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Surrealism’s Enduring Contribution to 20th Century Arts

Surrealist Dali: Mad On Many Accounts? - Roger Higgins
Surrealist artists, painters, poets, filmmakers and writers are no longer regarded as fringe lunatics; their work & legacy of ideas have become mainstream.

According to, Surrealism is ‘a style of art and literature developed in the 20th century, stressing the subconscious or non-rational significance of imagery arrived at by the exploitation of chance effects, unexpected juxtapositions’. It is also, in a sense, a search for life’s meaning.

It began, possibly, with Alfred Jarry publishing his play Ubu Roi (1896) in Paris. Its mix of absurd humour and obscenity caused mayhem. Surrealism was prominent in Europe between the world wars, growing from earlier ‘Dada’, which produced anti-art that deliberately defied reason. quotes poet and critic André Breton (1896-1966), the ‘Pope of Surrealism’, who published The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924: ‘Surrealism is a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely, that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in an absolute reality, a surreality’.

Freud’s psychoanalysis theories heavily influenced the movement’s philosophy. Breton saw the unconscious as ‘the wellspring of the imagination’ which could be attained by poets and painters. However, Freud himself dismissed Surrealists, except Dali, as ‘quite mad’.

Surrealism in Art

Many Surrealists made art and wrote across genre boundaries, such as: Andrea de Chirico (1809 – 1952), who studied piano, wrote poetry, published a book Hermafriodito (1918), wrote ballet music (Perseus 1924) and painted/designed ballets; while Wilhelm Freddie painted images of sexuality, revolt, war and then made films.

Whether Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) should be regarded as Surrealist, is debatable. Some people detect it in his 1920s’ works and 1935 poems., a website dedicated to his life and work said: ‘Picasso was for a time saluted as a forerunner of Surrealism, but his intellectual approach was basically antithetical to the irrational aesthetic of Surrealist painters’.

Perhaps the world’s foremost Surrealist artist was Salvador Dali (1904-1989), regarded by many as genius, and others as mad. Both eccentric (the book, The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Salvador Dali, 2003, quoted him owning, ‘the Rights of the Man to His Own Madness’), and methodical, the Spaniard studied daily in Madrid’s Prado museum. A double-image technique, use of dreams and subconscious streams of memory/thought became hallmarks in such iconic works as the Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937). The Persistence of Memory (1931), The Burning Giraffe (1936) and Lobster Telephone (1936).

Fellow Spaniard Joan Miro (1893-1983) enjoyed painting success and became a promoter of Surrealist art. When he worked on designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe’s Romeo and Juliet, he was frowned upon by the movement. He collaborated with Max Ernst (1891-1976), another ‘founding father of Surrealism’ styled by He was briefly married to Peggy Guggenheim, who opened UK and US galleries to exhibit Surrealist work.

Belgian-born Rene Magritte (1902-1967) joined Surrealist activities in France, developing a unique style: figures from the ordinary world in extraordinary order. Later in the 60s and beyond, some pop artists claimed him as inspiration. Engraver, writer and painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) is credited with creating pictorial abstraction, and his work was supported by Surrealists when exhibited in France, 1925. Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was a Swiss painter and sculptor; his work influenced Surrealist idea of ‘the object’ in art’, and he later got involved in existentialism.

Surrealism in Literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia 2008 said that the ancestry of Surrealism is traced back to ‘the French poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire and the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. Surrealist writers were interested in associations and implications of words rather than literal meanings’. The Encyclopedia cited leading surrealist writers like Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos and Jean Cocteau, who was famous for surreal movies.

Aragon wrote for Surrealism as it evolved, along with collages and plastic arts manifestos. Politically active as a Communist, he influenced emerging Surrealist text, as did Frenchman Benjamin Peret (1899-1959) a Communist, who wrote revolutionary, humorous, sacrilegious poetry and edited, La Revolution Surrealiste. Eugene Grindel, aka Paul Eluard (1895-1952) was also a Communist, poetry editor and frequent spokesman for Surrealism.

Jean or Hans Arp (1887-1966), painted, made wood reliefs and collages, wrote poetry and created sculpture. Aspects of his work blended Dadaism with Surrealism. A psychoanalytical approach to rational thinking justifying the movement’s theories came from Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962).

Other practitioners of note included Britain’s Leonora Carrington who published at least half a dozen books of stories, and there was a Czech and Slovak group, formed in 1934 and almost continuously active to the present day. They produced a great deal of surrealist literature, while founding member Vitezslav Nezval alone was responsible for over 80 books.

Surrealism on Stage

Equally multi-skilled was painter, poet, director, cinematist, theatre innovator assaulting audiences’ senses, Antonin Artaud (1896–1948). His ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, according to Gabriela Stoppelman in Artaud for Beginners (2000): ‘aspires to a theatre where language of physical movement and gesture could be applied on many psychological levels’.

Until he fell out with Surrealist ideals, he espoused the ideas. Despite/because of his illnesses, mental home incarcerations and drugs, his legacy is considerable in theatrical/performance theory. Study of his work is popular among students, and his playThe Spurt (or Jet) of Blood (1925) is classic surrealism, bringing dream, fantasy, semi-reality and unlikely juxtapositions together.

Surrealism on Film

His scenario for what became The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) led to the first surrealist film, about the erotic hallucinations of a priest lusting after the wife of a general, in a style described as ‘subverting the physical, surface image’. Artaud hated the film. The British Board of Film Censors reported it: ‘apparently meaningless, but if there is meaning, it is doubtless objectionable’.

Spaniard Luis Bunuel (1900-1983), best known as a filmmaker, active in Surrealism after 1925, wrote an Artaud-derivative script of shocking Freudian images in Un Chien Andalou (1929) with Dali. He developed a catalogue of movies that calls: ‘deeply rooted in the surrealist concept of dream versus reality’: The Diary of a Chambermaid (1962), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1961) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974).

Hugo Ball (1886-1927), stage director who worked in Berlin, Munich and Zurich, said of his own surrealist group, Cabaret Voltaire: ‘ the aim is to remind the world that people of independent minds live for different ideals’.

All in all, whatever genre they worked in, the Surrealists broke new ground, albeit controversially, to plough a field that has benefitted artistic experimenters, convention-challengers and boundary-pushers to this day.

First published on Suite 101, 14 September 2010.

Photo: Surrealist Dali: Mad On Many Accounts? – Roger Higgins

Thanks to Bill Howe for information on Leonora Carrington and the Czech/Slovak group.

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