Surrealism grew principally out of the earlier Dada movement, which before World War I produced works of anti-art that deliberately defied reason; but Surrealism’s emphasis was not on negation but on positive expression. The movement represented a reaction against what its members saw as the destruction wrought by the “rationalism” that had guided European culture and politics in the past and that had culminated in the horrors of World War I.
Founded by the poet André Breton in Paris in 1924, Surrealism was an artistic and literary movement. It proposed that the Enlightenment—the influential 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement that championed reason and individualism—had suppressed the superior qualities of the irrational, unconscious mind. Surrealism’s goal was to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism.
Breton had studied medicine and psychiatry and was well-versed in the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud. He was particularly interested in the idea that the unconscious mind—which produced dreams—was the source of artistic creativity. A devoted Marxist, Breton also intended Surrealism to be a revolutionary movement capable of unleashing the minds of the masses from the rational order of society.
How to access the unconscious?
Automatism, a practice that is akin to free association or a stream of consciousness, gave the Surrealists the means to produce unconscious artwork. Surrealist artist
André Masson’s mixed-media canvas Battle of Fishes (1926) is an early example of automatic painting. To begin, Masson took gesso—a tacky substance typically used to prime supports for painting—and let it freely fall across the surface of his canvas. He then threw sand over it, letting the grains stick to the adhesive at random, and doodled and painted around the resulting forms. Artists employing automatic methods embraced the element of chance, often to surprising results. Masson’s end product features two prehistoric fish, jaws dripping with blood, fighting it out in the primordial ooze: an unconscious demonstration of the inherent violence of nature.
Not every Surrealist chose to create such abstract works, however.
As an interwar movement beginning in Paris in the 1920s, Surrealism responded to a post-World War I period that saw the slow reconstruction of major French cities, the height of the French colonial empire abroad, and the rise of fascism across Europe.
By 1937, however, most of the major figures in Surrealism had been forced to leave Europe to escape Nazi persecution.
The importance of Surrealism in modern days
Surrealism represents a crucible of avant-garde ideas and techniques that contemporary artists are still using today, including the introduction of chance elements into works of art. These methods opened up a new mode of painterly practice pursued by the Abstract Expressionists. The element of chance has also proven integral to performance art, as in the unscripted. Happenings of the 1950’s, and even to computer art based on randomization. The Surrealist focus on dreams, psychoanalysis, and fantastic imagery has provided fodder for a number of artists working today, such as Glenn Brown, who has also directly appropriated Dalí’s art in his own painting.