Come and visit our new collection website, featuring over 90,000 new object records and 35,000 newly digitised artworks

Introduction to Surrealism

Surrealism was one of the most radical movements of the twentieth century. Founded by the poet André Breton in 1924 it was both a literary and artistic movement. Surrealism sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance with unexpected and fantastical juxtapositions.

The germ of Surrealism lies in Dada, which sprang up in several cities almost simultaneously during the First World War. Indeed it was the war that gave birth to it: Dada artists discussed their passion for the irrational and the nonsensical in terms of a rejection of the bankrupt political, cultural and nationalistic values which, they argued, had created the war in the first place. Dada took the form of performances, music, theatre, poetry and art. In its iconoclasm it owed something to Futurism, but its love of the absurd was something new.

Katharina Ondulata, Max Ernst, 1920 − ¬© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

When the war ended Paris became a melting pot for artists and writers who had spread around Europe and America during the conflict. However, inevitably for a movement that thrived upon discord and anarchy, Dada began to disintegrate and factionalise. It was during this period of infighting and implosion that Breton emerged as the leader, shifting Dada’s focus away from its love of anarchy, negativity and nonsense, towards more intellectual pursuits involving automatic writing, dreams, psychoanalysis and chance.

The main tenets of Surrealism thus existed in the early 1920s - indeed the term ‘sur-realism’ was coined by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 – and there was a group of poets, writers and painters who were interested in exploring these issues. However, the individual strands of this would-be group had nothing to bind them together, and it was not until October 1924 that Breton galvanised the group by publishing his Manifesto of Surrealism. In it, Breton famously defined Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true functioning of thought”. The slightly surprising thing about Breton’s manifesto is that it scarcely mentions painting and is instead concerned – as Breton’s definition indicates – with writing. Yet the two quickly began to develop hand-in-hand, and today Surrealism is more associated with its visual aspect than the literary strand.

Surrealism was originally a Paris-based phenomenon but Breton’s aspirations were not limited to establishing an art movement; rather Surrealism was part of a full-scale revolution with international ambitions, and not just in the arts. Breton’s book ‘Surrealism and Painting’ appeared in 1928 and his ‘Second Manifesto of Surrealism’, in 1930. These important texts clarified the nature and ambitions of the surrealist movement, but in terms of visual art itself, of equal importance at this time was the emergence of Salvador Dalí, who is now one of Surrealism’s most famous faces. Breton had misgivings about the Spaniard’s political leanings and his bizarre obsessions, but he also recognised Dalí’s extraordinary talent and charisma, stating that his art was “the most hallucinatory known until now.

T√™te Rapha√ęlesque √©clat√©e [Exploding Raphaelesque Head], Salvador Dal√≠, 1951 − ¬© Salvador Dali, Fundaci√≥ Gala-Salvador Dal√≠, DACS, 2015

Although Surrealism had become a potent force in many countries by the 1930s, in Britain interest was only just beginning to stir. It was thanks to the young artist and collector Roland Penrose that Britain became aware of the movement. Penrose, along with David Gascoyne and Herbert Read, organised the International Surrealist Exhibition, in London in 1936. When it opened, the exhibition provoked enormous controversy. Featuring about 400 works by artists from thirteen different countries, it included all the leading names in the surrealist group, such as Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró and Dalí. Over 1000 people attended the opening and some 23,000 saw the exhibition during its twenty-three-day run.

International Surrealist Exhibition, London, 1936, Various, 1936

However, with the outbreak of World War II in 1939 many of the surrealists moved abroad and the group became plagued with infighting. The end of Surrealism as a vital force is often linked with the exhibition Le Surréalisme en 1947, in Paris. Conceived by its organisers, Breton and Marcel Duchamp, to mark the return of Surrealism to Paris following the war, it did that, but it also served to show that the younger generation, including artists such as Francis Bacon, Alan Davie, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, was moving in a different direction.

Surrealism did continue to exist in Europe after the war but largely in the hands of the artists who had pioneered it in the 1920s and 1930s. However, its legacy and influence on further generations of artists is undeniable.