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Notion & Origins

The publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton in Paris in 1924 formally inaugurated the Surrealist movement.

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The formulation of the basic tenets of Surrealism took place in the aftermath of the World War I. March 1919 saw the publication of the first issue of the magazine Littérature (Literature) (1919-1924), edited by André Breton (1896-1966), Louis Aragon (1897-1982) and Philippe Soupault (1897-1990), that were soon joined in their activities by Paul Éluard (1895-1952). It was precisely in this magazine, in its issues from October to November 1919, where Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the first Surrealist work (in the strict sense of the term), brought about as a result of the earliest systematic application of the automatic writing, authored by Breton and Soupault, appeared.

In the years that followed further experiments went on in the realm of taking notes of the automatic flow of thoughts and the examination of the phenomena generated by induced or hypnotic sleep. This period of experimental activity ended with the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism, which marked the period when Surrealism, in Breton’s own words, entered the phase of elucidation.       

The publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton in Paris in 1924 formally inaugurated the Surrealist movement. In his Manifesto Surrealism is defined in the following way:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express―verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner―the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

The term itself was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) as a designation for his play Les Mamelles de Tirésis (The Breasts of Tiresias), which the Surrelists adopted and redefined as a befitting description of the nature of the phenomena fundamental to their preoccupations. Aside from Apollinaire, the Surrealists were inspired by the poets such as Paul Valéry, Arthur Rimbaud, Jacques Vaché, but first and foremost by Lautréamont’s (Compte de Lautréamont, sobriquet of Isidore Ducasse) vision of the fortuitous encounters and unexpected couplings between dissimilar realities.    

Stemming from the spirit of revolt which was a trait common to the movements of the European avant-garde during the first decades of the 20th c., the Surrealist movement responded to the crisis of the traditional European cultural model by striving to bring about a new set of values and establish new aesthetic principles. The origins of Surrealism lie in the theories of the psychoanalysis and the interpretations of dreams developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), as well as in the political ideology of Marxism. For that reason, the Surrealists elaborated unconventional techniques, first of all the automatism, as a means suitable for the articulation of the unconscious, and also as a tool for the exploration of the realm of the subconscious, intended to reproduce the mechanisms of dreaming. According to Breton, the automatism and the dream accounts were two ways that lead one towards Surrealism. The Surrealists also made use of the collective activities, such as inquiries, or visual experiments, like in creating the collective drawings, the so-called le cadavre exquis (Exquisite Corpse), thus emphasising the necessity of the action that goes beyond the level of personal expression, and the overcoming of the individual differences.           

At the end of 1924 the first issue of the magazine Surrealist Revolution (La Révolution Surréaliste) appeared under the direction of Pierre Naville and Benjamin Péret, which did not include poems, but rather focused on the automatic texts and dream accounts. The Bureau of Surrealist Research is opened in the intention, according to Breton, of collecting contributions of all kinds related to the forms that the mind’s unconscious activity can assume. The political stand of Surrealism was largely affected by Breton’s growing affiliation with the group Clarté in the summer of 1925, and his adherence to the Communist movement. A new magazine is founded, Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution (Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution), with the first issue published in July 1930. Breton, then, puts out the Second Manifesto, where he underscores that “Surrealism […] deliberately opted for the Marxist doctrine in the realm of social problems”. However, the conflicts and misunderstandings between the two persist and, eventually, the Communist party never quite accepted Surrealism.

Apart from the poets, such as Breton, Aragon, Éluard, Soupault, and others, the members of the Surrealist movement were also visual artists: Max Ernst (1891-1976), André Masson (1896-1987), Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966), Juan Miró (1893-1983), Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), as well as many others that remained formally outside the movement’s ranks.    

The first group exhibition was organised in 1925 in Paris, the next, conceived by Herbert Read, in 1936 in London, and another one in New York the same year. The Tokyo exhibition came about in 1937, and the following year there was one in Paris, with Marcel Duchamp as its principle initiator and organiser. In the years that followed many members of the Surrealist movement moved to USA due to the outbreak of the war. The Surrealist activities are pursued in exile, among other means through an international exhibition, organised by Breton and Duchamp in 1942 in New York, as well as on the pages of the magazine VVV, edited by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and David Hare. The model propounded by the Surrealists exerted a strong influence on the succeeding movements in art such as Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, and Pop Art.