Guillame Apollinaire devised the term surrealism in 1917. Surrealism was a movement in art and literature that sought to convey the thoughts of the unconscious mind in real life. The purpose of surrealism was to exalt the irrational facet of the human psyche. Andre Breton, a French critic, “inaugurated” surrealism in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Breton claimed that artists should be freed from “reason and the demands of conventional society.” Surrealism owes a lot to Freud, especially in regards to free association and dream analysis; in the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton states:
It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer – and, in my opinion, the most important part – has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud…
One could also say that the literary technique that surrealism corresponds to is stream of conscious writing, because both allow the mind to be set free from the restrictions of conventional standards of art. Breton’s definition of surrealism was “psychic automatism” which was basically saying that one’s thoughts guided his creations and that he should not try to rationalize them. He also stressed that these creations should not be judged under any “aesthetic or moral concern.”
There were two main schools of surrealism: abstract surrealism and visionary surrealism. Abstract surrealism delved into the concept of “psychic automatism” and some artists would draw or paint random things without planning beforehand, somewhat like doodling. Other artists created things with a childlike aspect to them, using large, simple yet unusual shapes. Some of the most important abstract surrealists were Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Paul Klee.
Pablo Picasso was at the forefront of surrealism. His art was often severely distorted. His painting, Seated Woman, portrayed a woman whose head, if looked at in different ways, seemed to show three profiles. Each profile showed a different part of her personality, which could represent the aspects of Freud’s psyche, the id, ego and superego. This idea of a “split personality” was a recurring theme in Picasso’s work.
Joan Miro was also an important abstract surrealist. In Person Throwing a Stone At a Bird, a large, pale creature with only one foot is throwing a stone at a stick-like bird that appears to be on fire. He uses a style of painting that looks as if a child had created it to contrast playfulness with the background of a black, almost oil-like body of water and a dark, menacing sky. Paul Klee’s paintings mainly concerned symbols of the unconscious. His Fish Magic contains fish, flowers and humans alongside planets and a clock and substantiates Klee’s claim that art was produced by “intellectual stimuli.”
Visionary surrealism utilized normal, everyday objects in unusual groupings or ways. The most important visionary surrealists were Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. Rene Magritte used realistic, intricate items in shocking and nonsensical ways. In his painting The False Mirror, a huge eye’s iris is the cloudy sky it is looking it, making a profound statement about reality, our perception of it and the illusions we sometimes see. Salvador Dali used ideas from his own fantasies and dreams, putting normal or abnormal objects in bizarre settings or disfiguring them. Dali’s The Persistence of Memory contains a large, empty landscape, a tree without any leaves, flaccid watches flung over things and a pocketwatch with ants crawling on it. One of the clocks is placed upon a brain-shaped self portrait. Dali felt that to look for a message in his artwork was missing his point – to him they were just “dream photographs.”
Another important surrealist was Frida Kahlo. One of the most important female painters of the last century, she strove to depict women as something other than possessions of men. Many of her paintings were self-portraits, and they usually featured one of the two “great accidents” of her life: a car accident that left her handicapped and her marriage to Diego Riviera. In The Broken Column, Kahlo shows herself naked, covered in nails and split open, revealing a crumbling pillar to make a comparison of herself to religious icons of Mexico.
Surrealism was not just confined to painting. Many sculptors did the same thing that visionary surrealists did – putting common objects together in strange ways – only they used the physical objects themselves. Meret Oppenheim’s Object was a combination of everyday objects (a teacup and saucer) with an unusual element (fur). Photographers also participated in surrealist art. A group of Dadaists from Berlin came up with the idea of photomontages, which were comprised of printed words and images glued to a board or other surface. Hannah Hoch shows humans and machines alongside the word ‘dada’ in her subversive Cut with the Kitchen Knife in order to challenge the expectations of the viewers.