Surrealism pure psychic automatism intended to express the true process of thought free from the exercise of reason and from any aesthetic or moral purpose mister sands / hmw oao jem coones art to the observer is an obsession art to the artist is an addiction few groups in the 20th century have been as influential as the surrealists. surrealism came at a time of dramatic upheaval, both historically and culturally, and grew to encompass all forms of art, wether it be drama, literature, painting, photography or cinema. indeed, their influence was so great that echoes of the breakthroughs made by such seers as breton, artaud, man ray, and dali can still be heard today. surrealism rose from the ashes of the defunct dada movement — which itself was an inhuman artistic reaction against the inhuman world of world war one. as with all movements motivated by rage, dada burned out quickly, and many of it’s leaders — notably andre breton — went on to embrace the new surrealist movement. disillusioned by on one hand “the cold and insubstantial remains of art and literature, and on the other the scorching analytical specifications of the exact sciences,” surrealists were dedicated to, in breton’s words “pure psychic automatism intended to express the true process of thought free from the exercise of reason and from any aesthetic or moral purpose”.
as strongly influenced by the psychoanalytical ideas of freud, which at that time were gaining prominence, as it was by the deconstructionalism of dada, surrealism emerged as an organized movement at the beginning of the 1920’s, a period marked by “the confused and inert stupefaction of a collective bourgeois existence dedicated to nothing less than the mustiness of the balance sheet.” surrealism emerged not just as a reaction to this bourgeois complacency, but as an attempt to create art that was closer to the reality of human existence. in every form, surrealism succeeded admirably in obtaining this goal, as can be plainly seen from the works of their greatest members: antonin artaud, man ray, and salvador dali. any study of 20th century theatre and literature would be incomplete without mention of antonin artaud, the man who revolutionized the very concept of theatre. in the pages of his incredibly influential 1937 treatise the theatre and it’s double, artaud aimed to transform the stage into a “sacred ground”, wherein the emotions and fury of both the performers and audience could somehow be purged. this concept of theatre as a religious act, dubbed the “theatre of cruelty”, was without doubt his highest achievement, but he is also well known for his poetry and essays, particularly van gogh the man suicided by society — a stunning indictment of a society that destroys it’s most exquisite and ethereal talent.
the art of photography is a relatively new one, and given the surrealists’ hatred of the “old and outdated”, it was only natural for them to dabble in this new medium. although a number of photographers achieved great success (names such as brassai spring to mind), the most successful was surely man ray, who, aside from his fascinating character studies, mastered the complex surrealist concept of the poetic image — a principle best described by the visionary surrealist-before-his-time lautreamont, who spoke of “the accidental meeting of an umbrella and an accordion on the operating table”. man ray juxtaposed such diverse objects as guns and lightbulbs, nudes and alphabet blocks, to create a new logic that was the essence of surrealism. while man ray’s photography may have expressed the truest vision of surrealism, for most people the movement is defined by one man, the illustrious catelan; salvador dali. through acclaimed mainly for his paintings — his style must surely be one of the most distinctive and recognizable of all artists — dali also produced a number of books of both essays and poetry, a single novel entitled hidden faces, and the film in collaboration with luis bunuel that took breton’s statement that “the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” to task.
the film, un chien andalou, caused a riot at it’s premiere — due in part to the drunken antics of, among others, dali and artaud — and heralded other surrealist films such as artaud’s 1924 masterpiece, the clergymen and the seashell. dali’s name was to become synonymous with art that shocks, disturbs, and challenges perceptions. works such as the persistence of memory, sleep, and autumn cannibalism are masterpieces of the modern sensibility and dali’s paintings remain among the best known and best loved works of modern art. the continuing influence of surrealism goes far beyond the enduring popularity of salvador dali. ideas developed by the surrealists are still used by artists today: the montage technique used by innovators such as toyen, which led to the passion and choas of picasso’s guernica, is still found in the works of modern montage artists such as david hockney; the “object” principle mastered by such illustrious names as dada founder and eventual surrealist marcel duchamp, andre breton, and man ray, has found new life in industrial art’s adoption of the assemblage; while photography has never been the same since man ray. in the realm of theatre, peter weiss’ influential 1964 play marat/sade is a virtual embodiment of artaud’s principles of theatre, and it can be argued that the whole 1960’s “be in” scene is a not too distant cousin of the these same principles. american beat writer william s.
burroughs’ technique of fold-in writing is very similar to tristan tzara’s scandalous 1919 rally where he pulled words out of a hat and called them a poem, and modern american film makers like gus van sant — director of 1989’s drugstore cowboy — use a number of surrealist techniques in their work. it can be plainly seen, then, that surrealism was no mere flash in the pan, but rather a revolutionary artistic and ideological movement that dropped a bomb on the complacent culture of their day, and the reverberations of that explosion can still be felt today in the work of artists who continue to battle a bourgeois values and “safe” art.