Emerging from the 1916 Dada art movement, ‘Surrealism’ (meaning ‘new reality’) continued to expand the artistic comment on the ‘absurdity’ of world events of the time (namely World War I) and that they were the result of ‘excessive rational thinking’. The movement sought to unburden the human mindset of taboos and societal norms in order to allow the expression of inner ‘truth’ and to experience freedom.
Because they considered realism and rationalism to be constrictive forces on imagination, the Surrealists favoured ‘fantasy’, and in finding beauty in unexpected ways and places. French poet and writer (as well as co-founder and principle theorist of Surrealism) André Breton once said “Surrealism is based on the belief…in the omnipotence of dreams, in the undirected play of thought”.
In his 1924 book Surrealist Manifesto, he described the groundbreaking artistic movement as “psychic automatism in its pure state […] to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation”, referring to the method of art-making in which the creator allows the unconscious mind to take control of the process and produce art depicting hidden psychological desires or tensions.
It is no surprise, then, that Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, proved to be an influential authority for Surrealists. His legitimisation of the importance of the unconscious mind (and, in particular, ‘dreams’) as valid disclosers of repressed human thought and emotion formed much of the theoretical basis for Surrealism.
Their method of channeling the unconscious, to unlock the power of creativity, challenge imposed values, and to revolutionise the human experience, was expressed through a number of art forms including film, poetry, and performance art, but it is visual imagery which is arguably the most renowned component of the movement.
Surrealist paintings were often hyper-realistic in style, often depicting ordinary or recognisable objects in extraordinary environments or situations. These realistically portrayed elements in illogical settings attempted to make the subconscious visible by presenting it in ‘dream worlds’, and are frequently labelled as intriguing, horrifying, unnerving…or just plain weird.
Salvador Dali, plausibly the most well-known of the Surrealist painters, depicted inherent themes of death, decay and eroticism in his work in a discernible yet unsettling way. His most recognised painting - as well as the most renowned in the Surrealist movement - The Persistance of Memory, 1931, features pocket watches crawling with insects, drooping limply from tree limbs and ‘melting’ over decaying flesh and inexplicably placed objects in a desolate Catalonian landscape.
His rendering of his own dreams and hallucinations could appear shocking, and may even seem nonsensical and confusing, however they are filled with symbolism. It is often posited that this particular painting is a reflection on the artist’s own immortality. Of his work, Dali has said “The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand my own pictures, does not mean that these pictures have no meaning; on the contrary, their meaning is so profound, complex, coherent, and involuntary that it escapes the most simple analysis of logical intuition”.
Belgian painter, Rene Magritte was famed for his idiosyncratic Surrealist style and being a leading figure in the visual Surrealist movement. He often portrayed ‘paintings within paintings’ - a clever and eye-catching artistic device still employed by some skilled contemporary artists (like our own Chris Ross Williamson) to great effect. Magritte’s 1933 piece The Human Condition was one of many of his works which employed his common creative technique of placing objects to hide what lies beneath them.
After the Second World War broke out, Magritte became less enchanted with the ‘darker’ elements employed by himself and other Surrealists, and began to create using a brighter and more impressionistic palette. He said at the time “Against widespread pessimism, I now propose a search for joy and pleasure”.
Many other Surrealists also fled to New York following the outbreak of WWII, and endeavoured to advance the movement there. It has been said that the Surrealist movement’s influence can be seen in the work of Jackson Pollock and other American Abstract Expressionist artists. Pollock’s paintings were often created in a frenetic and free flowing style, reminiscent of the Surrealist’s ‘oscillation technique’ (the process of swinging a can of paint above a canvas to create organically placed lines and drops) and ‘automatic’ drawing methods.
In conclusion, the startling and influential early 20th century movement generated a body of compelling, alarming and deeply meaningful work as a result of rebuffing societal constraints, to set free the ‘self’ and embrace organic creativity and the unconventional - the influence of which can be seen throughout modern and contemporary art to this day.