Art of the 20th Century

A Revolution in the Arts

Art Styles in 20th century Art Map

The Great Avant-garde Movements







Surrealism  (The Dream of Revolution)









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Surrealism - 1924

EXPLORATION: Surrealist Art

Max Ernst
"A Week of Kindness" (A surrealistic novel in collage)

Rene Magritte "Thought rendered visible"

Salvador Dali



Chapter Three








The Surrealist movement was begun officially late in 1924 with the publication of Andre Breton's first Surrealist manifesto, but not without the intercession of several tumultuous years.


Paris Coalescence

With the end of World War I the Surrealists benefited from the gathering in Paris of those Dada artists earlier sequestered in isolated cities. The emergence of Surrealism can be viewed as a physical coalescence of the Dadaists. Picabia and Duchamp were in Paris in 1917 and 1919 with intermittent visits; Man Ray made a permanent move in 1921; Tzara moved in 1920, with Arp and Taeuber arriving the same year; Ernst followed from Cologne in 1922. In addition, the so-called School of Paris was an amalgam of pre- and postwar avant-garde movements. Until the worldwide Depression in 1929 it was a glorious and fateful period, and Breton was to be its maestro.

Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, the founders in 1919 of the avant-garde magazine Litterature, had served in the war but had remained in contact with the vocal and active literary avant-garde figures in Paris. The more nihilistic figures—such as the enigmatic dandy Jacques Vache and the outrageous English artist-writer-dancer-boxer known as an American, Arthur Cravan— joined with the equally avant-garde but more moderate voices aligned before the war with the development of "modern" visual art, such as Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Andre Salmon, and Blaise Cendrars. This was a complex and volatile mix.

Although Dadaism was "officially" founded in Paris at the moment of Tristan Tzara's first public lecture in 1919, there was a "proto-Dadaist" movement already established. Taken as a unit and to momentarily ignore their differences, they maintained the idea of "a permanent revolt of the individual against art, against morality, against society." In the words of art historian and curator William Rubin, both Dadaism and Surrealism were heirs to something much broader, "a kind of creative activity already in the air" since about 1912.

The parallels and the divergences, which make a clear history so difficult to trace, were demonstrated at the 1917 performance of Apollinaire's play Les Mamelles de Tiresias ("The Breasts of Tiresias"), a farce already designed in the best of the avant-garde tradition to shock and provoke the sensibilities of the middle class. By this time Guillaume Apollinaire was one of the most important French poets and art critics of the early twentieth century. Serving and becoming wounded in the war, he had been the first to champion the work of emerging artists like Picasso and Matisse, was a friend of the Futurists, and was in fact the first to coin the word "surrealist," which appeared as the subtitle to his

Play-Yet the opening was "one-upped" by Jacques Vache, who, excited by the play, began waving a pistol. Threatening to fire it into the audience, he had to be forcibly stopped. This was a dada event before Dada, but equally significant is that the same "gesture" had been made several years earlier by Cravan—who had so insulted modern artists and Apollinaire that the latter challenged him to a duel. Breton, appropriating the story years later, used it unattributed to describe what it meant to possess a Surrealist sensibility.



Andre Breton


Developed in the 1930s by Breton, the poem-object combined images and text. Fragments of words and visual objects were sectioned off from one another, but intended to accidentally exert an influence on each other; a case of "reciprocal exaltation," wrote Breton.


From Dada to Surrealism

The group of young poets around Litterature aligned themselves with Dadaism by mid-1920 and participated in Dada manifestations or soirees and wrote Dada declarations—just as the movement imploded. Picabia publicly declared Dada dead in 1921 and attacked other Dadaists in 1922, including Tzara, because it had become too organized a movement. For the opposite reason, in 1922 Breton called for an international conference to lay out a program for the "modern spirit," a concept widely shared and variously defined across Paris at this time. Dada had brought them to this point but something more lucid, programmatic, and progressive was now needed. This departure from the anarchism of Dada marks the beginnings of Surrealism.

The conference was rejected publicly by many of the Dadaists, who called Breton to task for insulting them and Tzara. In revenge, Breton waylaid Tristan Tzara in public during a 1923 performance. A full-scale riot ensued and police action was brought against Breton. The lines were finally drawn and many have presented that night as the passing of leadership from Tzara to Breton. The word "surrealism" had been appropriated from Apollinaire, who never defined it, and put into circulation during 1921-23, as Breton and his colleagues began "crystallizing" the tenets of the movement. In October of 1924 Breton published his manifesto.

Rene Magritte
The False Mirror

The image of the closed eye became a secret sign among Surrealists for the subversion of reality by drawing on
interior states. Thus the image of the open eye, ordinarily interpreted as access between the individual and the
world, was a false vision or mirror. Reality lay elsewhere.


The Meaning of Breton's Surrealism

In the first manifesto Breton pointedly declared his definition of Surrealism to be different from that of Apollinaire's. What Breton ignored was the faction of more radical Dadaists who had already rejected Apollinaire and his love of art as too conservative. Breton's real genius was that of a politician. He laid claim to positions both more radical, like Vache, and more conservative, like Apollinaire, while ignoring his own differences with them. He felt his program for art differed from both positions and as a good promoter he knew one must herald newness rather than synthesis. Nevertheless, an important part of the Surrealist movement would always side with the more radical position and suspect "art" work as irrelevant; even Breton would argue against art in its traditional meaning.

Breton declared "surrealism" a "new mode of pure expression" and admitted they could have used the word su-pernaturalism just as easily. But he wanted a special sense of the word:


SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which we propose to express—verbally, in writing, or in any other manner—the real process of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason and outside any aesthetic or moral concerns.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to destroy definitively all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principle problems of life.

The definition was followed by Breton's list of writers and poets, essentially members of his own circle, who had already "performed acts of Absolute Surrealism." And immediately Breton began his lifelong cultural archaeology by listing those now past who could pass for Surrealists: Dante, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Vache, Рое, among others. However, these men could never be Surrealists at all times because they suffered from "preconceived ideas." Their great talents were, Breton suggests, perhaps lessened because they filtered their works in order to produce them. True Surrealists have no talent, he argued, thus they need no filters; they are able ideally to speak their own thoughts just as they have them. In fact, the best Surrealist is one who never stops long enough to record words at all since that would undo the pure "state," or channel that Breton demands in the identity of Surrealism. This means, as Breton would later try to show, that virtually anyone can be a Surrealist, if and when they develop this clear channel between thought and act. Indeed, the manifesto taken as a whole is an argument for the removal of those blocks, an argument to liberate human creativity in its fullest capacity.

The first manifesto argued for a poetic and not a visual form of Surrealism. Following the lead of the European avant-garde in general, Breton argued Surrealism as an aesthetics of liberation. He inverted the original Dada conception of life as insane to life as overly rationalized, but his solution differed only in degree. Both movements held faith in the creative act and moment, insisting on absolute freedom and on the site of art as the mind rather than in its physical form. The major difference was Breton's insistence on a systematic program and his public address to an audience over time. The Dada moment was an act not meant to survive; the audience could participate but merely in the carnage of the moment. The Surrealists claimed a concern for permanent change, or, to take a page from Leon Trotsky, the Russian political theorist later supported by Breton, the Surrealists wanted to establish a "permanent revolution." To sustain the concept of moment to moment revolution was their ultimate dream.

Yves Tanguy
The Storm


Tanguy's early works created a habitat for abstraction, a place where dismembered
elements of form took on a sense of life, appearing to be at home in a primordial soup.

The Psychoanalytic—My Way

A major point of separation between Dadaism and Surrealism was the Surrealists' enthusiastic embrace of the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Breton had studied medicine, served as an orderly in an army mental clinic during the war, and, in 1921, paid homage to Freud with a visit. Freud was flattered by the artists' professed belief in his work, especially since so little of it had reached France in translation, but overall the meeting was a bit of a disaster as Breton left without Freud's support. Freud considered the realm of the unconscious to be inaccessible except through the indirect method of dream analysis and apparently random associations. To him, easy or even direct access to the unconscious was impossible.

The influence of Freudian psychology was crucial and it is imbedded in the basic understanding and work of the Surrealist movement. But in reading Breton we are struck by his lack of particulars regarding psychology or Freud. He raised the issue of psychology in his 1924 manifesto as an area that provides an alternative to "living under the reign of logic" where only logical methods of description and analysis are applied to solving problems. Sounding more like a romantic symbolist from the late nineteenth century than a true modern supposedly knowledgeable in psychology, he argued the significance of fancy, imagination, and superstition.

Apparently what he had learned from Freud, whose name and general orientation to the importance of dreams he publicly praises, was simply that there were "strange forces" below the surface of our waking state, important forces we rarely admit into normal consciousness, and the key to them lies in the state of dreaming. He observed that not even the "analysts" have worked out all the means of investigation and application of this knowledge. And, in what is likely a veiled reference to his rebuff by Freud, Breton proclaims that this area can now be "the provinces of the poet as well as the scholar."

Breton did provide a powerful argument for the authority of artists and their creativity: They now equal the scientists, the Surrealists declared, and can lead the exploration into new areas and methods of investigation.


Andre Breton, Cadavre Exquis, Valentine Hugo, Greta Knutson and Tristan Tzara
Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse was the most famous of several games developed by the Surrealists.
It was a strategy of chance used to generate disjunctive images from collective participation.





Automatism, which is the free flow of associations, was to be the process or state of mental existence whereby control of reason was purposefully lost in favor of "the real process of thought." Most interpreters of Surrealism have accepted Breton's assertion that "pure psychic automatism" was the single most important principle of Surrealism. The Dadaists had spoken for the abolition of rationality and logic in favor of new art processes and forms developed through chance and irrational association. For the Surrealists, chance remained a valid external force, but because of their interest in psychiatry the automatic was equated with the unconscious in all its manifestations. In 1922 Breton wrote specifically of this state of psychic automatism as "a near equivalent to the dream state," a place where one could hear the "murmur" of the "unconscious." In 1919 he had recognized that fragmentary sentences emerged from unknown origins into his conscious perception when his mind was "in total solitude, when sleep is near." These fragments were "first-rate poetic material," and he and others began to contemplate how to induce such material into existence voluntarily.

At first he and Soupault practiced a purposeful forgetfulness of the outside world which produced their first "automatic" book in 1920, Les Champs magnetiques ("Magnetic Fields"), written in daily and disconnected fragments that Breton called "magical dictation." From this they moved to "periods of sleep," which was their form of the trance state mediums used when contacting spirits. The process was successful to varying degrees, depending upon the individuals involved. Robert Desnos was the most extreme in his ability to speak in poetic Alexandrines, twelve-syllable phrases correctly accented in rhyme, while "asleep." Hypnosis, a technique generally rejected by Freud, was used extensively with many of the results transcribed and published. The experiments among the Surrealist poets in hypnotic sleep were a general attempt to implement Freud's ideas and link them to the process of creativity, to open the doors of psychic perception. However, the Surrealists ignored the diagnostic and therapeutic particulars of psychoanalysis to create a synthesis that served their own ends and belief in poetic production.

Poets concentrated on speaking and writing automatically, i.e., by means which bypassed rational control. Some editing would occur after the fact. Visual artists such as Andre Masson sometimes used the same technique, premise, and editing. Masson's 1944 pen and ink drawing Bison on the Brink of a Chasm is one of many produced by a process of "automatic" drawing. The title seems to make an oblique reference to life lived in this state—as one may on the brink of a chasm. Both writers and visual artists also developed a number of other techniques to bypass control. Many, like Max Ernst, relied too on the principle of chance as developed in Dada.

Games, especially word games, and gamesmanship were popular among all the Surrealists for reasons of chance. Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and the New York circle of patrons were major exponents of such gaming well before the advent of Surrealism. Perhaps the best known Surrealist game was the one titled "exquisite corpse" (cadavres exquis), developed in 1925. Like many of their games it was designed for group participation and relied on the chance encounter as a disruption of rationality and a product of the shared, oceanic unconscious in which the Surrealists believed. Each player would write a word on a section of paper, then fold it so the next player could not see what had been created. The next player had to add to it. The game began with words but was immediately adapted to images or combinations of words and images.

Many a Surrealist painting was born from the juxtaposition of such disjunctive images. A phrase—celebrated among Surrealists—borrowed from the nineteenth-century Symbolist poet Lautreamont (Isidore Ducasse) summarized the desire for an entire aesthetic based on disjunction and displacement: "The chance encounter of a sewing machine and umbrella on an ironing board." The image seemingly makes no sense and is the more frustrating or disjunctive simply because it decontextualizes normal objects in the world. Their reliance on elements of disjunction and displacement, first developed with Cubist collage of 1912, then modified by the Dadaists, had intriguing parallels to many of Freud's theories of psychological mechanisms. It also led to the marvelous.


Andre Masson
Bison on the Brink of a Chasm


Few were as adept at the transformations of automatic drawing as Masson,
Breton to praise him with Goethe's phrase, "What is within is also without."


The Marvelous

Introduced in the first manifesto, the concept of the marvelous grew in importance if not in clarity for Breton over the years. Scholar of Surrealism Hal Foster has argued that the marvelous eventually replaced automatism as the basic principle of Surrealism. The 1924 understanding of Surrealism was defined as a resolution of the states of dream and reality into "a sort of absolute reality, a surreality" This rare state, one considered natural in children before they are weaned from it, Breton calls by another name—the marvelous.

As the Surrealists came to value more greatly internal necessity or compulsion over choice, the marvelous became a state of possession. It visited you or you sensed its possession of another. The marvelous and beauty could now be restricted to that which was compulsive.


Jackson Pollock
One (Number 31, 1950)

The automatism of Surrealism and a belief in primal psychic forces are at the fore in Pollock's mature style,
which shifts away from the earlier, more raw mythology of
Masson and the Surrealists.


The Crisis in Consciousness: Politics & Mysticism

Politics, from a Dadaist viewpoint, was simply one more rational system contributing to the general cultural insanity and thus to be rejected. There was to be liberation, but for the individual soul and moment. The Surrealists began with a Dada-like position, then developed a more systematic and engaged attitude to politics. But also typical of the Surrealists, everything was filtered through Breton and his own desire to maintain a coherent movement, even if it meant equivocation in the face of demands for resoluteness.

From automatism, a liberation in physical fact was assumed to follow. This claim has been made by many avant-garde movements and often remains the case today. Few movements supported direct or overt alliances with politics. This was certainly the position of the Surrealists until about 1929. Their first consistent journal, La Revolution surrealiste ("Surrealist Revolution"), published from 1924 until 1929, was in sympathy with the political left, especially the Russian Revolution carried off under the banner of Marxism, but not its overt action. By 1929 their position became a self-proclaimed "crisis of consciousness."

The relation between art for itself (what Ernst called the pursuit of pure Surrealist activity) and politics was precipitated by personal battles of power, French injustices against indigenous peoples in Morocco, and Joseph Stalin's 1929 exile of the Russian revolutionist and writer Leon Trotsky, whom Breton greatly admired. In a conference called in 1930 by Breton to form a unified response, the many factions broke with his leadership. This led to a second manifesto for Surrealism and a purification of the movement, with Breton excommunicating those who held positions different from his own. But, as usual, his position was equivocal and ignored its own contradictions. Of course, as he clearly noted, a good Surrealist knows no contradictions.

In 1929 Breton attacked the move of colleagues into direct alignment with the Communist Party. Then he exiled some of those who believed too strongly in art for its own sake and aligned the movement with the French Communist Party—only to move Surrealism away from it by 1934. The Second Manifesto in 1929 distanced itself from automatism and discussed the inadequacies of dreams. Surrealism would no longer use art for an "alibi" but push toward a philosophy of political commitment. The new journal would not be simply the "Surrealist Revolution" but now, in 1930, labeled "Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution" (Le Surrealisme аu service de la revolution). Yet at the same time Breton introduced the "occult," adopted the language of alchemy, and endorsed a mystical stance, all of which are antithetical to direct political action. This, however, did set the tone for later Surrealism to explore the mystery of the unseen, and of the strange, uncanny power of inanimate objects. Also at this time Louis Aragon, speaking for the Breton wing, publicly introduced the importance of love for the Surrealists.

Breton's authoritarian tactics and equivocations were met by published counter-attacks of him as a "false revolutionary" and a second group of Surrealists, aligned with Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille, among others, split off. Breton had already attacked Bataille with great venom for supporting extreme concepts which Breton considered pathological, separating them from an overriding ethics. Later, the Bataille circle of Surrealism was to produce some of the most dramatic and controversial forms whose "limits" remain a debated topic today. Overall, the ranks of the Surrealist movement were pruned, but simultaneously several new and important members joined up as the life of Surrealism entered a second, more international phase.


Salvador Dali
The Great Masturbator

 The Great Masturbator became an independent character in Dali's paintings and writings. The central image of the profile head is that of Dali; the closed eyes place the figure in the unconscious. The grasshopper is a self-referential representation of a displaced childhood fear of being eaten, a sublimated fear allied to sex.


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