Today the word ‘surreal’ is common linguistic currency, often used to describe quirky or strange experiences or images. The word was actually coined by French writer Guillaume Apollinaire, in the preface to his play, Les Mamelles de Tiresias, written in 1903. The Surrealist movement began in earnest in the 1920s, as a cultural and artistic movement we now associate most closely with Salvador Dali. It is typified by odd and surprising elements, in seemingly random juxtaposition, which their creators assert is a form of revolution, a response to the world as they perceived it, and an attempt to expose the unconscious mind.
Art holds a mirror up to real life and the cultural and political era in which the Surrealist Movement developed very much influenced its form. It was preceded by the Dadaist movement, which began during World War I, as a response to the horrors of that time. Many artists, poets and painters had been forced to leave Paris because of the war, and their collective response was Dadaism. This firmly posited the blame for the conflict on rational thought, colonialism and bourgeois values. Their reply was to make anti-art, in all mediums. When the War ended, they returned to Paris, and the Movement continued. Dadaism was international and informally organised, but some of its leading proponents were to be found in Paris. The self-professed leader of the fractious Paris Dadaist movement was Tristan Tzara.
Dada Flash Mob
Dadaists were the inventors of the shock public performance, beginning with a Dadaist cabaret, performed at Théâtre de l’Œuvre (55, rue de Clichy). Tzara, who professed to be the leader, was up first:
Tzara’s melody, Vaseline symphonique (“Symphonic Vaseline”), which required ten or twenty people to shout “cra” and “cri” on a rising scale, was also performed. A scandal erupted when Breton read Picabia’s Manifeste cannibale (“Cannibal Manifesto”), lashing out at the audience and mocking them, to which they answered by aiming rotten fruit at the stage.
The Paris Dadaist were constantly squabbling, and tensions came to the surface after a damp squib of a flash mob event, which was staged on April 14th, 1921, at Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre on the Left Bank. Called a ‘Dada Excursion’, it was heralded by a pamphlet which read,
“Today, at 15:00 hours, in the garden of St-Julien-le-Pauvre church, Dada […] extends a free invitation to its friends and enemies to join it in visiting the church’s buildings. It will not be an anticlerical demonstration, as one would be inclined to believe, but rather a new interpretation of nature applied this time not to art, but to life.”
The group, consisting of Tzara, André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Francis Picabia, handed out their leaflets, whilst insulting and berating people as they walked past. “Be dirty!” they yelled, “One must trim one’s nose as one trims one’s hair!”.
Not a bad turn out for a wet windy day by the Seine.
Not surprisingly, the public were unimpressed and the whole undertaking was a total failure in terms of promoting the movement. The group became more discontented, and Breton and Picabia moved more towards Surrealism in the aftermath.
The Surrealist Movement
Dadaism did not achieve the longevity and reach of the Surrealist movement. The Surrealists started to emerge in Paris in the 1920s and, at their height, had a profound effect on the cultural landscape, contributing to the thinking and creative efforts of artists, writers, poets, musicians and film-makers. It informed philosophers and political and social theorists. Still shockingly thought-provoking, even in the modern climate, it is an important movement that still resonates in today’s creative language. It was the beginning of the modernist movement and, like much new thinking, it started from an extreme position.
‘The Centre Cannot Hold…’
With the outbreak of war, the world suddenly became chaotic and frightening. The horror of the trenches and endless deaths seemed to fragment thought and security just as surely as a bomb going off. The artistic world, gathered as it was then in Paris, had been similarly fragmented, and painters and writers forced to return to their own countries to help with the war effort. When they returned to Paris in the aftermath, Dadaism gave way to a new movement, named ‘surrealism’ by writer and poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Surrealism is, simply put, a rejection of reason. A surfeit of ‘reason’ and rational thinking was what the surrealists believed to be the cause of the War, and they felt an urgent need to respond to it with ‘anti-reason’.
Influence of Freud
Sigmund Freud’s work with the world of the mind was extremely influential on the Surrealists. Today it is almost impossible for us to imagine how challenging and exciting these new thoughts and ideas were. Popular psychology simply did not exist, and little effort had been made to study the mind in as radical a way as Freud did. His theories of dream analysis, free association, dream analysis, and ideas about the unconscious greatly influenced the Surrealists who were trying to find new ways to ‘liberate imagination.’ They experimented with automatic writing and automatic drawing to allow the unconscious mind to express itself.
Surrealism was at its height in the 1930’s, with its leading lights Dali and Magritte enjoying fame and notoriety. They produced some of the movement’s most famous works, such as Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931) – the melting clock picture.
Fluidity of form was uppermost at this time. The artists tried to produce works of psychological truth by confounding the viewers expectations about ordinary objects. By use of both abstract and realist techniques they attempted to foreground the psychological. Their works were suitably challenging, and went on to influence artists of the 1940s such as Henry Moore, Nash, Pollock and Rothko. Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon’s biomorphic works were strongly influenced by the Surrealists.
Today, Surrealism still influences artists all over the world. Surrealism influenced the ‘found art’ of Piccasso and Duchamps, which itself continues to exert influence in the modern art world. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have cited Dali as a major influence. Surrealism is also strongly echoed in much post-modern imagery, although its intentions may differ. But the fragmented, formless and random nature of so much modern representation would no doubt have delighted Dali.
You can still see the house of the Dadaist founder, Tristan Tzara, in Paris today, designed for him by Adolf Loos. It is at 15, Avenue Junot, in the 18th arrondissement.