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Explain the Movement: Surrealism

Surrealism’s origins lay in the late 1910s and early ’20s. Many don’t realise that it began as a literary movement that experimented with a new type of expression called automatic writing, or automatism. The movement sought to release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious; unrestricted by the confines of rational thought.

Think melting clocks, elephants on stilts…

Artist sitting in studio

The first artists to dabble with Surrealist techniques and imagery included German, Max Ernst, Frenchman, André Masson, the Spaniard, Joan Miró, and the American, Man Ray. Masson’s 1924 drawings are curving, continuous lines out of which emerge strange and symbolic figures that are products of an uninhibited mind. The Potato of 1928 by Miró incorporates twisted lines to create an surreal world.

Surrealism was split into two feuding groups, one led by the German poet Yvan Goll and the other by André Breton.

Goll’s group included Pierre Albert-Birot, Paul Dermée, Céline Arnauld, and Francis Picabia, while Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, and Paul Éluard joined Breton.

Since the Surrealists strove to revolutionize life as well as art, they also, almost without exception, became passionate Marxists. They strove to liberate humanity from the apparent widespread social abuses and believed that psychological freedom was dependent on the achievement of political and economic freedom. Although the French Communist Party refused to take Breton and his colleagues seriously, they continued to subscribe to Marxist goals.

In about 1937, Ernst, a former Dadaist, began to experiment with two unpredictable processes called decalcomania and grattage.

Configuration No.6, 1974 - Max Ernst

Decalcomania is the technique of pressing a sheet of paper onto a painted surface and peeling it off again, while grattage is the process of scraping pigment across a canvas that is laid on top of a textured surface. He used a combination of these techniques in The Barbarians which depicts fighting anthropomorphic figures in a deserted post-apocalyptic landscape.

In 1927, the Belgian artist René Magritte moved to Paris and became a leading figure of the Surrealist movement. In The Eternally Obvious, Magritte’s depiction of a dismembered female nude is emotionally shocking and caused quite a stir in the art scene.

The Accommodations of Desire Dali

In 1929, Dalí moved from Spain to Paris and began his surrealist journey. He expanded on Magritte’s dream imagery with his own erotically charged, hallucinatory visions. In The Accommodations of Desire he incorporated Freudian symbols, such as ants, to symbolize his overwhelming sexual desire.

The first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was at held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925 and became the official moment that Surrealism was an accepted movement within  the visual arts.

The concept of the “marvelous” played a crucial role in Surrealist works; defined as exaggerated beauty it is intended to produce an involuntary shudder in its audience. Surrealist work is often made up of eerie images and enigmatic adventures and according to Surrealist theory, the most powerful imagery was that which caused the greatest surprise.

Robert Motherwell, 'Iberia No. II' 1958

The organized Surrealist movement in Europe began to disappear as World War II began and as many Surrealists were anti-fascists, they were forced to flee to the relative safety of the United States. There, they met figures also dabbling with Surrealist ideas, like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell and Abstract Expressionism was born.

Many believe that André Breton was the power behind the movement and that his death in 1966 signaled the end of Surrealism as an organised movement. However, others claim it was the Second World War itself that brought about Surrealism’s denouement.

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