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AN INTRODUCTION TO SURREALISM

Surrealism has come to be seen as the most influential movement in twentieth century art. It was a broad intellectual movement that originated in 1924, which dominated the years between the wars and was briefly revitalized in the post-Second World War years. Known figures such as Salvador Dali and Man Ray are credited with much important influence on avant-garde art, but also on commercial work in fashion photography, advertising, and film. Artists such as these brought the style to a huge popular audience and worked predominantly in the period between the two world wars. After the demise of Minimalism in the 1960’s, art historians have renewed their attraction to the study of Surrealism.

The Surrealist Art Movement was started in Paris by a small group of writers and artists whose main goal was to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. More specifically, the movement was officially founded in 1924, when Andre Breton [who wrote Le Manifeste du Surrealisme] 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.” In this manifesto, Breton proposed that artists should seek access to their unconscious mind in order to make art inspired by that realm.

Though this time period marked the official founding of the movement, the term was first coined in 1917 when Guillaume Apollinaire used it in program notes for the ballet entitled Parade, which was written by Pablo Picasso, Leonide Massine, Jean Cocteau, and Erik Satie. The movement begun in the realm of literature, strongly allied to the Dada movement. Breton remained the group leader, occasionally described as the ‘Pope’ of Surrealism, and he gave the movement cohesion through its many reincarnations up until his death in 1966. By the 1960’s, the movement had all but died. While Paris remained Surrealism’s spiritual home, the movement spread its influence throughout the world. During the 20’s and 30’s, Surrealist groups also emerged in the European cities of Brussels, London, Prague, Copenhagen, and gradually reached the more distant shores of Japan, the United States, and Mexico.  

Powerfully influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, Surrealism sough to disregard rationalism and literary realism. Rather, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighting it down with ‘taboos’. The movement was also influenced by the work of Karl Marx, which is part of the reason why they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution. Although their strong emphasis on the power of the imagination places them in the tradition of Romanticism, Surrealists believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life. Their main fuel for creation was to tap into the subconscious mind and find interest in myths and primitivism. Because this movement was initially a literary one, many Surrealists were hesitant in regards to the possibilities of painting. Andre Breton, the group’s leader, was the one who embraced and promoted painting to the entire movement. The Surrealists were the ones who shaped the Abstract Expressionists. In particular, one can analyze the painted works of Joan Miro in order to distinguish the important influence that existed on the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940’s.

Whitney Chadwick, in Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation, states, “Putting psychic life in the service of revolutionary politics, Surrealism publicly challenged vanguard modernism's insistence on 'art for art's sake.' But Surrealism also battled the social institutions - church, state, and family - that regulate the place of women within patriarchy. In offering some women their first locus for artistic and social resistance, it became the first modernist movement in which a group of women could explore female subjectivity and give form (however tentatively) to a feminine imaginary.”

Among the key artists from the movement, we can note Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miro, Louise Bourgeois, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, and Dorothea Tanning. It becomes rapidly obvious that men are the ones most often recognized as being artists of influence during the movement’s key years, although, as this archive demonstrates, women artists were flourishing and working alongside their male counterparts, producing work of equal success.