Surrealism in Context



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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Comparison of Dada and Surrealism




Although Surrealism supposedly grew out of or outgrew Dada in Paris, the two movements come from very different time periods and cultural contexts. Dada was a wartime movement, founded in the midst of an international slaughter of young men, led by a deluded and incompetent class of elites. Although the Dada artists advertised themselves as being “anti-art,” the exiles in Zurich were against traditional art and its vaunted ideals. Far from being opposed to the basic idea of art, the Dada artists strove to find new ways to make new art in a new ways.

Being deliberately anti-authoritarian, Dada could not, by definition, have leaders. The movement had spokespersons but no one took a position of guidance. Aside from philosophy, Dada artists scattered across Europe after the Great War ended. None of the many centers of Dada had a leader and Dada, perhaps as a result, dissolved in a few years into other movements. Surrealism had a leader, indeed, a “Pope,” André Breton. It was possible for Surrealism to be led simply because the group was self-contained in Paris. Breton was somewhat iron-fisted for a leader of an avant-garde movement, expelling members who displeased him, but he held the group together for twenty years, an astonishing longevity.

The lack of deference to commanders of any kind on the part of Dada came directly out of a world un-made by the Great War. As Robert L. Herbert pointed out in “The Arrival of the Machine: Modernist Art in Europe,” the Great War brought about a belated acceptance of modern technology. After this war, the artists reacted to machines as benign and beneficent. Le Corbusier called the home “a machine for living.” But Dada’s swerve to impersonal means of making art could be linked to the way in which impersonal machines were killing young people at random. Chance and randomness decided the fate of civilians and soldiers alike—all were at the mercy of a cultural clash between Old World notions of heroism and New World technology. There is a defiance and anger to Dada practices that links the artists and their attitudes to the War.

Surrealism, on the other hand, emerged in a decade of peace and prosperity. The wounds left behind by the War were either ignored—as in the neglect of the surviving veterans—or celebrated—as in the erections of many memorials. Surrealism is essentially a cerebral retreat of survivors who do not want to look back. The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage an psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious. Dada was inherently reality-based and overtly political. Surrealism, on the other hand, shifted away from an oppositional stance towards a more theoretical position.

The extent to which the Surrealist artists understood the theories of Sigmund Freud is debatable but their interest in Freud should be distinguished from Dada’s anti-rational stance. Although Surrealism supposedly celebrated the irrational, their ideas were based upon Freud’s very rational model of the human mind, bisected into the conscious and the unconscious mind and mapped into the id, the ego, and the superego. Surrealism also rejected the Dada disgust with self-indulgent expressionism but returning to individual vision, but the site of this vision was the untapped unconscious mind. In contrast to the deliberately disruptive and antagonistic tactics of the Dada artists, the Surrealists sought what they called “the Marvelous,” or that magically unexpected encounter when the ordinary suddenly became extraordinary.

Dada and Surrealism were both movements of writers and poets, with visual artists as being part of the larger intellectual group, but in Surrealism the artists were somewhat less innovative than those in the Dada movement. Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dali and René Magritte all painted in a very traditional manner, using old-fashioned techniques and subverting realism by painting dreams as if they were real. That said, both movements work with Chance. Dada’s use of chance was radical, a complete giving over of the artist to the oxymoronic “laws” of happenstance. Whether it is throwing pieces of paper to (not)create a collage by chance or assembling random word and reconvening them as poetry, Dada artists were anarchic when it came to giving up the creative thought process for process itself. In contrast, Surrealist artists deployed a variety of games, from automatic writing or the exquisite corpse, to approach chance from another position.

The Surrealist poets and artists sought a new way of writing “automatically,” without conscious control and a new way of finding unexpected images or ideas that would occur with collective group contributions. One could use the term “objective chance” to characterize and distinguish Surrealism because these artists use the already there, the already seen and then de-familiarizes the familiar through juxtaposition and metamorphosis. Note that the Dada photomontage may have used the technique of putting one randomly found image next to another, but the intent was to undermine meaning. Surrealism seeks new meaning, another meaning, an unexpected meaning, a sur-real meaning, but always, Surrealism wants live to mean something. And here it the crucial difference between Dada and Surrealism. For Dada, life has no meaning, no reason, no purpose, and no logic. For Surrealism, life has meaning; one has to find its logic by unlocking visual and verbal codes secreted in the chambers of the unconscious mind where one finds Freud’s “uncanny.”

The Found Object, or the oject trouvé, was the special domain of Marcel Duchamp who was preceded the Dada artists in his rejection of traditional art. Duchamp’s appropriation of anonymous factory made items was narrow and programmatic to his specific intentions, but the Surrealists were more open to the found object. Like Duchamp, the Surrealists bent the concept of a supposedly ordinary item to their own purposes, which was the search for the “Marvelous.” For Duchamp, the found object was “encountered” randomly and viewed with detachment and indifference, but for the Surrealists, the found object was the object of passion. Indeed, the object was poetic; implying a metaphor, indicating the item in question meant more or something else—-“the Marvelous.”

Duchamp’s rigorous intellectualism was hermetic but because of the theory of the “talking cure” based on hearing clues and reading codes, Surrealism expected audience participation. Duchamp himself had no aesthetic intentions, even when he “assisted” or “rectified” his Readymades, but the Surrealists returned to the aestheticism of art, making desirous and desiring works to be looked at and into. Although inherently conservative, Surrealism dominated the Parisian art scene until the next war broke out, scattering the already dated movement to distant shores where, like Dada, Surrealism would find a different and new destiny. As André Breton said, “Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe it will survive me.”

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

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The Cubists: Artists and Writers


Today Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) are considered to be the “True Cubists,” to borrow a phrase from art historian, Edward Fry. But at the time Cubism was famous or infamous with the Parisian public, from 1910 to 1914, “Cubism” meant the Salon Cubists. To the art audience, the “Cubists” were those artists who showed and exhibited publicly in the large Salon exhibitions in Paris and in other European capitals. Because these were the artists who exhibited, those were the artists and the art works referred to when the art reviews were published in the mainstream press.

To the writers in the know and to the avant-garde artists, Picasso was the acknowledged leader of Cubism and possible source of inspiration for the Salon Cubists, with Braque being a shadowy figure, mentioned only occasionally by the art press. Protected by their art dealer, the German expatriate, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), Braque and Picasso were supported financially and were able to work out their own version of “Cubism” in the privacy of their individual studios and display the results privately in Kahnweiler’s unadvertised gallery, far from the madding crowds of the Salons.

Who were the Salon Cubists? These artists, some sculptors but mostly painters, were a varied and complex group, strongly influenced byPaul Cézanne and dedicated to producing an avant-garde art which also maintained the French tradition of structure, clarity, logic, balance and classicism, as seen in French art from Poussin to Chardin. These artists were not really interested in so-called “primitive art,” nor do they go through the phases or periods of Cubism as Picasso and Braque did. They cannot be said to have had an Analytic Period or a Synthetic Period, and these artists did not have a great interest in collage, developed by the “true Cubists.” Thoroughly conventional and bourgeois, they lived in the suburbs around Paris, Purteaux and Corbevoie. Only Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) lived in the more bohemian environs of Montmartre, near Picasso and Braque.

The extent of the interchanges and mutual influence between the Salon Cubists and the “True Cubists” is difficult to determine. Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Metzinger’s co-author of Du Cubisme, published 1912, did not meet Picasso until 1911, for example. By then, public or Salon Cubism was well underway. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that avant-garde art, by this time, had become an international phenomenon and avant-garde was exhibited and exchanged globally. These artists were in close touch with the Futurist artists and Russian art collectors were in contact with Picasso and Braque. French art traveled to other capitals in Europe and the Futurists chose to make their biggest splash in Paris. The 1913 Armory Show in New York rocked New York City, rattling the sensibilities of the provincials. Despite the rapid diffusion of ideas and styles, groups of artists and individual artists, can be clearly distinguished, for each maintained his/her national or personal characteristics.

The Artists

The Salon Cubists included Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, who based their version of Cubism upon the ideas of Cézanne, which the authors of Du Cubisme understood as examining that which was seen through multiple points in time and space. Like the Cubists who showed in the Salons, they were not adverse to color. In fact, the so-called Orphists, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, Frank Kupka, and, sometimes Francis Picabia based their brightly colored art on the notion that color, like music, could transcend into abstraction.

The grouping of the Salon Cubists, such as, Andre Lhote, Auguste Hebrin, Louis Marcoussis, and Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) and Marie Laurencin, etc. into sub groups was imaginary and artificial, the product of the art critic, Guillaume Apollinarie. Fernand Léger showed publicly for a time and then, with the Spanish follower of Picasso, Juan Gris, later became part of Kahnweiler’s group of Cubists. Completing the Cubists who showed in the Salons were the Duchamp Family, the painter, Jacques Villon, the sculptor, Raymond Duchamp-Villon (who died in the Great War) and Marcel Duchamp, who stopped painting in 1913, and the painter, Suzanne Duchamp.

Historians will later accord Léger and Gris a place of prominence in Cubism, largely due to Kahnweiler’s historical account of “his true Cubists” in Der Weg zum Kübismus. (The Rise of Cubism, 1915). It should be noted that Kahnweiler was reluctant to include “his” artists with the Salon Cubists and was very negative towards the very word, “Cubism.” During the peak years of Cubism, 1910-1914, the number of “Cubists” was substantial; after the Great War, the artists were ranked as “major” or “minor.” This ranking was done after the fact by the first historians of Cubism who were art dealers supporting the artists in their stables.

Art Critics

Like the art world itself, the circles of art writers was divided among the conservative and the radical and those in between. During the early Twentieth Century, the close ties between avant-garde artists and writers, forged in the previous century, persisted. And, as before, the art critics were also serious poets and novelists in their own right. The artists and writers were a close-knit community and the writers supported “their” artists in newspapers and journals. Often the writer would publish art reviews in mainstream newspapers with a general art audience and then write more substantive commentary for the journals, often short-lived petites revues.

Adventurous small publishers were willing to take a chance and even produce books on controversial art. It is important to note that the contents of these early writings, published before the Great War, were usually generalized, referring mostly to the Salon Cubists. After the War, these books were re-read and interpreted from the standpoint of a post-War re-evaluation of the Cubist artists. Readers tended to assume, incorrectly, that the writers were discussing Picasso and Braque, but these primary sources need to be read carefully, for those two artists were seldom directly discussed.

“Cubism” usually designated the public Salon manifestations of Cubist art, created by the Salon Cubists. Those who supported Cubism and who wrote important early books on these artists include the poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Salmon, and Maurice Raynal. The well-known critic-biographer, André Warnod, also weighed in, writing in Comedia. Other critics, such as Louis Vauxcelles and Arsène Alexandre, spoke against Cubism but were important supporters of Post-Impressionists, a group of artists still relatively unknown to the art audience, and favored art from non-Western countries. The main site of Cubism in America, where avant-garde art had a small audience and collector base, was the vanguard gallery owned by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. The legendary 291 hosted the cutting edge art from Paris and the gallery’s publication, Camera Work, published some of the first writings of Gertrude Stein, discussing Matisse.

Shortly before Apollinaire published The Cubist Painters in 1913, Gelizes and Metzinger published On Cubism in 1912. André Salmon, the poet-critic who had written of the mysterious painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and was a strong supporter of Picasso, wrote Young French Painting, also in 1913. In her 2006 book on Cubism, Anne Ganteführer-Trier, stated that Picasso was concerned that Salmon was neglectful of Braque. “He treats you with great injustice,” Picasso wrote to his partner. Perhaps of less interest to Picasso was the book written in 1914 by the American author, Arthur Jerome Eddy, Cubism and Post-Impressionism. With the exception of the writings of Apollinaire, who reproduced black and white photographs of Cubist collages in his book, Les Soirées de Paris, written in the same year, the sources of the ideas of Cubism would have almost certainly come from the Salon Cubists.

If one accepts that the main source of writings on Cubism were the Salon Cubists, then the lack of writing on the collages is explained. Apollinaire commented without explanation, that Picasso dissected like a “surgeon,” almost certainly a reference to the constructions. Most of the writing on Cubism centered on the multiplicity of viewpoints, the destruction of classical Renaissance perspective and the resulting fragmentation of forms. There were erudite references to poorly understood ideas that were floating about Montmartre, such as the Fourth Dimension or the dimension of time, but these appropriations were used, as Maurice Raynal later disclosed, less to explain Cubism and more to sell the new style as a serious movement in modernism.

The Salon Cubists: “The Cubist Heroes”

The Salon Cubists-to-be looked at Paul Cézanne, now widely available in various gallery retrospectives, especially those at the Salon d’automne in 1904 and 1906. It would not be an exaggeration to state that these exhibitions changed the direction of French avant-garde art, putting and end to Fauvism and making the beginning of Cubism. Cézanne’s attempt to go beyond the limitations of one-point perspective in depth, invented during the Renaissance. The result was what appeared to be distortions of space and form in his paintings, which provided much food for thought. Cézanne had also suggested that nature could be reduced to basic shapes—the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, thus introducing a certain basic geometry as the basis for creating form. But, far from being a disrupter of tradition, Cézanne’s investigations were a sincere and life long effort on his part to turn Impressionism into something solid, something fit for museums.

Avant-garde artists were searching for a new means of expression in a new age. This search was thwarted by the Academy, the art schools, which taught an official and accepted and acceptable art and insisted on continuing tradition. To the avant-garde artists, the academic formulas were now worn out and should be shed. But it is important to make a distinction between overworked visual conventions and a respect for past art. The Salon Cubists seem to have shared Cézanne’s need to innovate and to search for new answers, but they shared his adherence to the classical French tradition. For Cézanne, the classical meant the clean and simple structure of Poussin, and he objected to the supposed lack of composition rigor in Impressionism. Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists always looked back to the masters of French painting.

Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists turned their backs on the Impressionists but for different reasons. The Cubists objected to the passivity of the Impressionists who, they charged were too simple minded, too optically orientated. There was more to nature than merely recording the shifts of light and the changes of color—there was structure and form and solidity that were, paradoxically, broken by the mobility of vision. However, as was mentioned previously, the Salon Cubists did not follow the logic of Cézanne into the dissolution of form itself. The art of Cézanne provided a kind of stylistic armature, a sort of grid or network from which the Salon Cubists could “hang” or organize their subjects.

The results of their studies became visible from 1910 on when the Salon Cubists began appearing publicly as a group, hung in particular rooms of the major avant-garde salons, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. Some had been working independently until then and became aware of each other in the Salon context. By October 1912, these Salon Cubists had their own exhibition, called the Section d’Or exhibition at the La Boétie Gallery. Although this was the year Picasso and Braque, working privately, developed Synthetic Cubism, the Salon Cubists continued their version of Cubism as an extension of Cézanne. The public considered with art very radical and shocking and, because of public ridicule and critical opposition, these were the artists who became the true “heroes” of Cubism. However, art history would, after the Great War, re-name them the “minor Cubists,” a categorization that must have come as a great shock to the veterans of one of the great avant-garde skirmishs.

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

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

[email protected]