Surrealism is one of the most famous artistic movements of the 20th century. Beginning mostly in Europe, with some Americans participating, it featured a number of rebellious and strange artists. They used disjunctive and bizarre comparisons and contexts to try to break through to a cultural subconscious. In the course of making their art they wanted to expose the hypocrisy that lay at the heart of what they considered to be a decadent, bourgeois world that only they truly understood. But what inspired these artists to follow the surrealist path? Was this inspiration sustainable? And what became of surrealism and its proponents once the purpose or inspiration had died away? These are important questions that will be addressed in this essay.
Some art critics trace the beginnings of Surrealism to the 1913 Armory Show in New York. The first few decades of the 20th century had seen a revolution in art with the arrival of cubists like Picasso and Braque. These men distorted perspective to show a different way of looking at the world. After the soft-focus painting of late impressionism this radical shift was a revelation. But cubism too was getting crotchety. Simply breaking up the order or traditional sense of a still life soon came to be seen as conservative. It was in New York, that the French artist Marcel Duchamp first presented his famous “cubist” painting “Nude Descending Staircase No. 2.” Although nominally a cubist work, this painting was different and marked an advance. Critics were furious at its strangeness and he was forced to withdraw it from the show. Some cubists thought he was making a joke at their expense—and this indeed would come to be part of the foundation of critical anger towards the Surrealists in years to come: “You can’t be serious! This isn’t art. This is a joke—and not even a funny one!”
The early stage of the Surrealist movement got underway with what was called Dada. It began with automatism—cutting up the newspaper and randomly assigning words or sentence an order in a poem—backed by a belief that the “random” result actually expressed a truth in the world (although it was often difficult to pin down the sincerity in any of the Dadaists’ anarchic comedic activities).
As other artists began to coalesce around ideas of absurdity and strangeness both in New York and in Paris, the group began to take on a stronger identity. These artists enjoyed the bizarre and finding strange connections between things. In these early years of the movement, Duchamp spent time in their company and even epitomized their art with another scandal and an exhibition: a urinal called “Fountain” signed with the enigmatic signature: R. Mutt. Looking back on the exhibition, Ruth Brandon, has this to say about the Dadaists’ and Duchamp’s “ready-mades”—sculptures comprising different unrelated objects, or objects placed in strange contexts:
The ready-mades are oddly disturbing. This is partly because the dissonance between what they were and what they are undermines our view of ordinary life as well as art . . . R. Mutt’s Fountain, however, disturbs for other reasons, too. It may be ready-made, but it is far from pristine. On the contrary, it is loaded with associations. In Art’s very own sanctum Mr Mutt pissed on the notion of art.
Duchamp was a touchstone, but something of an outlier in the Surrealist community. He was too independent and wedded to his own vision—although this often contained iconoclasm and juxtaposition, hallmarks of Surrealism. The real community got underway in the later years of the World War One, as soldiers (and conscripted artists) returned home from the front shaken and upset by what they had seen. So disillusioned were they by the lies they thought they had been told by their cultural traditions that there was a great appetite for something that would free them from these strictures and allow them to seek out new methods of expression and representation. All the while rebelling against the prevailing culture, they would create a parallel, reflexively nonsensical one.
While World War One taught them nihilism—the massive meaningless destruction wrought on the battlefield and the premature deaths of many of their colleagues—they also put into action ideas found in the work of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud which were rapidly gaining in popularity in post-war Europe. Many of Freud’s ideas centre on the concept that there are underlying formulas and motivations beneath the superficial social lives we lead. He believed and wrote about another version of reality of which we have only a limited awareness and which reveals itself to us in symbols and patterns of speech. These concepts were immediately adopted by the Dadaists and lent an uncanny and psychological depth to much of their early work. It also gave them a credible theory to back some of their stranger experiments.
Some of these Freudian ideas taken up by the Dadaists had been taken up earlier and presaged by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico who began to exhibit his deeply enigmatic paintings in 1913, around the same time as the less obviously Freudian Duchamp. Indeed many of De Chirico’s paintings were called the Enigma of X—the Enigma of the Oracle, the Enigma of Arrival, etc—titles that would later be imitated by the powerfully proficient surrealist Salvador Dali. Many of De Chirico’s early, influential paintings featured a nameless Mediterranean town inspired in part by Turin, in part by the Greek town of Volos, where nameless travelers pass in a dreamlike setting. As the critic Robert Hughes writes,
For the past [ninety] years, de Chirico's city has been one of the capitals of the modernist imagination. It is a fantasy town, a state of mind, signifying alienation, dreaming and loss. Its elements are so well known by now that they fall into place as soon as they are named, like jigsaw pieces worn by being assembled over and over again: the arcades, the tower, the piazza, the shadows, the statue, the train, the mannequin.
It was the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who introduced his work to other nascent Dadaists and Surrealists. He himself was rewarded with a portrait by De Chirico. But like Duchamp, De Chirico only was influential in the early years, he was later phased out of the canon as Surrealism became more political.
Surrealism was a wildly various movement, but it was unified by a number of key themes. Among them were the ideas that the world we see around us is only a superficial construction beneath which lurks a number of conflicting and even destructive emotional responses. Traditional forms of representations can bring these subterranean feelings to the surface and so Surrealists took a different approach to classicists, seeking new forms of representations wherein the meaning was far from clear.