Surrealism in Context

THE MAKING OF SURREALISM

SURREALISM

1924 – 1939

Wounded and home from the Front, the dying poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, went to a play by Diaghilev, Parade. The sets had been made by his good friend, Pablo Picasso, the music was by Erik Satie, the by Leonide Massine, and the scenario was written by Jean Cocteau. The poet had written the program notes for the play which opened on May 18,1917. Apollinaire had been using a new term, “surrealism,” one that he had coined in preference to “supernaturalisme” for several years. According to Robert Mazzocco and Cecily Mackworth, the poet had already decided on his term months before he saw the play: “After thinking over the question carefully, I prefer to adopt the word Surréalisme, rather than the Surnaturalisme I used at first. Surréalisme does not yet exist in the dictionary and will be easier to manipulate than Surnaturalisme, which has already been used by philosophers.” After the play, the poet was ready to unleash his new term, which would be picked up by his friend André Breton.

Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of madness and terror. After the Great War, the writings of an obscure psychologist in Vienna, Sigmund Freud suddenly seemed relevant. Soldiers had experienced what was called “shell shock” in the early twentieth century ever since war was invented. The Great War produced such numbers of afflicted soldiers that no excuses of cowardice or treason, no amount of executions could make vanish the effects of war on the mind. As a wartime nurse, André Breton had observed the power of the wounded mind over the helpless body and in 1921, he visited Freud to learn more of what the doctor called the “unconscious mind.”

For Freud, dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious,” meaning the mind was capable of communicating at various levels, and perhaps the least of which was the conscious level. The deeper buried layer of the mind “spoke” in codes, whether linguistic or visual, and these clues had to be decoded by the psychologist who could translate the obscured messages. What he learned from Freud gestated in the mind of Breton and his fellow poets while he joined forces with the Dada artists. Dada, in Paris, was not nearly as cohesive as the Berlin group and for a poet with different ideas, wartime Dada was not the mindset needed for a new decade.

For an artist and poet, this subterranean mind, was a site of untapped potential for art making. The poets of Littérature, founded 1919, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Jean Paulhan, Paul Eluard, Georges Robemont-Dessaignes, were more and more out of sympathy with Dada. Dada wanted to sweep the slate clean to create a tabula rasa, but the teachings of Freud stated that there could be no such thing. The mind, far from being erasable, was like an archaeological dig, buried under layers and layers of repressed memories. By of spring, 1920, Dada had outlived is usefulness as an anti-war movement, and Littérature was independent of its parent and was moving towards “surrealism.” In this same year, Breton and Souplault experimented with automatic writing or écriture automatique, published as “Les Champs magnétiques” in Littérataire. It was time to move on.

Breton announced, “Leave everything. Leave Dada. Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the road.” André Breton believed that “If there is to be an attempt at subversion, it will have to be sought on terrain other than Dada.” For Breton rebuilding the future of art into something positive was the goal of post-war artists. For the next three years, Breton attempted a “dialectical transformation” of Dada into Surrealism. With the stated goal of Surrealism being the polar opposite of Dada, Surrealism looked back to the fin-de-siecle period at the poetry of the Romantic-Symbolist tradition, reviving the deeply nuanced subjectivism of Symbolist poetry.

With its adherence to Symbolism, one could question if Surrealism was regressively looking back but one could also argue that Symbolism was a poetic movement unfulfilled and deferred by the Great War. Symbolism was not “expressionistic” in the way that the German movements were personal and emotional. A largely literary movement, Symbolism demanded reader response by using language as a raw material to evoke rather than describe, to suggest rather than create atmosphere or mood. The founding poet of Symbolism, Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Nature is a temple in which living pillars/ Sometimes give voice to confused words;/ Man passes there through forests of symbols/ Which look at him with understanding eyes.”

In this poem, Correspondences, Baudelaire indicated that communication was symbolic and that one acquired a deeper and denser understanding through symbols, so much richer than mere words. Word should be assembled to indicate something beyond. A contemporary of Baudelaire, Isidore Ducasse was also fascinated with the romance of evil in Maldoror but, unlike Baudelaire, Ducasse lived and died—less than then years after Baudelaire—in relative obscurity. Revived by Breton known under his nom de plume, Comte de Lautréamont, the novelist was best know for his signature phrase and the slogan of Surrealism: “As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!”

While Symbolism sought to activate the mind of the reader through suggestive language, for Surrealism, the unconscious mind was an important source for art that could not be imagined by the conscious mind. By 1924, André Breton was ready to release the Surrealist Manifesto. This manifesto both nodded to its predecessor, Dada, and laid out its distinct philosophy, based on Freudian ideas. “If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them; first to capture them and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason,” Breton wrote.

The phrase, “control of reason” separated Dada from Surrealism. Breton concluded his manifesto by giving the reader two definitions of Surrealism, first as a word: “Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations,” and next as a philosophy: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.”

According to Breton, the question of the meaning of life should be changed from the expressionist solipsistic, “Who am I?” to “Whom shall I haunt?” While Dada was a political and social art of anger and social protest, Surrealism was concerned with art as a means of expressing the buried or as an instrument of self-discovery, not as an end in itself. Surrealism, then, put to itself a task and a purpose. Although placed within the ranks of the avant-garde, Surrealism should not be relegated to art-for-art’s-sake, for this movement had a job and this mission was to heal the torn fabric of society through private introspection.

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

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