A Mini Guide to Surrealism

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.

17 thoughts on “A Mini Guide to Surrealism

  1. Very interesting post! I’d say Surrealism is definitely alive and well today in many parts of our culture – if you see it (or an aspect of it?) as a disruption or deliberate upsetting of “ordinary” or rational space. Could the lasting influence be because of the increasing urbanisation of our culture – if you see Surrealism as a response or reaction to urbanism and the way in which urban space is so irrational, even though it’s supposed to be the opposite?

  2. You’re very welcome, highwayoflife – and nice to have you call by. Yaeli, that’s a very intriguing thought. I’m sure that Surrealism becomes an intrinsic part of our culture wherever there is too much inhumanity, too much regulation and control, and too little community. It’s the ultimate in the ridiculous, the comic, the irrational and the unexpected. Sorry, that’s a long winded way of saying I think you’re right.

  3. Where would we be without the surrealists?!I’ve always been fascinated by them (particularly the art), but I didn’t know the part about going out and shooting any old person on the street. I guess that’s anarchy for you! Have you read much surrealist literature? I have a couple of books by Breton and Soupault though I am not sure I ever read them (this was a big phase of mine a long time ago). One of my favorites (artists) is Meret Oppenheim–that fur teacup is sort of creepy–who thinks up such things! But it is sort of cool, too. I sometimes wish my mind worked more like that. Creativity-wise anyway.

  4. Highwayoflife – you are even more welcome than you were the first time! Danielle – you know you amaze me sometimes with the extent of your reading! You are incredible!I have indeed read a fair bit of Surrealist lit because I used to teach it. Breton’s Nadia is a crazy book that’s worth a look, but my favourite is Louis Aragon’s Parisian Peasant. That teacup you mention is fab in both a cool and creepy way. And I have a suspicion that if we took enough drugs, both our minds might work that way….

  5. I lovelovelove surrealism! I am more a fan of surrealist paintings than of the literature, though I do love the poetry. I definitely think it’s alive today, in so many ways. Not only in visual art and literature, but also in film and music (I especially love it in music) and even in those crazy youtube videos people make.

  6. My first contact with surrealism was Queneau. Although a marginal surrealist, he has all it takes to capture my attention: a scientific mind and a way of playing with language. Ah, and also Vian (but when I was older). Two examples of moderate surrealists with a scientific background.

  7. I am, at heart an anarchist. Yet I find the eccentric affectations of the dadaists and the surrealists to be nothing more nor less than the inane droolings of a generation of shell-shocked war survivors. The sad thing for me is that we have not truly recovered from that madness. Oh, let me wrap up a landmark in plastic and I will call it art. Let me photograph thousands of naked people and I will call it art. I’m sorry but from where I stand, I can see that the Emperor Surrealism has no clothes!

    [hunkering down in the Philistines Bunker]

  8. Dewey – of all the different genres, I like the painting the best, too. And probably the poetry second (I’m fond of the less-famous Desnos). And I hadn’t thought of Youtube, but you are perfectly correct! There’s a distinct Surrealist influence at work there. Mandarine – ah now I really like Queneau – Zazie dans le metro being my favourite. But you are going to have to help me out with Vian – I’ve tried several times to read his work and have always abandoned it. Is it a frame of mind I’ve got to get into? A mood? Archie – I’ll bet there’s some Surrealist stuff you like – it’s a huge European movement with so many different artists working in it. And yes, some like Duchamp and his readymades wouldn’t appeal, but then there are people like Max Ernst who are recognisable as ‘proper’ artists. And to be really cheeky in my act of rehabilitation here, I have to say that of all the blogs I visit, yours has the most surreal material on of any! 😉

  9. Perhaps I overstated my case a little – there has to be a first time for everything. 🙂 Early surrealism, especially the written form, was dedicated to a lack of coherence. I need coherence in my reading. (Ouch, this is hard, I’m trying to remember stuff I last read thirty years ago.) The artistic surrealists had interesting work and yes, I do enjoy some of it. Of course, as you know, I am a Goon Show fan and that was surrealist comedy. Much of British comedy since the 50’s has had that surrealist edge. So while I was picking on the novelists (and, indeed, the musicians) I am honest enough to recognise that I enjoy laughing at the Emperor. As for having a surreal blog – YIKES! Not possible. Everything in my blog is grounded on solid quicksand! 😉

  10. Archie – I do sympathise with the dislike of some of the literary incoherence you find in Surrealist writing. It’s why I like Aragon more than Breton, on the whole, as Aragon may be difficult but he’s not random. And the Goons, ah yes, my father loves them too! Perhaps Surrealism is better when it chooses to simply embrace the humour of the absurd. And we can both pick on Surrealist musicians if you like! As for that remark about solid quicksand, I love it, and will wait for the right moment on your blog to quote it back to you 🙂

  11. Thanks for the clarification. I’ve always been hazy about this lot, though I love the way Dali could paint a surface that looks so real, almost photographic, while depicting the most distorted images. I took this to be a key factor for them, to show that the world we intepret on the surface is distorted in its origins and our interpretations. Unlike other artists who try to display this in a logical top story/surface, they went the extra mile and made their methods of display in keeping with the ideas within, which of course makes it baffling a lot of the time. Inevitably in the age of mass media always greedy for a new angle their work has been trivialised and diluted, but it must have been pretty sensational at the time, especially given how staid those times were compared to now.

  12. Bookboxed, I love this perspective on the movement – such a clever and perceptive thought! It was all about expressing that inner disorientation that we live more intimately than superficial order and meaning.

  13. Pingback: Ducks on a Super-Saturated River « Archies Archive

  14. “horsed about playing stupid games in the name of original creativity” I think you’ve just explained it all to me with this little phrase! I much prefer the art side of Surrealism. For some reason I can tolerate visual nonesense better than verbal. My mind can’t not try to make sense of language, but for some reason the weirdness of a Dali painting appeals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s