Surrealism was an artistic, intellectual, and literary movement led by poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. The Surrealists sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of modern society by demolishing its backbone of rational thought. To do so, they attempted to tap into the “superior reality” of the subconscious mind. “Completely against the tide,” said Breton, “in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.”
Many of the tenets of Surrealism, including an emphasis on automatism, experimental uses of language, and found objects, had been present to some degree in the Dada movement that preceded it. However, the Surrealists systematized these strategies within the framework of psychologist Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the subconscious mind. In his 1924 SurrealistManifesto, Breton defined Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
Dada & Surrealism
While Dada was decentralized in terms of geography and leadership, the center of Surrealism was Paris, with Breton unequivocally at the helm. While Dada was in many ways an anarchic movement, the Surrealists were known for engaging in collective group actions.
The Surrealist circle was relatively cohesive, but the individuals within it hailed from a variety of nations, and their artistic approaches were similarly diverse. They believed that automatic drawings unlocked the contents of the subconscious mind, while hyper-real landscapepaintings conjured the uncanny imagery of dreams. Incongruous combinations of found objects combined in Surrealist assemblages revealed the fraught sexual and psychological forces they believed were hidden just beneath the surface of reality.