History of Surrealism

Born out of the earlier Dada movement, the Surrealist movement was officially founded in 1924 in Paris. It was pioneered by Andre Breton, although the term ‘Surrealist’ was first used in 1903 by Guillaume Apollinaire in the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias).

An anti-art movement, opposed to the rational ways of thinking which it believed to have resulted in the First World War, Surrealism saw writers and artists experiment with automatic writing and drawing – exercises that discourage the censorship of thought and tap into the subconscious.

Breton had practised with many of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods when working with soldiers suffering from shellshock during the war. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was also a huge influence on the Surrealist movement as Breton began to develop the Surrealist philosophy and publicise Surrealist works in his literary journal Littérature.

Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 provided definitions of Surrealism as a noun and an artistic process, as well as a philosophy. The movement aimed to free people from the rationalisation of social/political structures which acted, ultimately, as oppressors. In this spirit, the early 1930s saw Breton and other artists attempt to align Surrealism with the French communist cause; this political relationship, however, caused some tension and confusion between artists.

Visual artists involved in the movement from the beginning include André Masson and Max Ernst. Quick to expand, in 1925 a Brussels-based Surrealist group was set up by poet and artist E.L.T Messens; the two groups in Paris and Brussels corresponded regularly through the mid-to-late 1920s.

By the 1930s many new faces had joined, and were becoming associated with, the Surrealist movement, including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and René Magritte. A powerful Surrealist group also formed in Prague, with Toyen being one of its most notable members.

As the Second World War erupted in 1939 many artists, including Breton and Masson, took refuge in the United States and became part of the ‘European Artists in Exile’. During this time, in New York, the Surrealist artists had become increasingly influential to young American artists who, amongst the chaos of the war and the dropping of the atomic bombs, had identified strongly with the Surrealist creative processes and automatism. From these circumstances and influences, the Abstract Expressionist movement was subsequently engendered. 

Text by Dean Poulter