Surrealism is a cultural movement which was started in 1924 by the poet and critic Andre Breton, following the disintegration of Dadaism.
It reached its pinnacle around 1945, although it continued as an art form until the 1960s. It flourished during the late 1920s and 1930s and was influential on artists of the New York School during the 1940s.
The Surrealists were interested in the power of the unconscious mind and its ability, when accessed, to free the imagination. They were influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and the writings of Karl Marx and believed that the key to personal and social freedom lay in the unconscious mind. They developed a system of automatic writing and drawing which was done outside of conscious control and which yielded unexpected and unusual images and ideas. This became known as Automatism. Andre Breton defined the movement as:
‘pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation.’
For Andre Breton, the movement was a cultural revolution but as such its influence was limited and as a movement it found its greatest success in the form of the visual arts.
Paris was the centre of the movement until the mid-1940s. The leading visual artists were Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. Images of objects in dreamlike settings were central to their work.
Many of Miro’s colourful and witty paintings are the result of Automatism and reveal the mysterious workings of his sub-conscious mind. He said:
‘I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself, under my brush. The form becomes a sign for a woman or a bird as I work.’
Miro’s early work is playful and childlike but, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and talk of another world war, his later work reflects a darker vision of the world.
Rene Magritte used surrealism to explore the incongruities and affinities between certain objects. His paintings challenge our assumptions about art and reality. Magritte’s disturbing painting entitled ‘Le Viol’ was considered by the Surrealists to be a powerful statement of their aims and it was used on Breton’s 1934 publication, ‘What is Surrealism?’ Breton said that Margritte was an artist:
‘who detected what could result from relating concrete words of great resonance...with forms which deny or at least do not rationally correspond to them.’
The most flamboyant, celebrated and controversial of all the artists in the movement was Salvador Dali whose paintings explored the hallucinatory qualities of the dream state. Dali explained his creative process in his book entitled ‘La Femme Visible’ (1930). He went a stage beyond automatism and described a process whereby the mind is put into a state of paranoia and disorientation in order to turn reality upside down.
Dali’s work had a considerable impact on the world of fashion and advertising during his lifetime and continues to fascinate with attendances at art galleries which exhibit his work continuing to grow.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, most of the artists moved to New York and continued to work and exhibit there. The Surrealist movement and automatism, in particular, influenced and inspired a new generation of artists (such as Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock) and helped to sow the seeds of the new Abstract Expressionist movement.