Surrealism, movement in visual art and literature, flourishing in Europe between World Wars I and II.
Surrealists, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the unconscious—believed insanity was the breaking of the chains of logic, and they represented this idea in their art by creating imagery that was impossible in reality, juxtaposing unlikely forms onto unimaginable landscapes.
Though it waned as an organized movement, Surrealism has never disappeared as a creative artistic principle.
Surrealism has been and continues to be one of the most influential cultural movements of the 20th century. Its worldwide impact has taken force in multiple spheres of life, ranging from art and literature, to philosophy, politics and social theory. Surrealism has also played an integral role in the growth of the feminist art movement.
Surrealist imagery is probably the most recognizable element of the movement, yet it is also the most elusive to categorize and define. Each artist relied on their own recurring motifs arisen through their dreams or/and unconscious mind. At its basic, the imagery is outlandish, perplexing, and even uncanny, as it is meant to jolt the viewer out of their comforting assumptions. Nature, however, is the most frequent imagery: Max Ernst was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego, Salvador Dalí’s
works often include ants or eggs, and Joan Miró relied strongly on vague biomorphic imagery.
The word ‘surrealism’ was first coined in March 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire. He wrote in a letter to Paul Dermée: “All things considered, I think in fact it is better to adopt surrealism than supernaturalism, which I first used”.
Surrealism grew principally out of the earlier Dada movement, which before World War I produced works of anti-art that deliberately defied reason – but Surrealism’s emphasis was not on negation but on positive expression.
Surrealism was a movement that began in Paris in the 1920s. It was created in direct response to the horrors of the First World War and to the relatively restrictive conventions of the art world at the time. The point of Surrealism was to bridge the conscious and unconscious mind, to liberate the subconscious, and to get at the heart of what art could truly be when it
was not constrained by convention.
The movement in the mid-1920s was characterized by meetings in cafes where the Surrealists played collaborative drawing games, discussed the theories of Surrealism, and developed a variety of techniques such as automatic drawing. Breton initially doubted that visual arts could even be useful in the Surrealist movement since they appeared to be less malleable and open to chance and automatism. This caution was overcome by the discovery of such techniques as frottage, grattage and decalcomania.
Soon more visual artists became involved, including Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine Hugo, Méret Oppenheim, Toyen, Kansuke Yamamoto and later after the second war: Enrico Donati. Though Breton admired Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and courted them to join the movement, they remained peripheral. More writers also joined, including former Dadaist Tristan Tzara, René Char, and Georges Sadoul.
Early followers of the Surrealism movement were revolutionaries who sought to unleash human creativity. Breton opened a Bureau for Surrealist Research where members conducted interviews and assembled an archive of sociological studies and dream images.
Surrealism quickly spread from Paris to its surrounding European countries during the late 1920s to early 30s. The International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936 was a defining moment for the movement in Britain, as it brought attention to now prominent surrealist artists, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore.
By the 1940s, Surrealism had spread to the United States. As the Second World War caused many to flee Europe, various surrealists who emigrated to America disseminated their ideas and theories to intellectuals and artists there. Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, and Dorothea Tanning were some of the key Surrealist artists who helped propel the avant garde movement in America.
Born in Strasbourg, Jean Arp (1886–1966) was a Dada pioneer who wrote poetry and experimented with a variety of visual mediums such as torn paper and wooden relief constructions. His interest in organic forms and spontaneous expression aligned with surrealist philosophy. Arp exhibited with Surrealist artists in Paris and became best known for fluid, biomorphic sculptures such as “Tête et coquille” (Head and Shell). During the 1930s, Arp transitioned to a non-prescriptive style he called Abstraction-Création.
Spanish Catalan artist Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) was embraced by the Surrealism movement in the late 1920s only to be expelled in 1934. Nevertheless, Dalí acquired international fame as an innovator who embodied the spirit of Surrealism, both in his art and in his flamboyant and irreverent behavior. Dalí conducted widely-publicized dream experiments in which he reclined in bed or in a bathtub while sketching his visions. He claimed that the melting watches in his famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory,” came from self-induced hallucinations.