Major Artists: Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, Andre Breton
‘Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.’ Salvador Dali
Surrealism was a reaction against logic, and a wild artistic trip into the unconscious mind. Andre Breton had concluded that if logic and order had led the world into war and chaos in the first half of the 20 Century, then the world needed to be seen in a new way, and things had to change. James Joyce described WW1 as ‘The ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppled masonry, and time one livid flame’. It was this kind of evocative and powerful imagery that the surrealists loved and were inspired by. They also yearned to blur the distinction between ‘reality’ and the dream state.
As a movement, Surrealism evolved from Dada. One of the core ideas at the heart of the movement was a willingness to experiment with the unknown, to put together familiar objects, symbols and scenarios in unfamiliar, twisted new settings and ways. Analysing and recording dreams were vital in the Surrealists attempts to unlock and demonstrate the might of the subconscious mind. Sleep became an actively creative pastime, and one that provided many ideas and scenes that would become the icons and famous artworks that Surrealism created.
Icons and Subjects
Salvador Dali’s lobster telephone is an unforgettable and iconic example of this technique of visual assemblage. Dali simply replaced the entire earpiece, handle and speaker of an old fashioned telephone with a bright red lobster. One of the ideas behind the work is that it forces you, as a viewer, out of your comfort zone. There is no reason that a crimson crustacean would ever become part of a telephone, except in the worlds of dream and fantasy.
Perhaps the most famous icons painted by Dali are his dripping clocks. These are so ubiquitous that they can be found all around the world, on everything from phone covers to tourist tat key rings. What is so magical about these melting timepieces is that they distort reality and materiality in such a symbolic and exuberant way. The idea of time bending and slushing into nothingness is so satisfying to think about, and such perfect food for the imagination. It challenges us to rethink the way we think about the world around us.
Another icon of Surrealism that has passed into the collective world culture is Rene Magritte’s businessman with an apple over his face. The artwork inspired ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ film, and can be found on book covers, posters, and all kinds of other cultural paraphernalia. The work blurs reality and the dream state, and Magritte explored this concept in great depth throughout his career. He was preoccupied with perception, and continually came up with new creative ways to challenge his audience to rethink what that think they know for sure. Many of his works would show night and day in a single image, or depict painted skies and cutout people intertwined in unsettling yet fascinating canvases. Often faces and masks are unpeeled, and smartly dressed men would rain placidly from the skies above his town.
Like all great art, Surrealism wanted to challenge the way that we perceive the world around us. Concepts of reality and fantasy, unreality and dreams were all twisted together and converged in an incredibly unique and subsequently influential cultural movement. Surrealism also did a great deal to popularise themes of the unconscious mind and how we understand it. They explored many of the ideas that famous psychologists such as Freud and Jung dedicated their entire professional lives to developing, but in their own unique and artistic way. When we read Baudrillard, or watch the Matrix for example, there is a debt there, however subtle, to the artistic efforts of the Surrealist artists.
Asleep or Awake?
As mentioned, the Surrealists often made no distinctions between being awake and being asleep, or our human and flawed concepts of understanding what is real and what is not.
J.G Ballard, the wonderfully original English Author, remarked that when Freud was working, what was understood as real was the exterior world, separate from the human body and mind. The things that humans thought and dreamed were symbols, schemas and abstractions. In the contemporary world however, the opposite is the case. Everything is an abstraction, an unreality that links to a hundred thousand other sources. What is real is the way that we perceive it all, the way that we dream and make sense of it.
Fascinating cultural analyses like this have been made possible though Surrealism’s ability to, and insistence upon, embrace everything. It sees no barriers between dreams / reality, or the conscious / unconscious mind, and it pours all these sources into the hugely imaginative and iconoclastic artworks that it created.