of work survived the cold light of day. Breton was thrilled with his own success and wrote to Freud, telling him to what good use they were putting his theories. Now the whole point of the unconscious for Freud was that you could never reach it. When you reach the doors of the unconscious, it is always closing time; it certainly wasn’t something you could harness and put on display in a syntactically-challenged poem. And so he replied somewhat perplexed to Breton’s enthusiastic description of Surrealist writing practices that he had no idea what it all had to do with him. Undeterred, Breton pressed on, the group expanded and sucked in artists from different disciplines, and they published two manifestos in which they outlined ideas that became progressively more political. Well, I say political. The bit everyone remembers (because it’s memorable) is the bit where Breton suggests the most useful political act the average member of society can commit is to grab hold of a gun, run out with it into the street, and shoot someone. Any old someone. This is clearly not going to cohere into the kind of policy that wins democratic votes, but the group at this time was fixated with the idea of being radical, totally head over heels in love with the possibilities of a kind of childish anarchy that at its best produced genuinely original art, and at its worst was responsible for just that kind of silly statement.
Some of the very best Surrealist work was to be found in art where the possibilities of play, of imagination, of shock, could be explored with wit and invention. Man Ray’s photographs of a woman’s back turned into the body of a cello, Magritte’s faceless men with bowler hats, Roland Penrose’s face of a woman with butterflies for her eyes and mouth, Salvadore Dali’s melting watches have all become part of a cultural inheritance that stretches to the present day. Much of the point of Surrealist art is to block an intellectual response to what you are looking at or reading. Its intention is to make the question ‘why?’ unanswerable. One of the other famous art exhibits of this era was Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, which has become one of the great landmarks of modern art. It was such a Surrealist concept (although Duchamp is more of a Dadaist, but let’s not mess about with these distinctions here) to question what was an appropriate subject for artistic treatment. Montage was one of the favoured practices, and often bus tickets and café menus were part of the materials used, in order to suggest that the flotsom and jetsom of modern life could equally be view with an aesthetic eye. In many ways, modern art has never moved on from the impact of Surrealism; art is far keener still to disorient and to disturb than to provide the spectator with a consoling image, and performance and installation art find their roots back here. Art still seeks to have an effect on the spectator that is more visceral than it is intellectual.
Just as there is no neat start date for Surrealism, so there is no definitive end point either. Some people suggest that the death of Breton in 1966 marked the beginning of the end, others that the death of Dali in 1989 marked its conclusion. In any case artists carried on making and exhibiting and publishing surreal work right through the middle of the century. For my own part, though, the first great literary wave of Surrealism was over by the mid-1930s in France, Breton’s qualities as a zealot for the cause were only equaled by his ability to get up people’s noses and before the twenties were out he had quarreled with a significant portion of his friends who had subsequently formed a splinter group. He was an odd, flat-faced man with a strangely pious look, the errant schoolboy most likely to squeal on his friends, with a thatch of wiry corrugated hair that resembled nothing so much as a pan scourer. And my goodness me, did he have an ego! They were such a group of characters, those early Surrealists, from the stoned romantic, Robert Desnos, to Salvadore Dali who declared ‘the only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.’ I’d love to write a book about them one day, not a serious one, but just the anecdotes and the fighting and the wife-swapping and the art. It would be a lot of fun. But in any case, Surrealism is alive and well these days in both alternative comedy and advertising publicity. What was the basis for revolutionary politics almost a century ago is now viewed as the quirkily hilarious disorientation that is part and parcel of everyday life.