Summary of Surrealism
The Surrealists sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Disdaining rationalism and literary realism, and powerfully influenced by psychoanalysis, the Surrealists believed the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighing it down with taboos. Influenced also by Karl Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution. Their emphasis on the power of personal imagination puts them in the tradition of Romanticism, but unlike their forebears, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life. The Surrealist impulse to tap the unconscious mind, and their interests in myth and primitivism, went on to shape many later movements, and the style remains influential to this today.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- André Breton defined Surrealism as "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of thought." What Breton is proposing is that artists bypass reason and rationality by accessing their unconscious mind. In practice, these techniques became known as automatism or automatic writing, which allowed artists to forgo conscious thought and embrace chance when creating art.
- The work of Sigmund Freud was profoundly influential for Surrealists, particularly his book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). Freud legitimized the importance of dreams and the unconscious as valid revelations of human emotion and desires; his exposure of the complex and repressed inner worlds of sexuality, desire, and violence provided a theoretical basis for much of Surrealism.
- Surrealist imagery is probably the most recognizable element of the movement, yet it is also the most elusive to categorize and define. Each artist relied on their own recurring motifs arisen through their dreams or/and unconscious mind. At its basic, the imagery is outlandish, perplexing, and even uncanny, as it is meant to jolt the viewer out of their comforting assumptions. Nature, however, is the most frequent imagery: Max Ernst was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego, Salvador Dalí's works often include ants or eggs, and Joan Miró relied strongly on vague biomorphic imagery.
Overview of Surrealism
Building upon the anti-rationalism of Dada, the Surrealists made powerful art and offered a new direction for exploration, as Max Ernst said: "creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition."
Important Art and Artists of Surrealism
Miró created elaborate, fantastical spaces in his paintings that are an excellent example of Surrealism in their reliance on dream-like imagery and their use of biomorphism. Biomorphic shapes are those that resemble organic beings but that are hard to identify as any specific thing; the shapes seem to self-generate, morph, and dance on the canvas. While there is the suggestion of a believable three-dimensional space in Carnaval d'Arlequin, the playful shapes are arranged with an all-over quality that is common to many of Miró's works during his Surrealist period, and that would eventually lead him to further abstraction. Miró was especially known for his use of automatic writing techniques in the creation of his works, particularly doodling or automatic drawing, which is how he began many of his canvases. He is best known for his works such as this that depict chaotic yet lighthearted interior scenes, taking his influence from Dutch 17th-century interiors.
The iconic and enigmatic René Magritte's works tend to be intellectual, often dealing with visual puns and the relation between the representation of something and the thing itself. In The Human Condition a canvas sits on an easel before a curtained window and reproduces exactly the scene outside the window that would be behind the canvas, thus the image on the easel in a sense becomes the scene, not just a reproduction of the landscape. There is in effect no difference between the two as both are fabrications of the artist. The hyperrealist painting style often used by Surrealists makes the odd setup seem dreamlike.
The most pivotal moment for Tanguy in his decision to become a painter was his sighting of a canvas by Giorgio de Chirico in a shop window in 1923. The next year, Tanguy, the poet Jacques Prévert, and the actor and screenwriter Marcel Duhamel moved into a house that was to become a gathering place for the Surrealists, a movement he became interested in after reading the periodical La Révolution surréaliste. André Breton welcomed him into the group in 1925. Tanguy was inspired by the biomorphic forms of Jean Arp, Ernst, and Miró, quickly developing his own vocabulary of amoeba-like shapes that populate arid, mysterious settings, no doubt influenced by his youthful travels to Argentina, Brazil, and Tunisia. Despite his lack of formal training, Tanguy's mature style emerged by 1927, characterized by deserted landscapes littered with fantastical rocklike objects painted with a precise illusionism. The works usually have an overcast sky with a view thatseems to stretch endlessly.
Mama, Papa is Wounded depicts Tanguy's most common subject matter of war. The work is painted in a hyperrealist style with his distinctive limited color palette, both of which create a sense of dream-like reality. Tanguy often found the titles of works while looking through psychiatric case histories for compelling statements by patients. Given that, it is difficult to know if this work is relevant to his own family history as he claimed to have imagined the painting in its entirety before he began it. His brother was killed in World War I and the bleakness of the landscape may refer generally to losses suffered in the war by thousands of French families. De Chirico's influence on Tanguy's work is obvious here in his use of falling shadows and a classical torso in the landscape.
Useful Resources on Surrealism
- 272k viewsExploring SurrealismOur PickGood summary by Peter Capaldi from Unlock Art
- 621k viewsSalvador Dalí - Masters of the Modern EraOur PickBy British art critic Alastair Sooke
- 951k viewsRené MagritteOur Pick"What Is The Treachery of Images?" episode of The Nerdwriter
- 52k viewsMax Ernst & The Surrealist RevolutionGood 1991 overview of Ernst's work and the overall aims of Surrealism
- 18k viewsYves Tanguy & Kay SageThe artist couple and their place in Surrealism
- 48k viewsAlberto GiacomettiGeneral overview of career
- 857k viewsLuis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí's Un Chien AndalouOur PickThe seminal short film that launched their careers
- 101k views"Dada and Surrealism"Lecture by The Dalí Museum Curator of Education Peter Tush
- 9k viewsSurrealism Lesson Series16 short lectures on Surrealism highlighting many less famous Surrealist. Narated by writer, publisher and artist Adam McLean
- 132k viewsComedian Adam Hills on SurrealismOur Pick
- 4k viewsSurrealism and ComedySome of the ways Surrealism shaped popular comedians and comedy shows
- The Art Story Blog: Dalí and The Surrealists - Master MarketersTop 10 marketing stunts by Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, and Salvador Dalí
- The Art Story Blog: Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist Scenes Find Muse in Hieronymus Bosch's Christian FantasiesCarrington borrow's her Surrealist ideas from the 16th-century artist
- The Art Story Blog: Leonora Carrington in Pop CultureMadonna and W Magazine fashion shoots based on Carrington's visions
- Surrealism (2010)By Mary Ann Caws
- Surrealism: Desire Unbound (2005)By Jennifer Mundy, Dawn Ades, and Vincent Gille
- Surrealism: Themes and Movements (2004)Our PickBy Mary Ann Caws
- Surrealist Women : An International Anthology (1998)By Penelope Rosemont
- André Breton's Manifestos of SurrealismBy André Breton, Richard Seaver, Helen R. Lane
- History of the Surrealist MovementOur PickBy Gerard Durozoi
- Nadja (1928)Our PickBy Andre Breton
- A Book of Surrealist Games (1995)By Alastair Brotchie and Mel Gooding
- Surrealism (Basic Art Series 2.0, 2015)By Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy
- The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology of Ideas (2016)By Dawn Ades, Michael Richardson, and Krzysztof Fijalkowski
- Leonora Carrington Rewrote the Surrealist Narrative for WomenBy Anwen Crawford / The New Yorker / May 2017
- Dalí in a diving helmet: How the Spaniard almost suffocated bringing Surrealism to BritainOur PickBy Joanna Moorhead / The Guardian / June 2016
- From Dada to Surrealism - ReviewOur PickBy Phillippe Dagen / The Guardian / July 19, 2011
- Surrealist AmericaBy Lewis Kachur / Artnet Magazine / July 21, 2005
- ART REVIEW; In Old Age, Surrealism Still CharmsBy William Zimmer / The New York Times / February 4, 2004
- Surrealism For Sale, Straight From The Source; André Breton's Collection Is Readied for AuctionOur PickBy Alan Riding / The New York Times / December 7, 2002
- ART/ARCHITECTURE; An Early Surrealist on His Own Revolutionary TermsBy Ken Shulman / The New York Times / March 24, 2002
- ART REVIEW; Trolling the Mind's Nooks and Crannies for ImagesOur PickBy Grace Glueck / The New York Times / June 4, 1999
- Surrealist Manifesto (1924)Our PickBy André Breton
- Surrealist Movement in the U.S.Contemporary Surrealist Movement Information Site
- Surrealism Today BlogDedicated to contemporary Surrealism in its many manifestations
- The Exquisite CorpseGame and Surrealist technique exploring the chance and the subconcious. Website also photographs, artworks, and text of the two manifestos.