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Art Movements in Art History - Introduction to Surrealism

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Introduction to Surrealism*

The transitional phase between Dada and Surrealism is a period of some confusion, as the
evolution of changes in approach, motives and intentions is clouded by overlapping
chronology, personal clashes between Breton and the Dadaists (some of whom were to
become Surrealists), and ambiguities as to the relation of the work of individual artists to
changing emphases.

Three views of the transition from Dada to Surrealism can be discerned:

(1) Surrealism as a constructive solution to Dada nihilism

(2) Surrealism as a movement separate from but parallel to Dada from the beginning

(3) Surrealism as one of the many embodiments of Dada in Europe -in short, Surrealism as
French Dada

Perhaps the major difference between Dada and Surrealism is that Surrealism applied
automatism and related practices in a more systematic way than Dada. In fact "psychic-
automatism" is a central tenet of surrealist thinking and its importance was stated in the
first manifesto. But the practice or application of them was not without its problems:

(1) The relationship of the conscious to the unconscious needs clarification. The
overemphasis on irrationality and the unconscious in early experimentation with
psychic automatism is later replaced by a more balanced interaction of conscious and

(2) The evolution of Surrealist theory and products suggests that any definition that is
seized upon to interpret the works of the whole movement will have only relative
validity. In addition, a correlation of changes in theory with changes in iconography and
process is discernible. For instance, when the "convulsive" nature of the image is
stressed in Breton's writings, a corresponding emphasis can be traced in Surrealist

(3) The relationship of a given Surrealist artist's work to that of the group, the degree to
which he accepts Surrealist theory, and how he understands that theory, can be used to
assess the nature of his contribution to Surrealism. The secession of an artist such as
Masson from Surrealism can be fruitfully explored in this context. Masson, whose
automatic drawings of the mid-1920s constitute one of the most successful applications
of early Surrealist theory, was to severely criticise the automatic method in the 1930s:

"I still cannot agree with the automatic approach. I do not believe you can arrive by
this means at the intensity essential for a picture. I recognized that there are intense
expressions to be obtained through the subconscious, but not without selection ".

Masson's renunciation of psychic automatism can be taken as a recognition of its
inadequacy as a method for the expression of his own particular concerns, and of the
necessity of a certain amount of conscious structuring of unconscious impulses.
However, it also indicates the artist's own inability to realise the implications of psychic
automatism beyond the limits he himself sets.

(4) The difficulty of reconstructing the artist's process, intention and state of mind from the
Surrealist work, since this must involve an attempt to decode highly personal
connections. Artists' statements can be both revealing and misleading. For example,
although Dali has written of the terror and disgust he felt for grasshoppers
after his girl cousin deliberately crushed one on his neck,' a connection that we could
not have made without his help, his application of a Freudian model to his work may be
extremely misleading as it may obscure the true functioning of his unconscious. Further,
if trained therapists have difficulty in deciphering the significance of experience, the
individual's attempts at self-examination must be even more tentative.

(5) A distinction must be made between the practice of psychic automatism and the
attainment of the state of Surreality. Psychic automatism involves action of some kind
while Surreality is a passive "state of mind" which may, or may
not, be the consequence of the practice or exposure to automatic methods.

(6) The distinction between the manifest content of dreams and the unconscious, and their
latent content, which is only accessible through analysis, must be made.

(7) It has been suggested that a work of art must contain or allow a rational interpretation
for it to communicate, but this point must be modified in the case of Surrealist works by
the stated intention of Surrealism to transcend rationality.

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* Drawn from notes compiled by R. Becker / C. Rey for the University of South Africa | Contact Us | List Your Art | List Your Art Gallery | Site Map

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