by Jackie Craven
Art from the distant past can appear surreal to the modern eye. Dragons and demons populate ancient frescos and medieval triptychs. Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593) used trompe l’oeil effects ("fool the eye") to depict human faces made of fruit, flowers, insects, or fish. The Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) turned barnyard animals and household objects into terrifying monsters.
Twentieth-century surrealists praised "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and called Bosch their predecessor. Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) may have imitated Bosch when he painted the odd, face-shaped rock formation in his shockingly erotic masterpiece, "The Great Masturbator." However, the creepy images Bosch painted are not surrealist in the modern sense. It’s likely that Bosch aimed to teach Biblical lessons rather than to explore dark corners of his psyche.
Similarly, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593)’s delightfully complex and freakish portraits are visual puzzles designed to amuse rather than to probe the unconscious. Although they look surreal, paintings by early artists reflected deliberate thought and conventions of their time.
In contrast, 20th-century surrealists rebelled against convention, moral codes, and the inhibitions of the conscious mind.The movement emerged from Dada, an avant-garde approach to art that mocked the establishment. Marxist ideas sparked a disdain for Capitalist society and a thirst for social rebellion. The writings of Sigmund Freud suggested that higher forms of truth might be found in the subconscious. Moreover, the chaos and tragedy of World War I spurred a desire to break from tradition and explore new forms of expression.
In 1917, French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) used the term “surréalisme” to describe Parade, an avant-garde ballet with music by Erik Satie, costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso, and story and choreography by other leading artists. Rival factions of young Parisians embraced surréalisme and hotly debated the meaning of the term. The movement officially launched in 1924 when poet André Breton (1896–1966) published the First Manifesto of Surrealism.
Early followers of the Surrealism movement were revolutionaries who sought to unleash human creativity. Breton opened a Bureau for Surrealist Research where members conducted interviews and assembled an archive of sociological studies and dream images. Between 1924 and 1929 they published twelve issues of La Révolutionsur réaliste, a journal of militant treatises, suicide and crime reports, and explorations into the creative process.
At first, Surrealism was mostly a literary movement. Louis Aragon (1897–1982), Paul Éluard (1895–1952), and other poets experimented with automatic writing, or automatism, to free their imaginations. Surrealist writers also found inspiration in cut-up, collage, and other types of found poetry.
Visual artists in the Surrealism movement relied on drawing games and a variety of experimental techniques to randomize the creative process. For example, in a method known as decalcomania, artists splashed paint on to paper, then rubbed the surface to create patterns. Similarly, bulletism involved shooting ink onto a surface, and éclaboussure involved spattering liquid onto a painted surface that was then sponged. Odd and often humorous assemblages of found objects became a popular way to create juxtapositions that challenged preconceptions.
A devout Marxist, André Breton believed that art springs from a collective spirit. Surrealist artists often worked on projects together.The October 1927 issue of La Révolution surréaliste featured works generated from a collaborative activity called Cadavre Exquis, or Exquisite Corpse. Participants took turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper. Since no one knew what already existed on the page, the final outcome was a surprising and absurd composite.
Visual artists in the Surrealism movement were a diverse group. Early works by European surrealists often followed the Dada tradition of turning familiar objects into satirical and nonsensical artworks. As the Surrealism movement evolved, artists developed new systems and techniques for exploring the irrational world of the subconscious mind. Two trends emerged: Biomorphic (or, abstract) and Figurative.
Figurative surrealists produced recognizable representational art. Many of the figurative surrealists were profoundly influenced by Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), an Italian painter who founded the Metafisica, or Metaphysical, movement. They praised the dreamlike quality of de Chirico's deserted town squares with rows of arches, distant trains, and ghostly figures. Like de Chirico, figurative surrealists used techniques of realism to render startling, hallucinatory scenes.
Biomorphic (abstract) surrealists wanted to break entirely free from convention. They explored new media and created abstract works composed of undefined, often unrecognizable, shapes and symbols.
Surrealism as an art style far outlived the cultural movement founded by André Breton. The passionate poet and rebel was quick to expel members from the group if they didn’t share his left-wing views. In 1930, Breton published a "Second Manifesto of Surrealism," in which he railed against the forces of materialism and condemned artists who didn’t embrace collectivism. Surrealists formed new alliances. As World War II loomed, many headed to the United States.
The prominent American collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) exhibited surrealists, including Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, and her own husband, Max Ernst. André Breton continued to write and promote his ideals until his death in 1966, but by then Marxist and Freudian dogma had faded from Surrealistic art. An impulse for self-expression and freedom from the constraints of the rational world led painters like Willem de Kooning (1904-–1997) and Arshile Gorky (1904–1948) to Abstract Expressionism.
Meanwhile, several leading women artists reinvented Surrealism in the United States. Kay Sage (1898–1963) painted surreal scenes of large architectural structures. Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012) won acclaim for photo-realistic paintings of surreal images. French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) incorporated archetypes and sexual themes into highly personal works and monumental sculptures of spiders.
In Latin America, Surrealism mingled with cultural symbols, primitivism, and myth. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) denied that she was a surrealist, telling Time magazine, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Nevertheless, Kahlo's psychological self-portraits possess the other-worldly characteristics of surrealistic art and the literary movement of Magical Realism.
The Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) was midwife to a unique national style composed of biomorphic forms, distorted human bodies, and cultural iconography. Steeped in symbolism, Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings might be loosely described as surrealistic. However the dreams they express are those of an entire nation. Like Kahlo, she developed a singular style apart from the European movement.
Although Surrealism no longer exists as a formal movement, contemporary artists continue to explore dream imagery, free-association, and the possibilities of chance.