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Definition: surrealism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1925) : the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations

sur•re•al•ist \-list\ n or adj

Summary Article: Surrealism
from World History Encyclopedia

The avant-garde phenomenon Surrealism was a cultural, literary, and artistic movement that began in Paris in the 1920s, following close on the heels of its predecessor, Dada, and spreading its influence through the rest of the twentieth century. In the early 1920s when the bloodshed of World War I had ended, thus eliminating the initial source of Dada's momentum, many of the Dada artists resigned from the waning antiart movement. Surrealism provided a new focus for the avant-garde in their continued adherence to the irrational and revolutionary in art and literature. Though unlike Dada, which was nihilistic in its aim to reject art and traditional values, the newer movement was a positive trend, calling for creativity drawn from humanity's subconscious.

In his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton, a French poet and writer with some background in psychiatric studies, denned Surrealism as "psychic automatism in its pure state." The theoretical basis for Surrealism was the connection among the unconscious mind, dreams, and reality, a reflection of the influential role that Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis and dream interpretation played in the foundation of the movement. Freudian dream analysis had become a popular topic with readers after the 1913 publication of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in its third edition, with the addition of some new and very literal interpretations of symbols. In Breton's manifesto, which established his position as the movement's principal figure, he argued for "the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality," into superreality Breton's agenda identified poetry as the most appropriate medium for this automatism, though many of the movement's most well-known examples over the decades have been in the visual or plastic arts.

Breton named the contemporaries whose work he considered Surrealist in the 1924 manifesto, describing the group as inhabitants of an imaginary castle. His lists included Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault, with whom he had founded the journal Littérature in 1919, as well as Paul Eluard and others. Pablo Picasso is mentioned but only as a hunter nearby the castle in the woods. Breton also listed a number of Surrealists as qualified in distinctive areas, identifying the Marquis de Sade as "Surrealist in sadism" and Charles Beaudelaire as "Surrealist in morality." According to Breton, "We really live by our fantasies when we give free reign to them." The poetry written under the Surrealist standard was full of the same sort of fantastic imagery that leapt from dreams to the unfettered imagination, as in Breton's poem "Freedom of Love" in which he describes his wife's "eyes of purple panoply and of a magnetic needle."

Surrealism as a cultural revolution provided a rich field for visual artists as well, including Man Ray, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee, many of whom participated in the first group exhibit, Exposition, La Peinture Surréaliste, in November 1925 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris. One of Joan Miró's earliest Surrealist paintings was The Tilled Field (1923-1924), a work in which the Spanish artist incorporated many disparate images of animals and farm implements on a bright yellow ground, drawing upon fantasies of his childhood on his family's farm in Catalonia. Magritte's The Treachery of Images (1928-1929) is a painting of a tobacco pipe labeled in French "This is not a pipe." Magritte, a Belgian painter, became known for his visual contradictions, which flouted the connections between images and words. In another of his works, Golconda (1953), the sky is filled with identical floating businessmen in overcoats and bowler hats. One of the most famous Surrealist paintings is The Persistence of Memory (1931) by the Spanish artist Salvador Dali. In this haunting and bleak landscape, melting clocks droop over the edge of a table, the branch of a tree, and a rubbery body that may be a fish or a man. All of these works are rife with ambiguity even to their titles, which reveal little of the works' meanings.

The Surrealists adopted social revolution and ambiguity in a more political sense as well, and many of them became members of the Communist Party in the late 1920s. Ultimately, however, the Surrealists and the communists parted ways after only a few years, unable to agree on their brands of political activism. The Surrealists criticized the stultifying conformity of Soviet communism, and in 1933 Breton, Eluard, and others were expelled from the party. They responded in 1935 by publishing Bulletin International du Surréalisme, which proclaimed their censure of the Soviet Union.

By the outbreak of World War II, many of the major Surrealists had left Europe, including Breton, Ernst, and Dali. Surrealism increasingly took hold in New York, particularly with the patronage of the wealthy art collector and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim. Eventually, the irrationality of Surrealist images and the rejection of traditional rules of art and literature that characterized Dada and Surrealism created the climate in Which Abstract Expressionism, the first truly American modernist artistic movement, could thrive.

  • Barr, Alfred H. Jr., ed. Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. 3rd ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946.
  • Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: Norton, 2008.
  • Nadeau, Maurice. The History of Surrealism. Translated by Roger Shattuck. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • Seigel, Jerrold. Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 18301930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Ellen Jan Jenkins
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC

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