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What is Surrealism?

In an interview conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2005, Leonora Carrington was asked for her definition of Surrealism. Her answer continues the impish evasiveness she demonstrated throughout the interview and seems, initially at least, to refuse a definition. She said: ‘ I would define it as an approach to reality that we do not understand yet. ‘ Despite first impressions, the artist comes close here to capturing the essence of the Surrealist movement. What Carrington’s definition suggests is that Surrealism’s interest in unconscious fantasy as revealed through desire, was not as a means to escape reality, but instead a strategy through which to fundamentally alter reality, thus inferring Surrealism’s fusion of art and radical politics, typical of the revolutionary avant-garde in the inter-war period. 1

This contrasts with a general, popular understanding of Surrealism, which tends towards broad definitions of the term as encompassing anything marvellous, strange or fantastic; often demonstrating a very narrow understanding of Surrealist art, with a focus on painting (particularly that of key figures such as Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst), rather than engaging with the diverse activities of the Surrealists that encompassed visual art, literature and politics. The tendency to focus on a small part of the Surrealist movement as representing the whole, diminishes the vibrancy of the Surrealist movement, by not properly describing the range of its activities and interests, or the heterogeneity of the artists who embraced Surrealism, with varying degrees of commitment. This text addresses some of these issues, but will focus on French Surrealism, using select examples. A particular emphasis will be placed on the writer André Breton, the central figure and organising force behind the movement.

Breton worked as a medical orderly during WWI, where he was struck by his encounters with patients suffering from shell-shock. This experience reinforced his interest in psychoanalysis, one of the key discourses that informed Surrealism. While Surrealism was strongly influenced by the models of the unconscious mind and the discussions of psychological states and dreams – both in terms of function and content– in the work of figures such as Sigmund Freud, it was not a slavish transcription of these ideas into a cultural context. Surrealism tended to place a very different value on psychoanalytic principles, theories and methods. For example, whereas, for Freud, automatism was simply a diagnostic tool, for the Surrealists it formed a central route to the unconscious. Similarly, where Freud argued that the primitive urges and desires of the unconscious (the Id) needed to be checked and ‘civilised’ by the conscious (the ego) and the conscience (the superego), the Surrealists advocated freedom from all constraint and taboo. As Alyce Mahon argues: ‘Freud’s understanding of sexuality and eroticism informed the Surrealists’ understanding of Eros, the life force, as a philosophical concept concerned with the profound human drive towards creativity and social fulfillment. Eros is also inevitably bound to its counterpart, Thanatos, the destructive death drive, and to society and its repressive codes of behaviour. At the same time, the Surrealists broke with Freud’s insistence on the need to control Eros and instead claimed that it should be deliberately unleashed for subversive, political ends. ‘2

Breton was also strongly influenced by his involvement with Dadaism, and many other artists associated with Surrealism such as Max Ernst, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp had earlier links to various Dada groups. The Dada interest in the ludic (the playful and spontaneous) and in chance and irrationality, particularly as a means to counteract or refuse the norms of bourgeois society, was adopted in Surrealism, although Breton argued that Surrealism was less nihilistic than Dada. In a text ‘Leave Everything’ published in Littérature, the first of many Surrealist journals, he signaled his distance from the earlier avant-garde movement, as well as from bourgeois life and values:

Leave Everything Leave Dada Leave your wife, leave your mistress Leave your hopes and fears Drop your kids in the middle of nowhere Leave the substance for the shadow Leave behind, if need be, your comfortable life and promising future Take to the highways.3

A couple of years later, in 1924, Breton formulated his ‘First Manifesto of Surrealism’, a statement of intent which is often seen as marking the beginning of a formal Surrealist movement. Breton’s manifesto emphasised the technique of automatism as central to Surrealist practice: ‘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 thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. ‘4

The text, Les Champs Magnetique (the Magnetic Fields) 1919, also published in Littérature, was by André Breton and Philippe Souppault, who claimed to have created the text through a sort of automatic free association without conscious mediation (although the texts were subsequently ‘tidied up’ through the addition of punctuation for example). Automatism in visual production was achieved through a number of techniques, such as the game ‘Exquisite Corpse’, which again created an unconscious free association, and through various painting techniques such as decalcomania, frottage and grattage. Despite these techniques, there were disputing views within the Surrealist group, as to whether visual art could be properly automatic.

Automatic methods were often collaborative and demonstrate the importance of the group within Surrealism. Surrealism involved artists and writers coming together to create work collectively and individually, in an atmosphere charged by debate and frequent passionate disputes. Something of this atmosphere is suggested by Max Ernst’s painting, Au Rendez-Vous des Amis (At the Meeting of Friends), 1922. In its prominent placing of Louis Aragon and Breton at the centre of two separate groups of Surrealists, Ernst’s image seems to prefigure the dispute between the two, essentially due to Aragon’s increasing commitment to, and Breton’s growing disenchantment with, the PCF (the French Communist Party). Breton’s dominance as ‘leader’ of the group, made for a fluid situation, with several figures leaving Surrealism to set up their own rival groups. Chief among these marginal figures was Georges Bataille, often described as ‘Surrealism’s enemy from within’, the editor of the influential journal, Documents. Bataille differed from Breton in terms of a less utopian, more strongly materialist approach to the unconscious, expressed through his concept of ‘la bassesse’, base material.

In Surrealism and Painting, produced first as a pamphlet in 1928 and then published in the journal, La Revolution Surréaliste, Breton argued more strongly for a Surrealist painting that would refer to ‘a purely interior model’, conceived not just in terms of automatism, but in terms of a new conception of ‘oneiric description’, where dream narratives were communicated in a highly polished, finished, almost illustrative manner. While Surrealism and Painting focussed on the work of Picasso (then working in what could be described as a Surrealist vein), Breton’s model of Surrealist painting was soon centred around the work of Salvador Dalí.

Dalí’s The Spectre of Sex Appeal, 1934, is typical of the type of dream illustration that formed this branch of Surrealist painting, and also clearly demonstrates an interest in psychoanalytic models in its representation of a desire for the mother that is simultaneously erotic and repulsive. The work is typical of Dalí’s method of ‘critical paranoia’, where the artist made use of double imagery to illustrate how the individual experiences reality in a manner that is more indicative of their repressed desires, than a confirmation of objective reality. According to Dalí: ‘…the paranoiac activity always makes use of materials that are controllable and recognisable … Paranoia makes use of the external world in order to set off his obsessive idea, with the disturbing characteristic of verifying the reality of this idea for others. ‘5

Hal Foster’s influential text on Surrealism, Compulsive Beauty, 1993, reads Surrealist art in terms of Freud’s ideas of the uncanny as being primarily motivated by a death drive that is more powerful than the pleasure principle. In Foster’s view, the eroticism of Surrealist art is always tinged with violence and death. Hans Bellmer’s Les Jeux de la Poupee, 1934-1949, involves a series of photographs of an elaborate, jointed doll, made by the artist and subject to his manipulations and distortions, in a manner that creates an unsettling eroticism. Freud’s text The Uncanny, 1919, had named the doll or mannequin and the double as figures that strongly represent the uncanny. For Freud, the repetitions associated with the uncanny are associated with the inevitable movement of life towards death, and it’s notable that Bellmer repeats forms, even within single images, as in one of his most disturbing manifestations of the doll, where instead of a body she is given a double set of legs.

The violent dismantling and distortions of the female form, in Bellmer, and in the images of Man Ray among others, have meant that Surrealism has been read as an aesthetic that privileges a heterosexual male gaze under which woman is simply an ‘object of desire’. Surrealist art frequently presented the body of woman as offering a route to the unconscious through desire (or l’amour fou, mad love, and ‘convulsive beauty’ as their ideas of eros were often expressed). Female artists within Surrealism, such as Lee Miller, Meret Oppenheim and Leonora Carrington, tended to be viewed as models and muses as well as artists, conforming to the ideals of femme-enfant (child-woman) or femme-sorcière (sorceress). However, Surrealist images often complicated fixed ideas of gender, as in Man Ray’s Anatomies of 1929, where he photographed Miller’s chin and neck in a manner that renders them strongly phallic in appearance, or in the Surrealist fascination with transvestitism, as in Marcel Duchamp’s adoption of the feminine persona of Rrose Selavy (eros, c’est la vie, eros, that’s life).

While Max Ernst’s Meeting of Friends suggests a strongly male environment, Surrealism was attractive to a number of female artists, who saw it as a field through which they could explore their own sexual and gendered identities. Natalya Lusty has argued that these women occupied a particular position in relation to Surrealism, where they were both participants and observers: ‘… their work at particular moments is informed through the twin modes of active participation and detached observation, establishing a dynamic of complicity and resistance, homage and critique in relation to many of the central tenets of Bretonian Surrealism. ‘6

Lee Miller’s t, 1940, can be seen not simply as a documentary image of a classical sculpture, damaged in the London Blitz, but as an example of the artist taking control of her image, conflating the many images Man Ray took of her, suggestive of a fragmented classical torso, with her political reportage of WWII. Meret Oppenheim’s works, such as Luncheon in Fur, 1936, and Cannibal Feast, 1959, are strongly suggestive of a female sexuality, conflated with consumption, where passivity is not necessarily a powerless position, but instead one that is actively chosen for gratification and pleasure.

These works also provide a cogent example of Surrealism’s experimentation with non-traditional media, and demonstrate the limitations of a narrow focus on Surrealist painting. Oppenheim’s Luncheon in Fur is a particularly well known example of the ‘Surrealist Object’, where everyday items are brought together or transformed, to create a sense of the uncanny or the marvellous. Her Cannibal Feast was produced for the 1959 Surrealist Exhibition, with the theme of Eros. To get a full sense of the radical nature of Surrealism, we need to imaginatively move beyond the often poor quality images that record such ephemeral works, to consider the intensely experiential nature of these events. Many Surrealist actions and performances acquired their own mythology and legend, such as Dalí’s infamous speech for the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in London, in 1936, which he famously delivered wearing a diving suit, causing him to collapse from the heat and lack of air.

Rosalind Krauss has argued for photography as the most important medium for Surrealism. In L’Amour Fou: Surrealism and Photography, 1986, she argues that Surrealist images undermine photography’s iconic and indexical nature (where the world is recorded as an image that demonstrates a necessary connection to reality). Instead Surrealism tended to present photographs as indeterminate symbols that operate in a manner akin to language (the staged repetitions of Bellmer’s Poupee provide just one example of this). Surrealist use of photography was varied, ranging from techniques undermining its connection to reality (Man Rays ‘solarizations’ or Raoul Ubac’s ‘brûlages’), to chance images of the marvellous (such as Brassaï’s photographs of Paris at night).

Surrealism operated above all through language, through the pages of the various Surrealist journals (Littérature, La Revolution Surréaliste, Surréalisme au Service de la Revolution, Varietés, Documents, and the London Bulletin, to name just a few of the most prominent), and through pamphlets and flyers distributed on the streets, often with strongly didactic political messages such as their collective statement of 1925 ‘Open the Prisons. Disband the Army’. The group also produced more measured statements of their political views, as in the text jointly produced by Breton, the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’, published in the Communist Publication, Partisan Review, in 1938, which argued that art is necessarily revolutionary when free from political control.

In an elaborate protest against the Colonial Exhibition, held in Paris in 1931, the Surrealists, together with the PCF (the French Communist Party) and the AIL (the Anti-Imperialist League), organised an alternative exhibition ‘The Truth about the Colonies’. The Surrealist display for the exhibition featured ethnographic objects (mostly taken from André Breton’s extensive collection), alongside a text derived from Karl Marx: ‘a people who oppress others cannot possibly be free’.7

Against this display, the Surrealists had a vitrine exhibiting ‘European fetishes’, which contained three figures: a tacky figurine reminiscent of a ‘Hottentot Venus’; an elaborate collection box for French Foreign Missions, featuring an African child holding a begging bowl with the word ‘merci’ printed on it; and finally, a Catholic crusade figure of the virgin and child. David Bate has argued that this display involved an inversion of the Christian values of faith, hope and charity.8

As such, the Surrealist contribution to ‘The Truth about the Colonies’ took a strong stance against what they saw as the hypocritical humanism of Western colonialism, especially as represented by religious missionaries. Photographs of the exhibition were reproduced in Surréalisme au Service de la Revolution in December 1931, reinforced by a tract in the form of an imperative instruction: ‘Don’t Visit the Colonial Exhibition’, where they argued: ‘The dogma of French territorial integrity, so piously advanced in moral justification of the massacres we perpetuate, is a semantic fraud; it binds no one to the fact that not one week goes by without someone being killed in the colonies. ‘9

The Surrealist response to the Colonial Exhibition, involved a typical reversal of hegemonic values, with the supposedly civilised and rational European society exposed as barbaric against the ‘primitive’ irrationality and magic of the non-West. The ethnographic objects from Breton’s collection were used to present an alternative to Western bourgeois culture. By privileging the non-West over the West, the dream over reality, the chance and the marvellous over the rational and routine, the Surrealist hope was to alter existing reality through a fusion of image and text, art and politics.

  1. See Peter Bürger, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, 1984.
  2. Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros: 1938-1968, 2005, p. 15.
  3. Breton, in Matheson, ed. , The Sources of Surrealism, 2006, p. 243.
  4. Breton, in Harrison and Wood, eds. , Art in Theory: 1900-2000, 2003, p. 452.
  5. Salvador Dalí in Finkelstein, ed. , The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, 1998, p. 233.
  6. Natalya Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 2007, p. 2.
  7. The Surrealists ascribed the quotation to Marx in the exhibition ; however, it actually comes from Engels, rather than Marx’s Speech on Poland of 1847.
  8. David Bate, Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent, 2004, p. 223.
  9. Ibid, p. 221.


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