Skip to main content
Select Source:

Surrealism

SURREALISM.

In view of its global impact, as Anna Balakian has persuasively argued, Surrealism constituted the major poetic and artistic current of the twentieth century. Of the dozens of movements that vied for this honor, Surrealism proved to be the most influential and the most persistent. Although abstraction enjoyed a huge success, it was limited almost entirely to art. Surrealism's most serious rival was probably Cubism, since it had an important impact on both literature and painting. Another leading contender was Expressionism, however one chooses to define it, which influenced a broad spectrum of aesthetic creations. Nevertheless, Surrealism was the only movement to span the greater part of the century and to enjoy widespread popularity.

In the Beginning

The term "surrealism" was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 to describe Jean Cocteau's ballet Parade and his own play The Mammaries of Tiresias. After Apollinaire died the following year, André Breton appropriated the term in homage to the fallen poet. In contrast to Apollinaire's surrealism, which was basically analogical, Breton's Surrealism (with a capital S) was preoccupied with the Freudian unconscious. Breton, a former medical student who served as a psychiatric orderly during the war, sought to probe the secret recesses of the mind. In particular, since he was a practicing poet, he wondered what aesthetic discoveries they might hold.

Although Surrealist art and film were destined to achieve greater popular success, Surrealism was originally conceived as a literary movement. The Surrealists proposed exploring the unconscious via the written and/or spoken word. By systematically violating linguistic rules, they attempted to increase our ability to describe irrational experiences and illogical events. By pushing language to the edge of intelligibilityand beyondthe Surrealists created a powerful instrument for exploring the unconscious. Like the Dada movement, from which it originally sprang, Surrealism strove not only to revolutionize language but also to renew its primary function. Surrealist practitioners no longer regarded words as passive objects but rather as autonomous entities. "Words have finished playing silly games," Breton proclaimed; "Words have discovered how to make love" (p. 286).

Surrealism's basic principles were not all promulgated at the same moment nor adopted by everyone with the same measure of enthusiasm. The first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) focused on the role of psychic automatism:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism by which we propose to expresseither verbally or in writing or in some other mannerthe true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside all aesthetic and moral preoccupations.

ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism rests on a belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected until now, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. Ultimately it tends to destroy all other psychic mechanisms and to take their place in resolving the principal problems of life.

Despite the excitement evident in these and similar proclamations, psychic automatism assumed a limited role in Surrealism. Most, if not all, of the Surrealists exercised a certain amount of conscious control over their works. Breton himself distinguished between Surrealist texts, which were entirely automatic, and Surrealist poems, in which unconscious desires were encompassed by a broader design.

Marvelous Encounters

The concept of the marvelous also played a crucial role in Surrealist works. Differing from one era to the next, the marvelous was defined basically as exacerbated beauty. Provoking an involuntary shudder in the reader or viewer, the marvelous mirrored the perpetual anxiety underlying human experience. In Surrealist works, it often assumes the form of eerie images and enigmatic adventures. The concept of objective chance played an equally important role. According to Surrealist theory, the most powerful imagery was that which caused the greatest surprise. In order to create marvelous images, Surrealist poets juxtaposed two terms that appeared to conflict with each other but were secretly related. The power of the resulting imagery was directly proportional to their apparent dissimilarity.

Surrealist artists performed a similar operation by juxtaposing incongruous or contradictory images on the canvas. Psychic automatism provided one means of achieving this goal. Artists and writers also resorted to chance operations like those governing an exercise called "the exquisite cadaver," in which several individuals contributed different words to create a nonsensical utterance. The name derived from their first attempt, which produced the following phrase: "The exquisite cadaver will drink the new wine."

Later Developments

With the publication of the Second Manifesto six years later, the Surrealist program acquired additional principles. These principles applied to every official member of the Surrealist movement. One of these, which Breton called "the supreme point" (or sometimes "the sublime point"), attempted to revive the medieval concept of coincidentia oppositorum. "According to all indications," he declared, "a certain point exists in the mind where life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low cease to be perceived as contradictions." The Surrealists sought to eliminate traditional binary oppositions, including the distinction between beauty and ugliness, truth and falsehood, and good and evil, because they appeared to be arbitrary. In their opinion, these and other cultural constructions merely restricted the imagination.

Since the Surrealists strove to revolutionize life as well as art, they also, almost without exception, became ardent Marxists. How could one liberate humanity, they reasoned, without correcting widespread social abuses? Psychological freedom clearly depended 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.

A final principle to be enshrined in the Surrealist pantheon was delirious love. Officially adopted in 1937, when Breton published a book of the same name, it was already well established. Hence the Second Manifesto (1930) celebrated love as the "only [idea] capable of reconciling every individual, momentarily or not, with the idea of life " (Breton, p. 823). In keeping with Surrealism's objectives, passionate commitment was portrayed as a liberating force.

As much as anything, Breton and his colleagues insisted, Surrealism sought to improve the quality of everyday life. Although the movement's accomplishments were largely aesthetic, it strove to revolutionize our view of the world around us. Among other things, Surrealism offered potential solutions to a number of problematic situations. One of the problems it addressed was the relation between the individual and his or her unconscious. By inventing strategies to glimpse this hidden realm, it conferred a new significance on the ancient Greek motto "Know thyself." In addition, Surrealism explored the relation between individuals and the natural world. While the concept of the supreme point stressed the unity of life, the principles of objective chance and the marvelous emphasized its extraordinary beauty. In addition, the Surrealists aimed to redefine the relation between the individual and society and between man and woman. Reflecting the movement's eclectic origins, they succeeded in reconciling Freud with the alchemist Fulcanelli and Eros with Marx. Ultimately, they attempted to modify the process of seeing, thinking, and feeling in order to achieve total liberation.

The Movement's Reception

Originating in France, Surrealism soon spread to every corner of the globe. Painters and poets all over the world were attracted to the Surrealist endeavor, especially those living in Spain and Latin America. At least two of the latter artists, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, were destined to play a major part in the movement. An analogous role was reserved for Luis Buñuel, who founded the Surrealist cinema. In addition, Surrealism attracted three poets who would eventually receive the Nobel prize for literature: Vicente Aleixandre, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz. In retrospect, Surrealism cast a long, indelible shadow over most of the twentieth century. Artists and writers who were not affiliated with the movement also benefitedand continue to benefitfrom the Surrealist enterprise. Surrealism led to the creation of a new language, a new vision, and a vast body of exciting, innovative works. It revolutionized not only the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us but the way in which we translate this perception into words and images.

See also Arts: Overview ; Avant-Garde ; Dada ; Dream ; Periodization of the Arts .

bibliography

Balakian, Anna. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. A classic study.

Bohn, Willard. The Rise of Surrealism: Cubism, Dada, and the Pursuit of the Marvelous. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Breton, Andre. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Marguerite Bonnet et al. Vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard/Pléiade, 1988.

Caws, Mary Ann. The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism: Aragon, Breton, Tzara, Eluard, and Desnos. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.

, ed. Surrealist Poets and Painters: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 2001. A valuable collection of essays, manifestos, and illustrations.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. The basic text on women and Surrealism.

Chénieux-Gendron, Jacqueline. Surrealism. Translated by Vivian Folkenflik. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Gale, Matthew. Dada and Surrealism. London: Phaidon, 1997. Primarily devoted to art.

Ilie, Paul. The Surrealist Mode in Spanish Literature: An Interpretation of Basic Trends from Post-Romanticism to the Spanish Vanguard. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968. A basic text on Spanish Surrealism.

Matthews, J. H. Toward the Poetics of Surrealism. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1976. One of many books on Surrealism by a prolific author.

Morris, C. B. Surrealism and Spain, 19201936. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1972. A basic text on Spanish Surrealism.

Willard Bohn

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Surrealism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Surrealism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism

"Surrealism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism

surrealism

surrealism (sərē´əlĬzəm), literary and art movement influenced by Freudianism and dedicated to the expression of imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and free of convention. The movement was founded (1924) in Paris by André Breton, with his Manifeste du surréalisme, but its ancestry is traced to the French poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and to the Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico. Many of its adherents had belonged to the Dada movement. In literature, surrealism was confined almost exclusively to France. Surrealist writers were interested in the associations and implications of words rather than their literal meanings; their works are thus extraordinarily difficult to read. Among the leading surrealist writers were Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and Jean Cocteau, the last noted particularly for his surreal films. In art the movement became dominant in the 1920s and 30s and was internationally practiced with many and varied forms of expression. Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy used dreamlike perception of space and dream-inspired symbols such as melting watches and huge metronomes. Max Ernst and René Magritte constructed fantastic imagery from startling combinations of incongruous elements of reality painted with photographic attention to detail. These artists have been labeled as verists because their paintings involve transformations of the real world. "Absolute" surrealism depends upon images derived from psychic automatism, the subconscious, or spontaneous thought. Works by Joan Miró and André Masson are in this vein. The movement survived but was greatly diminished after World War II.

See A. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (tr. 1969); L. Lippard, ed., Surrealists on Art (1970); R. Brandon, Surreal Lives (1999); studies by P. Waldberg (1966), W. S. Rubin (1969), S. Alexandrian (1970), H. S. Gershman (1969, repr. 1974), J. H. Matthews (1977), E. B. Henning (1979), A. Balakian (1987), H. Lewis (1988), and M. Nadeau (tr. 1967, repr. 1989).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"surrealism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"surrealism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surrealism

"surrealism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surrealism

surrealism

surrealism Twentieth-century artistic movement that evolved out of Dada. André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto (1924) set out the key features of the movement. Taking inspiration from Sigmund Freud's theories of the unconscious, the surrealists used the techniques of ‘free association’ to produce bizarre imagery and strange juxtapositions to surprise and shock viewers. Important surrealist writers include Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, Georges Bataille, and Benjamin Peret, while painters include Jean Arp, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, and Paul Klee. Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel directed surrealist films.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"surrealism." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"surrealism." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surrealism

"surrealism." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surrealism

surrealism

sur·re·al·ism / səˈrēəˌlizəm/ • n. a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. DERIVATIVES: sur·re·al·ist n. & adj. sur·re·al·is·tic / səˌrēəˈlistik/ adj. sur·re·al·is·ti·cal·ly / səˌrēəˈlistik(ə)lē/ adv.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"surrealism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"surrealism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism-0

"surrealism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism-0

surrealism

surrealism a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. Launched in 1924 by a manifesto of André Breton and having a strong political content, the movement grew out of symbolism and Dada and was strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"surrealism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"surrealism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism

"surrealism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism

surrealism

surrealism XX. — F. surréalisme; see SUR-2, REALISM.
So surrealist, surrealistic XX.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"surrealism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"surrealism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism-1

"surrealism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/surrealism-1