Art Theory – Surrealism

How did we get to this movement?

Before you investigate Surrealism and the artists who developed this style of art, watch the video below to gain an understanding of how the art world worked as it transitioned from traditional practices and representations into modern art.

“Surrealism is a twentieth century avant-garde art movement that developed out of the nihilistic ideas of the Dadaists. Led by the French writer Andre Breton, who wrote The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the Surrealists were inspired by the thoughts and visions of the subconscious mind. According to Breton, Surrealism reunited the realms of dream and fantasy and linked them to the everyday rational world to create “an absolute reality, a surreality.”

Deliberately defying reason, this new breed of artist represented a reaction against the destructive “rationalism” of European culture and politics, which many believed resulted in the horrors of World War I. They followed Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious and focused on positive expression to become the dominant force in Western art between World Wars I and II.

Portraying dream-like fantasies, Surrealist works are characterized by a realistic, irrational style. This is best epitomized in the works of Belgian artist Rene Magritte, the Spanish Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy from France and the Canadian artist Alfred Pellan. These artists are said to have been inspired by the rules of Symbolism, the Metaphysical Painting of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico and the spontaneous, abstract style of Joan Miro, Max Ernst and Andre Masson. The Surrealists invented impulsive approaches to art making that were based upon the psychotherapeutic procedure of “free association”. This involved bypassing conscious control in order for the inner workings of the unconscious mind to be expressed. As the Surrealists believed that simple retinal stimulation was anathema, the “free association” procedure was commonly used to inflame human desires through the use of ornamental images. They aimed to expose psychological truths by stripping everyday objects of their normal significance to create compelling images and evoke empathy from a viewer. In combining the depictive, the abstract and the psychological, the Surrealists effectively highlighted the alienation which many people felt during the modern period.
While there was no particular Surrealist style, artworks from the movement fall into two main categories: those that use conventional art making practices to depict fantastic, mysterious images; and those that use more inventive techniques, such as frottage which involves the rubbing of a raised surface. With regard to Surrealist experimentation, Andre Masson experimented in automatic drawing, Max Ernst, Joan Miro and Yves Tanguy created poignant, semi-abstract forms, while Dali and Rene Magritte painted their dreamlike images in a realistic style while using their own paranoiac-critical methods. Dream-inspired symbols such as melting watches and huge metronomes came to define the works of these artists.

With the roots of Surrealism commonly linked to both Dada and Cubism, it is also said to have been influenced by the Abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism and the older “bloodlines” of Hieronymus Bosch. Following the Dadaists’ anti-art campaign the Surrealists refused to be recognised as an actual movement. However, when the first ever Surrealist exhibition was held at Gallerie Pierre in Paris displaying the works of Masson, Man Ray, Klee, Miro and others, the show confirmed Surrealism’s dominance in the visual arts. When Dali joined the group in 1929, he played a large role in the rapid establishment of the style between 1930 and 1935. Long after personal, political and professional pressures broke up the Surrealist group, Dali remained a central figure, continuing to define Surrealism in the arts.

When Peggy Guggenheim, a notable art collector, married Surrealist Max Ernst in the 1930s, the work of other Surrealists such as Tanguy and John Tunnard began to be promoted and the reputation of Surrealism as an important artistic movement was furthered. However, when the Second World War broke out, the art world’s taste for avant-garde Surrealism swung towards Abstract Expressionism with the support of such advocates as Guggenheim, Leo Steinberg and Clement Greenberg. Interestingly, many failed to realise that Abstract Expressionism grew directly out of the meeting of American artists with European Surrealists self-exiled during WWII.

With its emphasis on free form, Surrealism provided the art world with a popular alternative to the contemporary, highly formalistic Cubist movement. For that reason it remained the most important influence on the growth of American arts up until the emergence of Pop art in the late 1950s, held largely responsible for perpetuating in modern painting the traditional emphasis on content. Although other movements began to take precedence Surrealist art continued to remain extremely popular with art patrons. New York’s Guggenheim Museum held the Surrealist exhibition, Two Private Eyes in 1999 and The Tate Modern in London held an exhibition of Surrealist art that attracted over 170,000 visitors. The Metropolitan Museum’s Desire Unbound exhibition was a blockbuster show as well as the Revolution Surrealiste show held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.”

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