Surrealism and Freudian Theory

SURREALIST THEORY

The Marvelous Mind of Surrealism

In the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, André Breton wrote,I believe in the future resolution of these two states — outwardly so contradictory — which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak, I am aiming for its conquest, certain that I myself shall not attain it, but too indifferent to my death not to calculate the joys of such possession.” He continued, “For the time being, “my intention has been to see that justice was done to that hatred of the marvellous which rages in certain men, that ridicule under which they would like to crush it. Let us resolve, therefore: the Marvellous is always beautiful, everything marvellous is beautiful. Nothing but the Marvellous is beautiful.”

The question was how find this “superior reality,” how to get to the unconscious part of the mind, always guarded by the waking disciplined mind. Often with the aid of drugs or alcohol, Surrealists poets and writers would play games to bring the unconscious mind to the surface. They tried to write “automatically” to be free of the constraints of tradition in art and they drew exquisite corpses, cadaver exquise, or composite drawings to create new thoughts for the resulting figures that could not be imagined under ordinary circumstances. There is much in Surrealism that is manifestation of the exercise of free association from Sigmund Freud but there are visual precedents for the movement.

Artists had long used dreams, visions and their own inner reality as a source for making art. Gustave Moreau, a contemporary of Gustave Courbet, presented an alternative to the relentless realism of an age of materialism. At the turn of the century Edvard Munch expressed the ache of alienation and the fear of abandonment that would be so indicative of his time. Henri Rousseau, an amateur painter, unabashedly recreated his dreams and desires to the bemused admiration of his avant-garde peers. Odilon Redon imagined the eye as a great balloon, floating over a landscape like a giant surveillance camera. But the most significant influence was an Italian painter, Giorgio De Chirico whose strange paintings would be classified as pittura metafisica.

Although he returned to the “classical” in 1919, De Chirico was an early member of the cult of the Strange and the Marvelous. Based on the paintings he did from 1913 on, his method of conceiving of content seemed to resemble a practice of assemblage, a gathering together of unlikely elements. As if they had met on Lautréaumont’s dissecting table, de Chirico’s objects in Song of Love, 1914, come together and create a mystery. His paintings, like those of many artists who came after him, could be appropriated by Breton and enfolded into the theories of Surrealism.

Surrealist Theory was based on a simplistic understanding of the writings of Sigmund Freud recrafted for the use of poets and visual artists. Thanks to Surrealism, Freud became popularized by the 1930s and his impact upon the artists in Paris in the 1920s. For the artists, the mind or human psychology, could be a source of artistic inspiration. For Freud, the unconscious is structured like a language that cannot speak its name. Due to the rigors of socialization, primal desires are suppressed and base instincts are repressed. However, the mind has its own economy and that which has been buried must be expressed through displacement and transference, or through substitution. This part of the mind is doomed to indirectness but is compensated by a surplus of poetry and metaphors. The result is a transformation of the unreachable primal script into a metamorphosis, which collapses reality and dream.

The paintings of Salvador Dali, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931), are crafted with the precision and dedication of the Dutch still lives to which the artist paid homage. The dream becomes manifested in the flesh of the pigments and becomes more alive and intense and more memorable than reality which pales in comparison. While Dali asserted the dream, which would be translated by the viewer, René Magritte, a philosopher who painted, undermined perceived reality with word games and visual puns. Personal Values (1952) is especially rich in conceptual play: an indoor room is crowded with outdoor clouds surrounding a bed to scale but the bed is surmounted by an erect comb, seeing eye to eye with an empty glass standing in front of a to scale wardrobe with doors that mirror the clouds floating by in the blue sky and an unseen window. “Oriental” rugs overlap each other on the floor and serve as the resting place for a mid-sized pencil and an overlarge oval bar of soap. What brings all of these found objects together in this inverted room?

Like an undeveloped photograph, the contents of the mind are latent, speaking in a secret language that is wholly private and individual. Surrealism sought this secret language through the fixing of the dream images into works of art. But there was another element of Freudian theory that found its way into Surrealist art, the concept of automatic writing: “…the essential discovery of Surrealism is that, without preconceived intention, the pen that flows in order to write and the pencil that runs in order to draw or spin an infinitely precious substance.” Resembling doodling or idle scribbling, écriture automatique was a loosening of control of conscious thought on the part of the poet. For the painter, such as Joan Miró, or the assemblage artist, such as Max Ernst, the result was a combination of free association and stream of consciousness “writing.”

Despite the implication of giving free rein to the unconscious mind, the artists who “practiced” automatic writing were actually quite careful and selective in the use of shapes (Miró) and the object (Ernst). Certainly Miró was inspired by the possibility of creating free-form biomorhphic shapes but he developed these shapes into a coherent composition that hovered between a dream world and an abstract composition. In Europe After the Rain (1940-41), Max Ernst may have practiced frottage but he used his rubbings to good effect and aided and prodded the metamorphosis into the recognizable. Nevertheless, the viewer is disoriented. The collapse of distinctions between a finished work and a work in process, between the familiar and the strange, between the fragment and the macrocosm forbids a purchase on reality and creates a mirroring or doubling.

By basing its raison d’être upon a combination of elements of Dada and Freudian theory, Surrealism repudiated the traditional idea of aesthetics or the connection between art and beauty. Stating that “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all,” Breton rewrote the definition of “beauty.” He echoed Baudelaire who declared that the beautiful is always “strange.” The Surrealist beauty is a “convulsive beauty,” a beauty born of the non-form that reforms itself. This “informe” produces an unexpected misrecognition or an inability to recognize as the image is torn from its intended context. All that is left is the “savage state” of the eye, giving primacy to the powers of the visual: the viewer is left with only what s/he sees in an almost primal fashion. The unformed or uninformed sight convulses itself into a condition of revelation as the underlying workings of the mind are revealed through the Surrealist work of art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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  1. […] (2014). Surrealism and Freudian Theory « Art HistoryUnstuffed. Retrieved 1 May 2014, fromhttp://arthistoryunstuffed.com/surrealism-freudian-theory/ Eby, D. (2014). » Creating From Our Unconscious – The Creative Mind. PsychCentral.com. […]