What is Surrealism?

Surrealism sees the merging of reality and the dreamlike image to create work which could suggest either an extended version of reality, or an extended version of the dream.

The Surrealist movement was engendered by the earlier Dada movement; a reactionary movement to the First World War. The war had been viewed, by Dada artists, as the result of a rational thinking world; they sought to combat this way of thinking and what ensued was an absurd, reactionary, and artistic scream. This scream burst out of Zurich and spread internationally to cities including Berlin, New York and Paris.

Heavily involved in the Dada movement, André Breton pioneered the subsequent Surrealist movement which began in Paris in 1924. A shop (Surrealist Central) was opened up in Paris in 1924 in which all people were welcome should they wish to learn, ask questions about, or practise Surrealist writing, drawing or painting. At this time Breton also wrote the Surrealist Manifesto which set about defining the term not only as a means of expression dictated by thought in the absence of reason and free from moral concerns, but a philosophical idea. Indeed, the art movement, in many ways, had philosophical intent; to free the mind of society from the constraints and principal problems of life which had effectively lead to the First World War.

Unlike other previous art movements, the Surrealists did not adhere to an agreed painting technique, nor did they work towards a common aesthetic. No artist painted like another; they each pursued their own creative expression. This lead to a huge spectrum of different styles, from the violent automatic drawings of André Masson to the magical frottage rubbings of Max Ernst. However, the thing which drew artists together as a collective was a shared interest in the voice of the unconscious. This idea lies at the heart of Surrealism.

By invoking a trance-like state through hypnosis or meditation, the artist is removed from the constraints of reality and can finally be free of the need to be rational. This is the ideal state of being to allow for the delving into the subconscious. Artists can partake in automatic writing, drawing or painting exercises without planning or consciously considering the work that they are creating in that moment. The work produced may be at first glance illegible, however, through our consciousness’ propensity to rationalise, a new image begins to emerge; an image not entirely irrational, but at the same time not truly rational. The image is neither a reality, nor an indecipherable dream. It is the surreal.

One of the most eminent artists to come out of the movement was Spanish artist Salvador Dalí; his painting Persistence of Memory (1931) with its landscape of melting clocks became, to many, the symbol of Surrealism.

Text by Dean Poulter