During the 1936 International Surrealist Exposition, held in London, guest speaker Salvador Dalí addressed his audience costumed head-to-toe in an old-fashioned scuba suit, with two dogs on leashes in one hand and a billiard cue in the other. Mid-lecture, constrained by the scuba mask, the Spanish artist began to suffocate and flailed his arms for help. The audience, unfazed, assumed his gesticulations were all part of the performance. As art legend has it, the Surrealist poet David Gascoyne eventually rescued Dalí, who upon recovery remarked, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind.” Dalí then finished his speech—and his accompanying slides, to no one’s surprise, were all presented upside down.
This anecdote underscores the most absurdist, even clownish, elements of the Surrealist movement, epitomized by Dalí—who was considered something of a joke figure by the early 20th-century art establishment. But the art movement was actually far more diverse than is widely known, spanning various disciplines, styles, and geographies from 1924 until its end in 1966.
What Is Surrealism?
Founded by the poet André Breton in Paris in 1924, Surrealism was an artistic and literary movement. It proposed that the Enlightenment—the influential 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement that championed reason and individualism—had suppressed the superior qualities of the irrational, unconscious mind. Surrealism’s goal was to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism.
Breton had studied medicine and psychiatry and was well-versed in the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud. He was particularly interested in the idea that the unconscious mind—which produced dreams—was the source of artistic creativity. A devoted Marxist, Breton also intended Surrealism to be a revolutionary movement capable of unleashing the minds of the masses from the rational order of society. But how could they achieve this liberation of the human mind?
Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings. Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects, and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself. Its aim was to "resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality".
Works of surrealism feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact. Leader André Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.
Surrealism developed out of the Dada activities during World War I and the most important center of the movement was Paris. From the 1920s onward, the movement spread around the globe, eventually affecting the visual arts, literature, film, and music of many countries and languages, as well as political thought and practice, philosophy, and social theory.
The word 'surrealism' was coined in March 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire three years before Surrealism emerged as an art movement in Paris. He wrote in a letter to Paul Dermée: "All things considered, I think in fact it is better to adopt surrealism than supernaturalism, which I first used" [Tout bien examiné, je crois en effet qu'il vaut mieux adopter surréalisme que surnaturalisme que j'avais d'abord employé].
Apollinaire used the term in his program notes for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Parade, which premiered 18 May 1917. Parade had a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau and was performed with music by Erik Satie. Cocteau described the ballet as "realistic". Apollinaire went further, describing Parade as "surrealistic":
This new alliance—I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds—has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress. (Apollinaire, 1917)
The term was taken up again by Apollinaire, in the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which was written in 1903 and first performed in 1917.
World War I scattered the writers and artists who had been based in Paris, and in the interim many became involved with Dada, believing that excessive rational thought and bourgeois values had brought the conflict of the war upon the world. The Dadaists protested with anti-art gatherings, performances, writings and art works. After the war, when they returned to Paris, the Dada activities continued.
During the war, André Breton, who had trained in medicine and psychiatry, served in a neurological hospital where he used Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from shell-shock. Meeting the young writer Jacques Vaché, Breton felt that Vaché was the spiritual son of writer and pataphysics founder Alfred Jarry. He admired the young writer's anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition. Later Breton wrote, "In literature, I was successively taken with Rimbaud, with Jarry, with Apollinaire, with Nouveau, with Lautréamont, but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most."
Back in Paris, Breton joined in Dada activities and started the literary journal Littérature along with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. They began experimenting with automatic writing—spontaneously writing without censoring their thoughts—and published the writings, as well as accounts of dreams, in the magazine. Breton and Soupault delved deeper into automatism and wrote The Magnetic Fields (1920).