Surrealism: Capture the Unconscious at the Edge of Consciousness
We don’t want to reproduce, we want to produce. We want to produce like a plant that produces a fruit, not reproduce. We want to produce directly and not transitively – Hans Arp.
Melting clocks in Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”, Joan Mirò’s universe of immediately recognizable signs, the apple on the face of “The Son of Man” by René Magritte and the flying figures in Marc Chagall’s works are some of the images that spring to mind at the mention of “surrealism”.
But we want to look deeper. We'd like to examine this movement in 20th Century art and culture more closely, allowing ourselves to be guided by the words, colours, signs and music of the famous artists who invented it.
In 1924, André Breton used the avant-garde medium of the manifesto to introduce the elements of what he announced to be a new movement. His definition of surrealism was: “Pure psychic automatism, by which one seeks to express, be it verbally, in writing, or in any other manner, (is) the real working of the mind. Dictated by the unconscious, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, and free from aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”
The two ways the manifesto suggested to trigger the said psychic automatism were automatic writing and the telling of irrational dreams.
Central to surrealist automatic writing is one of the two events marking the founding of the movement in 1919 – the publication of Le Champs Magnétique by André Breton and Philippe Soupault. The other event, in which the two writers also played an important role, was the launch, about the same time, of Littérature, a review in whose pages many of the ideas that led to surrealism were first aired.
The surrealist movement spanned a period of some 50 years, from 1919 to 1969.
But let us step back for a moment …how did surrealism come about?
At the end of the First World War, many of the leading figures in the avant-garde movements of the time, foremost among them the Dadaists, gravitaDada), Man Ray (Cadeau), Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, the leaders of the Dada revolution, were among the figures to whom young intellectuals like André Breton e Philippe Soupault looked to for inspiration.
The basic idea behind the surrealist movement was that art was “total”, involving artists in many disciplines rather than in any one technique or genre.
The term “surrealism” was in fact coined on the occasion of a “total” performance: Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, used it in the programme he wrote for Parade, a ballet that premiered on 17 May 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, with texts by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Léonide Massine.
Littérature organized and publicized soirees featuring readings and performances by writers like Breton, Aragon and Eluard, as well as music recitals and art shows.
Like Dada, surrealism saw itself as a radical way of living and acting, not just as an art movement. It rejected everything that was antimodern or anti-art, and had no time for nihilism and its associated social and cultural non-alignment. Breton stressed, however, that: “Dada and surrealism can only be conceived of as part of a reciprocal relation, like two waves that keep overlapping”.
In terms of artistic experiments, surrealism seems to have been poorly organized at the beginning, and it soon came under attack. Pierre Naville, the first editor of La Révolution surréaliste, a review founded in 1924 to publish accounts of the new adepts’ dreams, declared, “…no one can be unaware of the fact that surrealist painting does not exist”.
An answer to Naville’s charge soon came from Breton, who, besides being a man of letters, was an aesthete as well as a prominent art expert (he acted as intermediary in the sale of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to Jacques Doucet, bought cubist works from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and put together an extraordinary collection of tribal art). Breton succeeded Naville as editor and, starting in 1925, published his own book, Surrealism and Painting, in instalments, claiming surrealist affiliation for various artists, including “unwitting surrealists” (Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico), a group of Dadaists he described as the first surrealists (Max Ernst e Man Ray) and a group of young artists he classified as up-and-coming surrealists (André Masson and Joan Mirò). While Russian Marc Chagall never directly subscribed to the movement, his works are – chiefly because of their dreamlike feeling – often seen as containing elements of surrealism.
Declaring that psychic automatism can also be achieved with pencils and brushes, Breton published Masson’s automatic drawings, Mirò’s sign pictures and Max Ernst’s frottages.
Dubbed “the most surrealist of surrealist painters” by Giulio Carlo Argan, Max Ernst used any technique as long as it was problem-free and served solely as a mechanism for capturing images. Frottage, which he invented, or more precisely borrowed from children, consists in rubbing a soft pencil over a sheet of paper placed over a rough or embossed surface. Although the operation is essentially mechanical, the dynamic nature of the action brings one’s imagination into play so that the graphic impression becomes much more than the imprint of a real object.
It has been said that, with Ernst, the dream is not what creates the image but just the opposite. The artist is a mere spectator of his art. He does not paint what he dreams. He paints as he dreams.
Another founding father of the movement was Joan Mirò, described as “the most surrealist of surrealists” by Breton, who acted as the movement’s theoretician. The Spaniard, who cut his teeth on cubism and Fauvism, moved to Paris in 1920, when he came into contact with Tzara’s Dadaist circle. While already part of the avant-garde, Mirò welcomed surrealism’s lack of rules and preconceived ideas about art, accepting the movement’s most radical aspects and personally becoming a symbol of surrealism in its purest form.
Mirò sought to stop the entire area of existence and experience, that part of life that can only be revealed through images, from being kept buried in the dark. His objective was to do away with the censorship exercised by the conscious mind and capture the unconscious at the edge of consciousness, at the level of perception.
The Spanish painter was among the leading figures in the first surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925, together with Hans Arp – who, during his period as a Dadaist, had begun to incorporate chance into his works – Ernst, Masson, Picasso, Paul Klee and Giorgio de Chirico.
In order to help surrealist painters who were often short of money maintain their freedom of expression, André Breton founded a surrealist gallery in Paris, in rue Jacques Callot. It opened on 26 March 1926 with a show by Man Ray.
In Paris, cradle of the surrealist movement, one of the meeting places favoured by surrealist artists was the Café Les Deux Magots, where the Prix des Deux Magots for literature was first awarded in 1933.
The group’s second show, entitled Le Surréalisme, existe-t-il? took place in 1928, again in Paris, at the Au Sacre du Printemps gallery. Participating artists included Yves Tanguy and Francis Picabia. Three years later, in 1931, the movement landed in the United States with a show in Hartford and another, in 1936, in New York.
Major exhibitions were held in 1938 in Paris, and in Milan in 1961, with the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galleria Schwarz.
Surrealism made a key contribution to the development of Artists’ Books during the 20th Century. Surrealist artists were responsible for producing many of these books, thus keeping up – but also subverting – the French tradition of Livres d’artistes.
A striking example of surrealism’s revolutionary nature was the cover, entitled “Please Touch” created by Marcel Duchamp in 1947 for Le Surrealisme, the catalogue of a major exhibition held that year.
Produced together with the Italian artist Enrico Donati, the cover had a three-dimensional rubber breast on it.
Some years earlier, in 1934, Max Ernst and publisher Jeanne Bucher published Une semaine de bonté ou Les sept éléments capitaux, a book containing 182 collages divided into seven chapters, like the days of the week; the seven chapters were split into five albums, each one a different colour.
In this case, Ernst’s collages were taken from a Victorian text, but he had already used the technique to illustrate other books.
In 1922 he had done the graphics for a collection of poems by Eluard and Arp, while in 1929 he had published his first collage-novel La Femme 100 têtes, followed in 1930 by Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel.
A Livre d’artiste expressing the very essence of surrealism is Photographies 1920-1934 by Man Ray, a collection of photos and Rayographs; one version of the volume is particularly valuable because of its black binding, made by the Paris master-bookbinder Henri Mercher.
Among the leading proponents of the Livres d’artistes was André Masson, who illustrated a large number of works.
Memorable is his partnership with Robert Desnos in C’est les bottes de 7 lieues cette phrase “J e me vois”, and with Georges Neveux, a writer introduced to surrealism by Desnos himself, in La beautè du diable.
Published in 1925, Antonine Artaud’s Le Pèse-nerfs had a frontispiece illustrated by André Masson.
The artists who gravitated around the surrealist movement were motivated by the same desire – to break with the world of everyday words.
Alongside the images and texts, the layout of their works was often strikingly innovative as well.