Surrealism: Reason Behind The Unreasonable


The Artist
By Ankur Anand

Surrealism is a movement in art that comes to life in the aftermath of the first world war in 1917. Surrealism, the younger brother of Dada or Dadaism, is a way to express subconscious or hidden thoughts in a non-linear fashion. It has a dream-like structure. A fantasy.

The term “surrealism” was first used by a French poet named Guillaume Apollinaire. He gave birth to the term to describe a ballet named “Parade”, that was composed by Jean Cocteau and Eric Satie.

Originally, the concept of surrealism was adapted from the theories of the great Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The therapeutic techniques like free association and dream analysis helped him in understanding the underlying mechanisms of repression. He, then, proposed his theory of unconsciousness which became the root or main objective of SURREALISM.

André Breton, a poet, founded the movement in Paris in October 1924. He published a manifeste du surréalisme on October 15,1924. In his first manifesto, he defined surrealism as pure psychic automatism. This is basically the verbal representation of the functioning of thoughts.

Automatism primarily deals with the unusual way of writing. Everything depends on the subconscious mind. There is no set rule or pattern, whatever comes to the mind can be written down in the same way. A melange of unsynchronised thoughts.

Branches Of Surrealism :

(1) Poetry :

Surrealism found its inception in the form of poetry. This is the source. Poets associated with the movement are :

(a) Guillaume Apollinaire :

The Poet
Guillaume Apollinaire

A French poet who by birth was an Italian. He was also a Novelist and to an extent also played the part of a wonderful critic.

In 1907, he published two erotic novels, The Eleven Thousand Rods (Les Onze Mille Verges) and The Exploits Of A Young Don Juan (Les exploits d’un jeune Don Juan). The controversy around the former one kept it away from the public reach for a long time. The ban was lifted almost 63 years later in 1970.

In 1911, he joined a cubist group named Pateaux and coined the term Cubism to describe the ongoing art movement. He was a devoted supporter of Cubism. Orphism or Orphic Cubism was also coined by him. He didn’t use punctuations in his poems to show the modernism.

In 1916, he joined the army and served as an infantry officer in the first world war, where he received a severe blow to his head. The wound stayed with him till his last breath.

In 1917, he coined the term Surrealism to describe a ballet named Parade. The music for the ballet was composed by the French composer and pianist Éric Alfred Leslie Satie. The costume and set was designed by the famous cubist painter Pablo Picasso. During all this, he also published a manifesto (an artistic one) named L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes.

Apollinaire used the techniques of automatic writing to express his vision in his Calligrammes and Concrete poetry, but couldn’t publish them. After his demise, the journal Mercure de France published both of his literary forms.

To understand the art of automatism


(b) André Breton :

The Poet
André Breton

André, the pope of surrealism, was born on 18 th Feb 1896 in Normandy, France. He went to a medical school to study neurology where he acquired a peculiar interest in mental illness.

During the first world war, he joined the army and worked as a neurologist in a hospital. He was a trained psychiatrist and used Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods to cure war veterans.

In 1919, he launched a journal named Littérature with two of his friends Louis Aragon and Phillipe Soupault. He also took part in activities of Dada or Dadaism. André, with his friends, started working on Automatism (the unusual and unconscious writing style).

Breton and Phillipe continued using the techniques of automatic writing in their works and finally published The Magnetic fields in 1920.

In 1924, André published his first manifeste du surréalisme where he defined the purpose of surrealism and called it a pure psychic automatism.


(c) Paul Éluard :

The Poet
Paul Éluard

Born on 14 Dec 1895 in Saint-Denis, France. The birth name of this poet was Eugène Émile Paul Grindel. He was great at English and spent his youth in England.

He began writing poetry at a young age because of Walt Whitman. Walt had a great influence on him. He also started reading symbolism. To understand the real world of symbolism, he followed the works of poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollianaire and Charles Baudelaire. He also read the works of Russian masters, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Eugène published his first book under the pseudonym, Paul Éluard in 1917. He was a member of Dada or Dadaism. Paul, too, was involved in the birth of Surrealism. In April 1914, during the first world war, he was mobilised. He wasn’t sent to the front lines because of his poor health. So, he served as a medic.

In 1916, he was sent to work in a military evacuation hospital in Hargicourt. His job was to write letters to the families of the dead and the wounded. On an average, he wrote 150 letters a day. At night, he dug graves for the dead. This repetitive work took a toll on his mind. The horrors of the war had shaken him deeply. He resumed his writing and published two of his works titled, “Duty And Anxiety” and ” Little Poems For Peace”.

In 1919, he met with the publishers of Littérature. André Breton, Phillipe Soupault and Louis Aragon were the publishers of the journal. They liked his work and published his texts in the next edition of Littérature.

In 1924, he published Mourir de ne pas mourir. The surrealist books that he published were Capitale de la douleur (1926), La Rose publique (1934) and Les Yeux fertiles (1936).

His works talk about the visual and sensory perception of Poetry.


(2) Painting :

The movement found its way into this form of art in 1928, when Rene met Breton in Paris.

(a) René Magritte :

The painter
René Magritte

René was born on 21 Nov. 1898 in Lessines in Belgium. He was the oldest of the lot. At a very young age, he showed interest in drawing. So, he started taking lessons in drawing in 1910.

His mother was mentally ill. She tried to kill herself many a time. Her constant attempts forced Leopold, his father, to lock her up into her bedroom. But on 12 March 1912, she managed to escape and committed suicide. She drowned herself in the river Sambre. When they finally discovered her water-soaked body, her face was covered with the dress she had on her. This particular scene had a deep impact on young René’s future works. His paintings of people covering their faces with clothes were said to be inspired from that event.

In his early years, he was fascinated by impressionism. In 1915, he produced some impressionistic paintings. But he wanted to learn different styles. So, in 1916, he went to Académie Royale Des Beaux Arts in Brussels and studied under the supervision of the painter and poster designer, Gisbert Combaz. During 1918-1924, he produced works that were influenced by Futurism and by Cubism of Jean Metzinger.

In 1922, René was introduced to the works of Giorgio de Chirico by a friend, Marcel Lecomte. The painting, “The Love Of Song or Love Song”, by Giorgio made him cry. He described the moment as the most moving one of his entire life. He felt that he saw thought on canvas for the first time.

For the next four years, he worked as a drafter in a wallpaper factory and also was a poster and advertisement designer. His life took a slight turn when he struck a contract with Galerie Le Centaur in Brussels. The contract made him paint full-time. And that’s what he really wanted. Finally, he produced his first surreal work, The Lost Jockey (Le jockey perdu). His work didn’t receive much appreciation from the critics.

In 1928, he moved to Paris and participated in the surrealism movement. In 1929, he showcased his works at Goemans Gallery in Paris. On 15 Dec 1929 his essay, “Les mots et les images” was published in the last publication of La Revolution Surrealiste.

Some Notable Works :

° The Treachery Of Images (1928-1929)

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. › the-treache…
The Treachery of Images, 1929 by Rene Magritte

° The Menaced Assasin ( 1927) › collection › works
René Magritte. The Menaced Assassin. Brussels 1927 | MoMA

° The Empire Of Light (1950) › collection › works
René Magritte. The Empire of Light, II. 1950 | MoMA

° The Promenades Of Euclid (1955) › art › the-pr…
Web results
The Promenades of Euclid, René Magritte | Mia

° The Pilgrim (1966) › pilgrim
The Pilgrim by Rene Magritte

° The Mysteries Of The Horizon (1955) › the-mysteries-o…
The Mysteries of the Horizon by René Magritte Facts & History

(b) Salvador Dalí :

The painter
Salvador Dalí

Dali was born on 11 May 1904 in Figueres, Catalonia, Spain. He studied fine arts at San Fernando School Of Fine Arts in Madrid, Spain. He moved closer to the world of Surrealism in the late 1920s.

In 1916, Dali went to the Municipal Drawing School at Figueres in Madrid. The ten-year-old met Roman Pichot in Cadaques, where he discovered modern painting.

Dali’s father was supportive of him. For him, he even organised an exhibition of his charcoal drawings in their family abode.

In 1918, the Municipal Theatre in Figueres organised his first ever public exhibition. In 1921, he came to know about Futurism and Cubism. Ramon Pichot helped him in understanding the basics.

In 1922, Dali attented the Real Academia De Bellas Artes De San Fernando (San Fernando Royal Academy Of Fine Arts). He stayed at the Residencia De Estudiantes (Student’s Residence). Here, he met Luis Buñuel, Federico García Lorca and Pepin Bello. He had an emotionally intense relationship with García.

The same year, he started visiting the old Prado Museum on a regular basis to study the works of the great artists. In some of his paintings, he used Cubism that drew the attention of his fellow students because there were no cubist in Madrid at that time.

Dali was also associated with an Ultra group. They introduced him to Dada or Dadaism. At the same time, he was reading The Theory Of Unconsciousness by Sigmund Freud. The theory helped him to introduce symbolism and sexual imagery into his works.

In 1925, the newly formed Sociedad Ibérica De Artistas organised a group exhibition in Madrid. Dali submitted eleven of his works for exhibition. Seven of them were in the cubist style and the rest in the realist form. He showcased twenty-two of his works in a solo exhibition at Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona, Spain.

In 1926,Dali finally had the chance to meet the great cubist Pablo Picasso. He admired him so much that he produced a number of his works in Pablo’s analytic cubism style.

In 1927, he produced two works, “Honey Is Sweeter Than Blood” and “Gadget And Hand”. Both of them were highly influenced by Surrealism. Finally, in 1929 he joined the surrealist group and soon became a prominent member of the group.

The themes of sexual anxiety and unconscious desires were continued to be a part of his works. He wanted to explore all the possible forms. His works such as The First Days of Spring, The Great Masturbator and The Lugubrious Game were the results of his continuous research.

The Persistence of Memory is his most famous work. He produced this piece of surreal art in 1931. The soft melting watches are used to deny the myth that Time is rigid.

Some Notable Works :

° The Persistence of Memory (1931) › collection › works
Salvador Dalí. The Persistence of Memory. 1931 | MoMA

° Dream Caused By The Flight Of A Bee Around A Pomegranate A Second Before Awakening (1944) › dream-cau…
Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second …

° The Temptation Of St. Anthony (1946) › temptation…
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1946 by Salvador Dali

° Metamorphosis Of Narcissus (1937) › art › artworks
‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, Salvador Dalí, 1937 | Tate

° The Sacrament Of The Last Supper (1955) › collection › art-obje…
The Sacrament of the Last Supper – National Gallery of Art

° Galatea Of The Spheres (1952) › galatea-of…
Galatea of the Spheres, 1952 by Salvador Dali


(3) Cinema :

Cinema broadens the area of surrealism. The juxtaposition of images, the non-linear storyline and dreamlike imagery make it more complex, confusing and bizzare.

(a) Luis Buñuel :

The director
Luis Buñuel

This Spanish-Mexican filmmaker was born on 22 Feb 1900 in Calanda. He was the oldest of the lot.

Buñuel finished his high school at the age of 16. Even as a child, he had a great sense of visual imagery. He used a lantern and a bedsheet to project shadow on the wall. He was also a good violin player.

In 1917, he went to University Of Madrid to study agronomy and industrial engineering. But he finally switched his stream to philosophy. He stayed in Residencia De Estudiantes, where he met Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca.

Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921), was the main reason behind his increased interest in cinema. After watching the film, he understood : ” The moving images are the true means of expression”.

In 1925, he shifted to Paris and started working as a secretary in International Society Of Intellectual Cooperation (ISIC). He became avid cinema-goer and started watching three films a day.

From 1924 to 1928, he worked for Jean Epstein as an assistant director on four to five of his films. Epstein wanted him to work for his mentor, Abel Gance, but Buñuel rejected his demand. And they parted their ways.

Buñuel and Dalí started working together on a film titled Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). The screenplay was completed in just six days. Actually, all they did was write their dreams on paper.

They didn’t want it to be reasonable. Their simple rule was : ” Images on the screen must not give birth to any kind of idea. No explanation in any form. The whole piece has to be unsynchronised. No connection, no explanation”.

Some Notable Works :

° Un Chien Andalou (1929) › reviews › gr…
Un Chien Andalou movie review (1928) | Roger Ebert

° The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972) › reviews › gr…
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie movie review (1972 …

° Viridiana (1961) › reviews › gr…
Viridiana movie review & film summary (1961) | Roger Ebert

° Belle De Jour (1967) › reviews › gr…
Belle de Jour movie review & film summary (1968) | Roger Ebert

° The Young And The Damned (1950) › movies › los…
Los Olvidados | The New Yorker

(b) Alejandro Jodorowsky :

The director
Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro was born on 17 Feb 1929 in Tocopilla, Chile. He was an avid reader. At the age of 16, he published his first poem.

The political philosophy and movement that reject all forms of hierarchy had a great impact on him. He attended college and studied psychology and philosophy for two years. Mime or silent acting method fascinated him. He joined a circus as a clown to make some money so that he could began his career as a theatre director.

In 1952, he moved to Paris to study mime. There, he joined Marcel Marceau’s troupe and went on a world tour. During this period, he wrote routines for the troupe.

In 1957, he tried his hands in filmmaking. The first film he made was actually a short film based on Thomas Mann’s novella. The name of the film was Les Têtes Interverties or The Severed Head. It was full of surreal imagery and mime. Jodorowsky played the lead part.

In 1962, he founded a movement called Panic Movement with Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor. The movement was inspired by Luis Buñuel’s work. Next year, Alejandro directed a film, Fando Y Lis. But it got banned in Mexico.

Jodorowsky released his next film El Topo in 1970. This time, he didn’t release it in Mexico because of the lesson he learned. He released it in United States. The movie tells the story of a Mexican bandit named El Topo. The lead character is on a search for spiritual enlightenment with his son. But, the path he is on takes him to his grave. He opens his eyes and finds himself within in the vicinity of some deformed people.

After watching the movie, John Lennon felt so moved that he convinced The Beatles’ president, Allen Klein, to help it reach the American audience and also asked him to give Jodorowsky $1 million for his next film. The next film that Jodorowsky made was “The Holy Mountain”. He released it in 1973.

Some Notable Works :

° El Topo (1970) › reviews › gr…
El Topo movie review & film summary (1970) | Roger Ebert

° The Holy Mountain (1973) › jan › t…
The Holy Mountain review – inside the mind of a visionary …

° Santa Sangre (1989) › reviews › gr…
Santa Sangre movie review & film summary (1990) | Roger Ebert

° The Dance Of Reality (2013) › aug › t…
The Dance of Reality review – my father the hero | Film | The Guardian

° Endless Poetry (2016) › reviews › en…
Endless Poetry movie review & film summary (2017) | Roger Ebert

(c) David Lynch :

The director
David lynch

David was born on 24 Jan 1946 in Montana. He was not a good student. Actually, he was interested in painting and drawing.

He attended Corcoran School Of The Arts And Design in 1964. But soon, he left the school and joined the School Of The Museum Of Fine Arts in Boston. Here, he met Peter Wolf. They were not happy with their studies. So, they decided to visit Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. But, when they reached there and found that Kokoschka was unavailable, they returned back.

In 1966, David moved to Philadelphia. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Arts. Here, he met his first wife, Peggy Reavey. They got married in 1967. To support his family and his art studies, he started working. His job was to print engravings.

In 1967, he directed his first short film titled Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times). Actually, this was a painting. But, David wanted to see the moving aspect of his work. So, with Bruce Samuelson, he did exactly what he wanted.

In 1971, he moved to Los Angeles. Here, he attended AFI Conservatory to study Film making.

In 1972, he started working on his next project titled Eraserhead. The screenplay was just 21 pages long. That means 21 minutes of screen time. But the movie is 89 minutes long. This surrealistic approach made this piece of work, a piece of ART. The film was finally released in 1977.

Some Notable Works :

° Eraserhead (1977)
Defying Explanation: The Brilliance of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” | TV/Streaming

° The Elephant Man (1980) › mar › t…
The Elephant Man review – David Lynch’s tragic tale of compassion …

° Blue Velvet (1986) › reviews › bl…
Blue Velvet movie review & film summary (1986) | Roger Ebert

° Mulholland Drive (2001) › reviews › gr…
Mulholland Dr. movie review & film summary (2001) | Roger Ebert

° Inland Empire (2006)


Nothing to say
Just waiting for it to over
Don’t ask me what it represents
No language can define
A wordless statement
A Visual poetry.





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