Surrealism and Psychoanalysis

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Begun as an investigation of poetic images and language, their sources, their nature, and specific features, surrealism is a movement of ideas, of artistic creation and action based explicitly on Freudian discoveries, which were used to develop an original theory of language and creativity. In later years it adopted Hegelian dialectics and Marxist-Leninist historical materialism. The "social and martial cataclysm" (Breton, 1934) provoked a revolt by an entire generation.

The movement was founded in Paris in 1924 by French poet André Breton, with the support of a group of poets and painters. The presence of Max Ernst, from Germany, Man Ray, from the United States, and Joan Miró, a Catalan, gave the group its international flavor. Surrealism's goal was to "change life" (Arthur Rimbaud) by freeing humanity from the constraints of mental or social censorship as well as economic oppression: "Poetry is made by everyone. Not by one" (Lautréamont).

The project made little sense to Freud, who refused his patronage (Freud to Breton, 1933e [1932]; to Zweig, July 20, 1938 (1960a [1873-1939])). Breton visited Freud in Vienna in 1921 and corresponded with him in 1932 about The Interpretation of Dreams. In 1937 he asked him to contribute to a planned anthology (Trajectoire du rêve, 1938). Freud answered: "A collection of dreams without their associations, without understanding the circumstances in which someone dreamed, doesn't mean anything to me, and I have a hard time understanding what it might mean to others" (Breton, 1938, I).

These associations were generally omitted by the surrealists when they narrated their dreams. They appear in André Breton's The Communicating Vases (1932), but there the author, denying the "dream navel" for the sake of Marxist-Leninist materialism, felt he could use them to bring into focus all his dream thoughts. He claimed, contrary to Freud, that the dream was a creator, an instigator to action, and capable of dialectically resolving the contradiction between desire and reality. Surrealism ignored therapy.

There are several periods to the history of surrealism. Its "prehistory" dates from 1916 (Breton discovers Freud) to 1924. This was the period of the review Littérature (1919). Together with Breton, a group of young artists invented surrealist techniques intended to liberate the unconscious: automatic writing and drawing, hypnotic sleep, hypnagogic visions, dream narratives, group creation, oral and written games, collage, rubbings, decals, experimental photography and theater. The publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto (Breton, 1924) ushered in Surrealism's formative period. The group had a journal of its own, La Révolution surréaliste. "We must be thankful for Freud's discoveries," wrote Breton, "the imagination may be on the point of winning back its rights."

In 1927 André Breton, Louis Aragon, PaulÉluard, and Benjamin Peret joined the Communist Party. Breton did not, however, abandon Freud: "The Surrealism that, as we have seen, has adopted Marxist beliefs does not intend to treat lightly the Freudian critique of ideas" (Breton, 1930). Breton soon quit the Communist Party, which reproached him for his Freudianism. Surrealism embraced cinema (Luis Buñuel), the construction of objects ("Situation surréaliste de l'objet," Breton, 1935), and produced important works of art in every field.

But in 1930, in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton acknowledged the existence of a profound crisis. The third period of Surrealism was about to begin. A new review was introduced, Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution. In 1930 the review published two articles by the French-American psychoanalyst Jean FroisWittmann, in 1933 the Breton-Freud correspondence of 1932, a favorable critique of Jacques Lacan's doctoral dissertation by René Crevel, and, also by Crevel, an attack on an article in the Revue française de psychanalyse. The review also published the first texts by Salvador Dali, where he developed the idea of "critical-paranoia," the use of the interpretative processes of paranoia for creative ends, and the exploration of the unconscious.

In 1933 Minotaure appeared. Although it was not the official voice of the group, it was strongly influenced by it. The first issue included articles on the "contributions of psychoanalysis." Lacan and Dalí explained their conceptions of paranoia as an active psychic phenomenon, which Dalí compared with the passivity he associated with dreams and automatic writing. Several large-scale international exhibitions confirmed the growth of surrealism around the world, a phenomenon that accelerated during the Second World War following the exile of Breton, André Masson, and Max Ernst in the United States, and Benjamin Péret in Mexico, and continued after the war.

Breton, the principal theorist of the group, maintained a close association with Freudian thought throughout his career. He was most interested in the logic of the unconscious, in conflicts between the ego, the id, and the superego, relating them to the process of artistic creation, to Freudian ideas of sexuality, fantasy, desire, repression, the death instinct, whose opposition to Eros he assumed to be dialectical (Breton, 1930), and especially to ideas about representation and perception (Breton, 1933). Beginning with his concept of "pure mental representation," situated "beyond true perception," he examined, in the context of the Essais de psychanalyse (1927), how the transition from the unconscious to the perception-consciousness system takes place in the creative individual. For Breton, as a reader of Freud, it was at the preconscious level that language and the traces of acoustic and visual perceptions were united and charged with affect. But Breton went further: he saw in these preconscious elements the raw material of creation, obtained by the removal of repression with the help of automatic writing and drawing. In creating a work of art, the artist would make the individual universal (Breton, 1935).

In a letter to Stefan Zweig, Freud, who had met Salvador Dalí in London, also associated the fundamental elements of the work of the artist with the preconscious, but he added a principle of economy: "From the critical point of view it could still be maintained that the notion of art defies expansion as long as the quantitative proportion of unconscious material and preconscious treatment does not remain within definite limits" (July 20, 1938). The specific task of the creative individual, the result of his "initiative" (Breton) is to manipulate the relation between unconscious and preconscious elements, and objectify them in a work of art. Repression would have to be removed using "surrealist techniques" (Breton). Freud's meeting with Dalí seems to be the only time when Freud made an effort to understand the surrealist use of psychoanalysis and compare it with his own beliefs.

There were other points of contact between surrealism and psychoanalysis: Adrien Borel discussed his surrealist experiences (1925); Salvador Dalí and René Crevel interviewed Jacques Lacan; Crevel, Antonin Artaud, and Robert Desnos were analyzed by René Allendy, which they later wrote about. André Embiricos, a surrealist poet and theoretician as well as a psychoanalyst, founded, together with Marie Bonaparte, the Greek Psychoanalytic Society.

Lacanian thought developed throughout the nineteen-sixties, and, although it has a number of affinities with surrealism, it has always remained distinct. In 1971 the surrealist painter and philosopher René Passeron, with his research team at the C.N.R.S., foundedÉtudes poïétiques, which analyzed the creative process and made use of Freudian theory. A number of psychoanalysts (André Berge, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Guy Rosolato) were interested in the surrealists. As Breton found in 1934, the scope of surrealism, through the upheaval of sensibility it entails, "is socially incalculable." As a movement it has frequently helped the spread of psychoanalysis.

Nicole Geblesco

See also: Breton, André; Choisy, Maryse; Held, René; Lacan, Jacques-MarieÉmile; Literature and psychoanalysis.


Biro, Adam, Passeron, René. (1982). Dictionnaire général du surréalisme et de ses environs. Freiberg, Switzerland: Office du Livre.

Breton, André. (1988). Œuvres complètes. Édition établie par Marguerite Bonnet. Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade.

Freud, Sigmund. (1927). Essais de psychanalys (Samuel Jankelevitch, Trans.). Paris: Payot.

. (1960a [1873-1939]). Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1939 (Ernst L. Freud, Ed.; Tania and James Stern, Trans.). London, Hogarth Press, 1970.

Hulak, Fabienne, and Bonnet, Marguerite. (1992). Folie et psychanalyse dans l 'expérience surréaliste. Nice: Z'Editions.

Mélusine. (1992). Cahiers du Centre de recherches sur le surréalisme, XIII, Le surréaliste et son psy. Paris.

Revues surréalistes (1919-1939); Littérature (1919-1921, 1922-1924); La Révolution surréaliste (1924-1929); Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution (1930-1933); Minotaure (1930-1933, 1933-1939). Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1975, 1976, 1981.