This is a new mode of expression. A new fuel for creativity. An escape. A superior reality where the irrational, strange and mysterious rule over reason. The Surrealists were a group of artists and writers who sought revolution in the increasingly uncertain and unstable world suffering the aftermath of WWI.
Andre Breton, a French poet and writer allied with Dada found something more in the writings of an obscure psychologist by the name of Sigmund Freud. As a nurse who witnessed first-hand the trauma and torment of the war, Breton found vision and hope in the writings of Freud – particularly his 1899 publication, The Interpretation of Dreams.
After meeting with Freud in 1921, Breton’s predispositions with Dada seemed moot. The overtly politicized art of protest, anger and everything ‘anti’ didn’t seem enough; there had to be more to life. The art world needed something more, and so did the people; a better and brighter future for art, beyond our ‘circumscribed reality’ as described by Breton.
In 1924, Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto, officially founding the movement with a group of like-minded artists and writers. In it, he defines Surrealism as:
“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
The Surrealist philosophy, and its legacy, stems from this definition. With the movement’s key aim being the freeing of thought (and, in turn, art) from the binds of reality–their intention, to re-enliven existence and make-sense of the world and its increasing ambiguities, seemed possible. Led by Breton and his contemporaries, the Surrealists shaped a new, unrestrained outlet for expression, using the subconscious to uncover a new way of seeing things. Central to this new artistic philosophy was Freud, who laid the groundwork for the Surrealists interest in what I call the ‘in-between’–the state between consciousness and unconsciousness. The Surrealists believed that by experiencing and/or inducing this state (the ‘in-between’), that an ‘absolute reality could be reached, one where the ‘seemingly contradictory states of dream and reality meet’. A Surreality.
The art that grew out of Breton’s Manifesto revolutionised creativity and art as we know it today. As artists embraced the optimism and opportunity Surrealism offered, an eclectic array of hyper-realistic and abstract imagery ensued–an inevitability, when working with the unconscious mind. As outcomes of the in-between, Surrealist works were inherently spontaneous, typically depicting eccentric juxtapositions that take form as a kind of visual poetry.
Today the Surrealist philosophy still lingers. The movement’s legacy is still evident in the art of today. We have all encountered Surrealist imagery at some point – melting clocks anyone? A hyper-realistic landscape, collage or abstract? Or art that calls into question the very purpose of art itself? In the globalised and technologically fuelled world in which we live, Surrealist tendencies are resurfacing; providing an expressive outlet for artists to inquire art’s purpose in our curious world of social and political transformation.
Brandon Sullivan, a contemporary painter, illustrator and designer, embraces Surrealism. He informs his work with the Surrealist philosophy of chance. Sullivan’s work typically features mind-bending compositions and irrational juxtapositions that collectively morph into incomprehensible scenarios and landscapes–evocative of the most famous Surrealist, Salvador Dali. In The Joy of Manipulating Reality, 2016–a large-scale monochrome mural created by Sullivan–Surrealist spontaneity, automatism and metamorphosis are evident, in his aim to render the unconscious. The obscure creatures and dream-like landscapes that result from Sullivan’s process take form as poignant societal reminders, emphasising the conflicting nature of our contemporary world – distorted, and duplicitous.
Surrealism changed the course of art history, planting the seeds of inspiration for future avant-gardes to flourish. With a new-found hope in their exploration of the sub-conscious, the Surrealists used their art to capture the essence of the in-between–morphing dreams with reality in the hope of social understanding and revelation. It is this artistic legacy of inspiration and mysterious imagery that makes Surrealism one of the most well known and recognisable movements in art history. With Breton’s optimistic Manifesto and Freud in hand, the Surrealist artists of the early 20th century created an escape fuelled by creativity and the cultivation of imagination–an escape still prevalent today.
Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!