April 14, 2021

Everything you need to know about: Surrealism

In 1917, Guillaume Apollinaire described a performance by the Ballets Russes as “a kind of surrealism”. Unaware of the importance of his remark at the time, Apollinaire's description would soon become the term from which an international cultural movement would be born.

The persistence of conflict in the early Twentieth Century led to widespread disillusionment and political divisions across Europe, paving the way for the development of counteractive cultural movements. Surrealism drew strong influences from Dadaism, a predeceasing movement that favoured the use of irrationalism and chaos. In the 1920s, Dadaism merged into Surrealism, and the movement became active in rejecting the rationalist approach of European governments, the materialist preoccupations of the public, and the use of violence, compelling a new societal agenda.

By the mid-20s, two rivalling sects of surrealism had formed in France, led by Yvan Goll and André Breton. Both Gall and Breton published their respective manifestoes in 1924. Of the two, Breton’s manifesto proceeded to receive widespread acclaim and would eventually take responsibility for the international expansion of the movement, influencing politics, music, literature, social theory, and philosophy.

The diversity of the Surrealist movement and the way in which it lent itself to other artistic movements resulted in an extensive community of artists. The leading figures of Surrealism included Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy, Alberto Giacometti, Méret Oppenheim, René Magritte, and Max Ernst. The Surrealists maintained the belief that the departure from rational thought facilitated the creation of new and original ideas. The publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams had a profound impact on the practitioners of the movement, compelling the analysis and investigation of dreams in an attempt to access the subconscious mind.

The themes of memory and dreams are visually dominant in Salvador Dalí’s mystic and eccentric compositions. The Persistence of Memory, one of Dalí’s seminal works, depicts a series of melting clocks against an obscure background, appearing to transcend both time and space. Uncanny and otherworldly, this work encompasses the key elements of the movement and has been praised as a defining image in the Surrealist canon of painting. The unidentifiable creature in the centre of the image is thought to be an abstracted self-portrait of the artist, recurring as a motif in several of Dalí’s other paintings. Other hypotheses have been proposed on the meaning and relevance of the amorphous figure in the foreground, with recent interpretations suggesting that this may represent a dream Dalí once experienced himself. 

The Surrealist movement was deeply concerned with expressing human instincts and traits typically repressed by contemporary society, foremostly violence, and sexual desires. Surrealist artists sought to create work that departed from rational modes of thought, requiring the viewer to change the way they think, tapping into their subconscious mind.

Belgian-born, René Magritte moved to Paris in the late 1920s. After joining Breton’s circle, Magritte quickly established himself as an important figure within the movement, producing paintings that were lauded for their wit and thought-provoking subject matter. In his paintings, Magritte would frequently remove the objects from their original functions, creating irrational and often absurd images. The apple is one of the many objects that recur throughout Magritte’s oeuvre, exemplified in The Listening Room and The Son of Man, a self-portrait from 1964. The first of these works use the apple as a means for disrupting the space of the image, whilst the second, uses the fruit to obscure Magritte’s identity.

Throughout the 1930s, Surrealism continued to gain public attention and exhibitions were held across New York, London, and Paris. Over the course of the decade, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí became key figures in directing the visual culture of Surrealism, which by this stage was expanding to include the medium of photography. 

In the wake of the Second World War, many artists began migrating to America, fracturing Surrealist communities across Europe. Surrealism continued to play an active role in the cultural and artistic development of the 1940s, and despite the dissolution of the community, many artists maintained frequent correspondence and continued to develop their respective practices. Surrealism left a heavy impression on the later movements of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art and is recognised today as one of the defining movements of the Twentieth Century.


Written by
Miles Knapp
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