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Related: art - art movement

Era: 1920s - 1930s - 1940s - 1950s - 1960s

Key texts: What is Surrealism? (1934) - Surrealism: Desire Unbound (2001) - Jennifer Mundy (editor)

Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and DOCUMENTS (2006) - Dawn Ades, Simon Baker
[FR] [DE] [UK]

Although the driving force of Surrealism came from André Breton, there were dissidents who voiced their views in the periodical Documents beginning in April 1929. Writers Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris emerged as the main contributors. Documents was a direct challenge to "mainstream" Surrealism as championed by André Breton, who in his Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 derided Bataille as "(professing) to wish only to consider in the world that which is vilest, most discouraging, and most corrupted." After Documents folded a new group was formed: Acéphale. The antagony between Breton and Bataille have even led some to speak of "Bretonian" and "Bataillean" strains of Surrealism.

In other media: Surrealism in cinema - surrealism in literature

Key tropes and inspirations: absurd - l'amour fou - fantastic art - irrationalism - libido - outsider art - unconscious

People: André Breton - Hans Bellmer - Luis Buñuel - Salvador Dalí - Marcel Duchamp - René Magritte - Pierre Molinier - Man Ray - Max Ernst


Surrealism is a movement stating that the liberation of our mind, and subsequently the liberation of the individual self and society, can be achieved by exercising the imaginative faculties of the "unconscious mind" to the attainment of a dream-like state different from, or ultimately ‘truer’ than, everyday reality.

Surrealists believe that this more truthful reality can bring about personal, cultural, and social revolution, and a life of freedom, poetry, and uninhibited sexuality. André Breton said that such a revealed truth would be beautific, or in his own words, "beauty will be convulsive or not at all."

Surrealism originated in the 1920s in European avant-garde art and literary circles, and many early surrealists were associated with the earlier Dada movement.

While surrealism's most important center was in Paris, it spread throughout Europe and to North America during the course of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

The term "surreal" is also applied more generally to describe the juxtaposition of ordinary events, actions or objects in a manner where the totality does not comport with the ordinary "sense" or social decorum. In this sense it is the successor to the idea of the "fantastic" in Victorian art and literature.

Art critics such as Philippe Jullian see the work of the surrealists as a continuation of the earlier symbolist/decadent trend that swept Europe in the late 1800s. [Jan 2006]

See also: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrealism

The dissident surrealism of Georges Bataille

April 1929, first edition of Documents

Undercover Surrealism was a 2006 exhibition that ran at the Hayward Gallery. It explored the ’subversive climate’ of the dark undercurrent within Surrealism in the late 1920’s spearheaded by Georges Bataille. The exhibition drew together work by Picasso, Miro, Masson, Giacometti as well as imagery from the magazine Documents Bataille edited from 1929 to 1930.

DOCUMENTS has been called:

“..a shocking and bizarre juxtaposition of art, ethnography, archaeology and popular culture in such a way that overturned conventional notions of ‘primitive’ and ‘ideal’. Bataille described himself as Surrealism’s ‘enemy from within’… ”

Documents was succeeded by Acéphale (1936 - 1939), again under the direction of Georges Bataille.

More on Georges Bataille and the surrealists

Bataille's graphic descriptions were under severe criticism of Breton, who reckoned him as an "excrement-philosopher" (Foster 112). Breton charges Bataille in Manifestoes of Surrealism claiming that "M. Bataille's misfortune is to reason: admittedly, he reasons like someone who 'has a fly on his nose,' which allies him more closely with the dead than the living, but he does reason. He is trying, with the help of the tiny mechanism in him which is not completely out of order, to share his obsessions: this very fact proves that he cannot claim, no matter what he may say, to be opposed to any system, like an unthinking brute. What is paradoxical and embarrassing about M. Bataille's case is that his phobia about the 'idea,' as soon as he attempts to communicate it, can only take an ideological turn." Breton, in this refute against Bataille, again conflicts with his before-mentioned "systematic refusal" "against the whole series of intellectual, moral and social obligations that continually and etc. etc." That Breton is usually anxious to transcend the confinements of the very logical consistency that he here uses against Bataille invokes the irony of his statement (Jay 197). Daniel Brown via [original source offline]


The term "surrealism" was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire to describe the Jean Cocteau/Erik Satie/Pablo Picasso/Léonide Massine collaboration Parade (1917) in the program notes: "From this new alliance, for until now stage sets and costumes on one side and choreography on the other had only a sham bond between them, there has come about, in Parade, a kind of super-realism [sur-réalisme], in which I see the starting point of a series of manifestations of this new spirit [esprit nouveau]."

While related to Dada, from which many of its initial members came, surrealism is significantly broader in scope. As Dada was a negative response to the First World War, surrealism possesses a more positive view that the world can be changed and transformed into a fertile crescent of freedom, love, and poetry.

André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 and the publication of the magazine La Révolution Surréaliste ("The Surrealist Revolution") marked the beginning of the movement as a public agitation. In the manifesto of 1924 Breton defines surrealism as "pure psychic automatism" with automatism being spontaneous creative production without conscious moral or aesthetic self-censorship. By Breton's admission, however, as well as by the subsequent development of the movement, this was a definition capable of considerable expansion. Breton also wrote the following dictionary and encyclopedia definitions:

Surrealism and homophobia

In 1928 the magazine La Revolution surrealiste conducted a survey into attitudes to sexuality which was remarkable for its candor. Group sex, sexual preference, masturbation and voyeurism were all discussed. The survey revealed, however, how limited the tolerance of the surrealists really was. André Breton, the father of the Surrealist art movement, was exposed as deeply opposed to male homosexuality (he threatened to discontinue the conversation if the topic was further raised) and in favour of masturbation only if women were the subject of the fantasies. Rene Crevel, the only openly gay member of the surrealist literary clique, was the only one to refuse to debase women in any way. --Zanny Begg, Surrealism: Sex, violence and surrealism via http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/1993/111/111p24.htm [May 2005]

Sex, violence and surrealism

Women are portrayed as fragmented and violated throughout the exhibition. Duchamp's Please Touch (1947) reduces women to a single breast sliced from the body and mounted on velvet. Hans Bellmer's The Top (1938) shows multiple breasts clustered on a block. Other Surrealist works show Jack the Ripper's victims or women with their throats cut. --Zanny Begg, Surrealism: Sex, violence and surrealism via http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/1993/111/111p24.htm [May 2005]

Much surrealist art shows women as faceless and anonymous. In contrast Magritte's The Rape (1934) challenges this trend. The Rape has the ultimate faceless woman --her face is replaced by her torso. She is mute, her mouth replaced by her pubic hair. The title of this work, however, shows that Magritte wanted to achieve more then just shock value. He was criticising the de-humanisation of women in society. Magritte's painting and a handful of others provide welcome relief from the misogyny of much of the exhibition. --Zanny Begg, Surrealism: Sex, violence and surrealism via http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/1993/111/111p24.htm [May 2005]

This pessimistic sadism is a far cry from the whimsical fantasy often associated with Surrealist artists like Miro and Magritte. But in an exhibition of this depth it cannot fail to filter through and dominate. Man Ray's Imaginary portrait of D.A.F de Sade (1938) is a disturbing example of the darker side of Surrealist art.

The Marquis de Sade was jailed 11 times for his sexual cruelty to women making him the namesake for the term sadism, and yet he was regarded by the surrealists as a great “revolutionary moralist and poet”. Man Ray's portrait shows him in front of the bastille where he was imprisoned --strong and impressive, a symbol of uninhibited violence. --Zanny Begg, Sex, violence and surrealism via http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/1993/111/111p24.htm [May 2005]

Tzara and Breton

These two were among those who created the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. The Dadaists were this century's original media jammers, specializing in public acts of irrationality, scandal, and confusion. Dadaism eventually became Surrealism. The Surrealists agreed with Freud that human consciousness, like an iceberg, lies mostly invisible beneath the surface. Surrealism attempted to explore the hidden areas of human consciousness through strange juxtapositions of words and images. As such, Surrealism is a favorite reference point for both the psychedelic and multimedia cultures. -- R.U. Sirius via A User's Guide to Trendy French Intellectuals, 1994 Wired Magazine

La Révolution surréaliste (1924 - 1929)

La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution) was a publication by Surrealists in Paris. Twelve issues were published between 1924 and 1929.

Shortly after releasing the first Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton published the inaugural issue of La Révolution surréaliste on December 1, 1924.

Pierre Naville and Benjamin Péret were the initial directors of the publication and modeled the format of the journal on the conservative scientific review La Nature. The format was deceiving, and to the Surrealists delight, La Révolution surréaliste was consistently scandalous and revolutionary. The journal focused on writing with most pages densely packed with columns of text, but also included reproductions of art, among them works by Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, André Masson and Man Ray.

After La Révolution surréaliste
Some of the dissidents voiced their views in the periodical Documents beginning in April 1929. Writings by ethnographers, archaeologists, and art historians, and poets Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris emerged as the main contributors. Some of the Documents contributors went later formed another group, Acéphale.

Breton's successor to La Révolution surréaliste was a more politically engaged publication, Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (Surrealism in the service of the revolution), which appeared sporadically between 1930 and 1933.

In 1933, publisher Albert Skira contacted Breton about a new journal, which he planned to be the most luxurious art and literary review the Surrealists had seen, featuring a slick format with many color illustrations. Skira's restriction was that Breton was not allowed to use the magazine to express his social and political views. Later that year Minotaure began publication, and continued publication until 1939. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_R%C3%A9volution_surr%C3%A9aliste [Aug 2005]

see also: 1924 - André Breton - surrealism

Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century France (2000) - Robin Walz

Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century France (2000) - Robin Walz [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Book Description
In addition to its more well known literary and artistic origins, the French surrealist movement drew inspiration from currents of psychological anxiety and rebellion running through a shadowy side of mass culture, specifically in fantastic popular fiction and sensationalistic journalism. The provocative nature of this insolent mass culture resonated with the intellectual and political preoccupations of the surrealists, as Robin Walz demonstrates in this fascinating study. Pulp Surrealism weaves an interpretative history of the intersection between mass print culture and surrealism, re-evaluating both our understanding of mass culture in early twentieth-century Paris and the revolutionary aims of the surrealist movement.

Pulp Surrealism presents four case studies, each exploring the out-of the-way and impertinent elements which inspired the surrealists. Walz discusses Aragon's Le paysan de Paris, one of the great surrealist novels of Paris. He considers the popular series of Fantmes crime novels; the Parisan press coverage of the arrest, trial, and execution of mass-murderer Landru; and the surrealist inquiry "Is Suicide a Solution?", which Walz juxtaposes with reprints of actual suicide faits divers (sensationalist newspaper blurbs).

Although surrealist interest in sensationalist popular culture eventually waned, this exploration of mass print culture as one of the cultural milieux from which surrealism emerged ultimately calls into question assumptions about the avant-garde origins of modernism itself.

About the Author
Robin Walz is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alaska Southeast.

See also: surrealism - pulp - France - popular culture

Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent (2004) - David Bate

Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent (2004) - David Bate [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

As "surreal" images become ever more common through the ease of computer manipulation, the place in history occupied by Surrealism and the Surrealists can easily be lost to sight. This challenging re-evaluation of the status and use of photographic images in historical Surrealism puts Surrealism's fundamental issues back into the framework of its historical purpose and function. David Bate examines automatism and the photographic image, the Surrealist passion for insanity, ambivalent use of Orientalism, use of Sadean philosophy and the effect of fascism of the Surrealists. The book is illustrated wtih a wide range of surrealist photographs.

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