Updated: May 12, 2020
Surrealism is about the liberation of the imagination from what most people believe is normal and reasonable. Unlike Impressionism and Cubism where the styles were recognisable, surrealistic artworks were based on dreamlike ideas that began as the artists unconscious thoughts.
Andre Breton described the Surrealist movement as an attempt to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.
Breton was the French poet who helped guide and first define the movement in the early 1920s. Surrealism was an art movement that most characterised European Culture for 20 years, from the mid-20s to the end of World War II.
Surrealism began in Paris 1924 with Andre Breton's surrealist manifesto, and an unreadable piece of bureaucratic writing set forth the principles of the art movement. It was utopian art, and political movement meant to liberate all humanity, to free civilisation from its deadening habits. Surrealism aimed to shock the viewer out of stagnant complacency into a response.
Fundamentally, Breton needed to liberate the brain from the shackles of rationale, to utilise the creative mind as feely as youngsters or maniacs, without any requirements of taste or Taboo.
He believed that the unconscious mind was more honest than the conscious mind, and to take advantage of that lower, darker area of the mind, he endorsed dream symbolism, Freudian imagery, automatic writing and irregular juxtaposition.
The surrealist's motto was a phrase from the 19-century poet Lautreamont, "as beautiful as the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella. "
Thus emerged was the era of droopy watches, and the steam locomotive's shunting out of the fireplace.
No one thing
Surrealism was not a single thing; it was much more complicated than that. There were as many versions of surrealism as there were surrealist artists. It started with Breton, who attempted to maintain control of his theory but was, in truth, this was impossible. Everyone had their version of surrealism. Dali focused on the erotic; Ernst focused on automatism. Joan Miro preferred children's art; Man Ray made objects that were clever and useless.
The 40s also saw many of the European surrealists emigrate to the United States to escape the war. Salvador Dali came over. Tanguy came over. Ernst settled in Arizona. Dali became a celebrity; he appeared in life magazine. Surrealism began its metamorphosis into mass culture.
Dali's particular style of surrealism became the public model for the movement and was imitated by some artists, including Federico Castellon, Rubin Kadesh, Harold Lehman, Helen Lundenberg.
Flat horizons, empty spaces, body parts, puppets, shadows, eggs, skeletons— a whole procession of increasingly tired surrealist iconography. In America, that iconography persists aggressively in the form of tattoo in prison at, and the work of untold high school students.
But this wasn't the end: two more generations of surrealism in America followed. First came PopArt, which often had a surreal component – Robert Rauschenberg's monogram, for instance, with a stuffed goat wearing a rubber tire cummerbund, or Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture. Even Andy Warhols colour quilt celebrity portraits have a surrealist edge.
And then came psychedelic. It is through the drug and rock culture of the late 1960s that modern pop culture gets its surreal DNA. Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, psychedelic posters, LSD and flower power.
"I don't take drugs, "Dali said. "I am drugs. "That was the difference.
Treatment of Women
Surrealism was perhaps the most misogynistic 20th-century art movement, for surrealist artists viewed women as aggressive. The surrealist body - was violated, ravaged, cut up and reassembled, and it was usually a female body. For male surrealists, women were objects of mad and violent love.
But to truly understand what the excitement was all about, you must understand something about art in general: one of its primary duties is to refresh our perceptions. We live lives of deadening habit driving the same commuter route daily, watching the same TV shows, ritualising our political consciousness so that it becomes no more thought-through than a slogan on a T-shirt. Habit is an excellent deadener of life. Art always needs to show us something that wakes us up, makes us see the world again as it for the first time. This is what Breton meant by surrealism. He intends to grab us by the lapels and make us see the world as miraculous.
"The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, "he said, "in fact, only the marvellous is beautiful. "
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