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Surrealism

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Surrealism

We often hear the phrase ‘I mean, it was surreal’, and we’ll usually grasp from this that something odd or unexpected has happened. This will be partly true. Imagine hearing (or seeing) one of the following:

  • ‘I saw a panda reading a newspaper while I was walking in the park.’
  • ‘There was a giraffe in the office this morning making the coffee.’
  • ‘Did you see the man standing in the stream playing the violin?’

But surreal is not just something odd you saw on the way to work the other day. It is a deliberate exploration of dreams and dreamlike imagery, landscapes, and experiences. It is a break with conventions and traditions, and it shows us a different way of perceiving the world around us. It is one of the major movements of the 20th century that has inspired artists, writers, sculptors, and filmmakers to explore their own creativity and push boundaries. But what is it?

Surrealism: Definition, meaning, background and aims

Surrealism refers to the freeing up of the mind’s creative potential by tapping into the subliminal, unconscious, and/or subconscious mind. Surreal is synonymous with unearthly, bizarre, unreal, of a dreamlike quality.

Meaning

The term surrealism is derived from sur-realism, as in ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ realism. Apollinaire coined the term in his play Les Mamelles de Tiresias (or The Breasts of Tiresias) (1917).

Surrealism was an art movement founded in the early 20th century with roots in Dadaism. The surrealists were interested in the exploration of:

  • the unconscious,
  • the subconscious,
  • the dream world,
  • and instinctual behaviour.

The original movement was led by André Breton and included the following artists:

  • René Magritte,
  • Man Ray,
  • Max Ernst,
  • Salvador Dalí.

The Surrealist movement has its roots in Dadaism, which began in 1916. Its key founders included Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp.

Dadaism refers to the deliberate denial or subversion of traditional art conventions.

Facts

Dadaism was an art movement that was against everything connected with the society and art world of its time: it was anti-logic, anti-aesthetic, and anti-idealistic. Dadaism was born out of chaos. It was a response to the horrors of WWI, its carnage and brutality. As the movement was anti-rational, much of its creativity centred around the absurd, the irrational.

Several artists of the Dadaist movement developed the surrealist movement as a reaction to the absurdism and chaos of Dadaism. Between 1922 and 1924, the group developed and refined its concepts and ideas. In 1924, André Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism to outline the key concepts of the movement.

Breton begins the Manifesto with the theme that imagination should be free (yet everywhere it is in chains). He explains how madness is a form of freedom, yet it is also tyrannical as it cannot be controlled at will. Breton then launches his attack on rationalism and moves on to the importance of dreams and the psychoanalytical methods of Sigmund Freud.

The surrealists were keen supporters of Freud’s dream analysis and emphasised how Freud’s work could help humans explore the mind:

The imagination is perhaps on the point of reclaiming its rights (Breton, 1924).

The surrealists questioned the rationality and logic of the world around them and sought to challenge traditionally held beliefs. They looked for the connection between dreams, instinct, subliminal desire, and the creative process.

Breton defined surrealism as follows:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life (André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924).1

Examples of surrealism

Breton suggests that a good many poets could pass for surrealists, such as Dante and Shakespeare. He includes a list of names of poets and writers who could be considered surrealist, even though they ‘had not heard the Surrealist voice’ (Breton, 1924).

The list includes:

  • Jonathan Swift: ‘Swift is Surrealist in malice’.

  • Edgar Allan Poe: ‘Poe is Surrealist in adventure’.

  • Charles Baudelaire: ‘Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality’.

  • Arthur Rimbaud: ‘Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere’.

  • Victor Hugo: ‘Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid’.

Surrealism became a movement that encompassed all the arts, including paintings and sculptures by Dalí, films by Buñuel, novels by Kafka, and poetry by Breton. For Breton, surrealism was also about experiencing the marvellous. ‘Only the marvellous is beautiful’, he said in the Manifesto.

To access the subliminal or subconscious mind, the surrealists devised various games and activities. These included:

  • Automatic writing: this would involve writing without conscious thought, allowing the hand to work on its own or ‘automatically’.
  • Automatic drawing: similar to automatic writing, only drawing with eyes closed, again without conscious thought.
  • Cutting out random texts from newspapers and making up new stories by rearranging the texts.
  • Juxtaposition: using either cut out pictures from books or journals or objects they would then photograph, the surrealists would combine together and create new images/concepts.

Hint: Many surrealist games are very simple and are practised today in creative writing. Have you ever tried automatic writing or automatic drawing?

Surrealism and literature

Nadja was a surrealist romance published by Breton in 1928. It was a blend of fact (semi-autobiographical), memories, and imagination. This was followed by Les Vases Communicants in 1932, which explored how surrealism and reality are one.

Breton’s poetry was published in collections, including:

  • The White Haired Revolver (1932).
  • L'Amour Fou (1937).

Another member of the original surrealist group who wrote literary works was Lenore Carrington. Carrington was married to the artist and fellow surrealist Max Ernst and was one of the last surviving surrealists of the original movement. Primarily a painter, she also wrote fiction. Her novel The Hearing Trumpet (1974) is considered a surrealist classic. In the novel, ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby is given a hearing trumpet, and she overhears her family arranging to send her to a retirement home. Once there, Marian discovers a portrait of the Abbess that seems to watch her while she eats. Marian receives a book about the Abbess and begins a surreal adventure that has been compared to Alice in Wonderland.

Lenore Carrington died in Mexico City in 2011, and a collection of her short stories, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, was published in 2017, some of them for the first time.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871)

Although the term and the movement were not to exist for another fifty years or so, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books contain many surrealist characteristics. These include:

  • talking animals,
  • made-up animals (the bread-and-butter-fly, the Jubjub Bird, the Bandersnatch),
  • metamorphoses or transformations.

Alice becomes both tiny and a giant, the White Queen turns into a sheep, the talking Caterpillar turns into a butterfly, and a baby turns into a pig. Both books describe Alices journey through dreamscapes or dreamlike scapes (does she really jump down a rabbit hole or walk through a mirror?) and also explore dreams. For example, Alice discovers the Red King asleep in the forest and is told that he was dreaming of her. Once she returns to her own home (or wakes up), she asks her pet kitten:

He was part of my dream, of course—but then I was part of his dream, too (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1871).

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis (1915)

In Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis, the unfortunate protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up to find that he has turned into a huge insect. His transformation, rather than arouse horror and pity, merely annoys his father, and Samsa is confined to his room, where he dies of neglect and despair. Metamorphosis qualifies as both surrealist and magic realist fiction. Kafka also wrote The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926).

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

In The Satanic Verses, two survivors of a plane crash end up on a beach and experience a sequence of dreams and metamorphoses.

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1998)

The search for a missing cat takes its owner, Toru Okada, on a journey through a netherworld filled with eccentric characters. It combines a detective story with WWII secrets.

David Mitchell, Slade House (2015)

Slade House is described as both a ghost or horror story and a work of surrealist fiction. The novel centres on a strange and haunted house that can only be found if conditions are exactly right. The house is inhabited by surreal characters who cannot leave.

Surrealism and film

Cinema was another important element to the early surrealists. As a young man, Breton would go to cinemas with a friend regardless of what films were showing, enter at any point during the film, and leave as soon as they felt bored, then repeat the process at another cinema. This would leave him feeling ‘charged’ for a few days.

This experience marks a fundamental surrealist attitude: a refusal to be dictated to by the given. … Breton defined cinema in the Manifesto: ‘Three cheers for darkened rooms!’ … For the surrealists, going to the cinema was akin to an ancient ritual; it was the place where a modern mystery was enacted (Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema, 2006).

Buñuel and Dalí filmed Un Chien Andalou in 1929, expecting to shock their audiences but instead received critical acclaim. The film ran at Montmatre’s Studio 28 for a long time. Their intention had been that nothing in the film symbolised anything: grand pianos with dead donkeys lying on them are pulled slowly out of a room, or books turn into pistols. There is no apparent storyline, and images and scenes follow one another as in a dream. Its most famous sequence is a trompe-d’oeuil (a 3D optical illusion) showing a man about to slit a woman’s eye open with a razor.

Other surrealist films include:

  • L’Age d’Or (1930, dir. Luis Buñuel): a satire about a passionate relationship that is blocked by family, church, and society.
  • The Red Balloon (1956, dir. Albert Lamorisse): a puppeteer discovers a portal into the mind of the actor, John Malkovich.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, dir. Michel Gondry): a man and a woman meet on a train and begin a relationship. However, their memories have been erased, so they do not remember their chaotic past.

The characteristics of surrealism

Typically, surrealist works will include one or more of the following:

  • Dreamlike imagery.

  • Unusual, irrational juxtapositions.

  • Symbolism.

  • Little or no storyline.

  • Distortion of imagery (especially in photography and film).

  • A sense of the unexpected and spontaneity.

In some ways, surrealism has become a part of everyday life. Many of the images we flick through on Instagram can quickly give us the impression of wandering through an unreal world: talking cats in top hats, people dressed as Batman eating ice cream, and so on. We see dreams imagined by others, and social media are a great platform for people to express their own sense of surrealism.

Surrealism has helped people to open up their imaginations and minds. Its influence on the arts, film, and literature continues today.

Surrealism - Key takeaways

  • Surrealism is a deliberate exploration of dreams and dreamlike imagery, landscapes, and experiences.

  • The surrealist movement was founded in the early 20th century with roots in Dadaism.

  • Surrealism explores the unconscious, the subconscious, and instinctual behaviour.

  • André Breton wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924.

  • Surrealism is characterised by dreamlike imagery, symbolism, and unexpected juxtaposition.

  • Surrealism is also about experiencing the marvellous.

1 Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 1900­1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (1992).

Frequently Asked Questions about Surrealism

Surrealism involves freeing the mind and imagination from reality.

Surrealism began as a reaction to the rationality and logic of the early 20th century.

Surrealism as a movement developed between 1922 and 1924 and became ‘officially’ founded with Breton’s Manifesto in 1924.

  • Automatic writing.
  • Automatic drawing.
  • Dreamscapes.

Literature that blends the conscious with the un/subconscious and with dreamlike narratives.

Final Surrealism Quiz

Question

What is Surrealism?

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Answer

Surrealism involves freeing the mind and imagination from reality.

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Question

What caused Surrealism?

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Answer

Surrealism began as a reaction to the rationality and logic of the early 20th century.

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Question

When was Surrealism founded? 

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Answer

Surrealism as a movement developed between 1922 - 1924, and became ‘officially’ founded with Breton’s Manifesto in 1924.

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Question

What are 3 characteristics of Surrealism?

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Answer

  • Automatic writing
  • Automatic drawing 
  • Dreamscapes

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Question

What is the Surrealism genre?

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Answer

Literature that blends conscious with un- or subconscious, dreamlike narratives.

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Question

Complete: Surrealism is a deliberate exploration of ... and ... imagery, landscapes and experiences.


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Answer

Surrealism is a deliberate exploration of dreams and dreamlike imagery, landscapes and experiences.

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Question

True or false? 

Andre Breton wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1926.

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False: 

Andre Breton wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924

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Question

Choose: Surrealism is also about experiencing the 

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Answer

magnificent.

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Choose: The Surrealist movement was founded in the early 20th century with roots in 


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Answer

Absurdism.

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Complete: 

Surrealism explores the ..., the ... and instinctual behaviour.

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Answer

Surrealism explores the unconscious, the subconscious and instinctual behaviour.

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Question

Choose: Surrealism is characterised by dreamlike imagery, ... and unexpected juxtaposition.

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similarity

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Choose: In Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis (1915), Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he has turned into a huge ...

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Answer

caterpillar.

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True or False? Automatic writing involves writing without conscious thought.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Who said  ‘Only the marvellous is beautiful’ ?

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Answer

Andre Breton, in his Manifesto of Surrealism.

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Choose: In his list of surrealists, Breton includes 

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Answer

Shakespeare

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