Ten things you should know about Surrealism
- Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
- 2 June 2016
Surrealists tapped into the subconscious, unrestricted by the confines of the rational. Melting clocks, elephants on stilts... how much do you know about this cultural movement?
Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is an exhibition of Surrealist works from the collections of Edward James, Roland Penrose, Gabrielle Keiller, and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. It is on at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from June 4 until September 11, 50% off with a National Art Pass.
It was founded by André Breton
Breton, writer, artist, and anarchist, began as a Dadaist, a counter-cultural movement that opposed excessive rational thought and bourgeois values, which were believed to bring conflict upon the world. Members of the Dada movement would protest with anti-art gatherings, art works, and performances. The avant-garde movement quickly inspired the emergence of Surrealism.
'Automatic writing' inspired the philosophy of Surrealism
In 1919, Breton launched the review Littérature along with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. They began experiments with 'automatic writing', which was the process of spontaneously putting down one's thoughts on paper without any censorship, and then published the results in Littérature. A year later, in 1920, Breton and Soupault went deeper into automatism and wrote The Magnetic Fields.
Surrealism began with two rival groups
The groups, formed before 1924, were led by the German poet Yvan Goll and Breton. Goll's group included Pierre Albert-Birot, Paul Dermée, Céline Arnauld, and Francis Picabia, while Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, and Paul Éluard joined Breton.
Goll and Breton both published their own versions of the Manifeste du Surréalisme in 1924. The two leaders clashed repeatedly and, once, literally: they had a physical fight at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées over who would claim the rights to the term 'Surrealism'. Ultimately, due to sheer numbers and tactical superiority, Breton won that bitter battle.
Joan Miró and André Masson were among the first Surrealist painters
The first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925. It had works by Man Ray, Paul Klee, Masson and Miró themselves, and others. The exhibition affirmed that Surrealism was compatible with the visual arts, despite several of its proponents, including Breton, having doubts about it at first.
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí brought Surrealism to film
Many people's first contact with Surrealism tends to be through Buñuel's short film, Un Chien Andalou (an Andalusian dog). This 1929 collaboration with Dalí is a silent, 21-minute long pastiche of loosely-connected scenes, varying from the shocking to the bizarre. Its most famous scene is one depicting a man slitting a woman's eye open with a razor.
Politically, Surrealism was a far-leftist movement
The movement was comprised primarily of Trotskyists, communists, and anarchists. However, the split from Dada is seen as one between anarchists and communists, with Dadaists being the former and Surrealists the latter. Dalí, seen by many as a leading figure of the movement, was a supporter of capitalism and Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship. Due to this he was considered by Breton and his associates to have betrayed and left the movement.
Surrealism even influenced musicians
Composers who were entwined with Surrealism were Erik Satie, Bohuslav Martinů, André Souris, and Edgard Varèse. Souris had a personal relationship with René Magritte, and worked on Adieu Marie, Paul Nougé's Dada-inspired magazine. Philosopher Theodor Adorno describes Surrealist music as a hybrid between Schoenberg's 'modern' school and Stravinsky's Neoclassicism.
War brought European Surrealists and American artists together
As many Surrealists were anti-fascists, the Second World War forced them to flee to the relative safety of the United States. There, they met figures also dabbling with Surrealist ideas, like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. Abstract Expressionism was influenced by the meeting of American artists and European Surrealists.
The end of the movement
Many believe that André Breton was the life-force of the movement, with art historian Sarane Alexandrian saying that his death in 1966 cemented the end of Surrealism as an organised movement. However, others claim it was the Second World War itself that brought about Surrealism's denouement.
Surrealism had an impact on the Situationist International
Guy Debord, the founder of the avant-garde political Situationist movement, was apprehensive about associating it with Surrealism but other Situationists, like Asger Jorn, adopted many Surrealist methods and techniques. During the volatile May 1968 in France, when a series of escalating protests brought the nation to a halt, many of the slogans and ideas utilised were clearly Surrealist. Joan Miró would even dedicate a painting to that period of violent civil unrest, titling it May 1968.