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SURREALISM (1924-1945)


Robert Baldwin
Associate Professor of Art History
Connecticut College
New London, CT 06320

robert.baldwin@conncoll.edu

(This essay was written in 1999 and needs more work.)



Officially announced in André Breton's Manifeste de surréalisme, (Paris, 1924),
Surrealism was a loose artistic movement which flourished in the later 1920s and 1930s
(though claiming earlier artists including De Chirico).

The most important development for Surrealism was the new scientific theory of
psychoanalysis, especially that of Freud (d. 1939) which described the human psyche as a
battleground between the id – a realm of violence instincts and sexual fantasies – and the
super-ego – where civilized norms were internalized as an authority structure. The
psychoanalysis of Jung (d. 1961) downplayed sexuality in favor of collective archetypes
and mythic images and was more influential in later Surrealism in the 1940s, especially
in the early Surrealist works of artists who went on to fame as Abstract Expressionists
such as Pollock.

Freudian psychoanalysis achieved cultural currency among urban elites after 1920 and
became quite fashionable by the 1930s. For Surrealists, the Freudian world of the
unconscious offered an explicitly modern, artistic language which was also timeless and
universal, even archetypal. Here was a deeper human reality which pervaded yet
transcended history. Here was a level of human experience shared by all viewers
regardless of education, background, or age.

Surrealists generally sought to render an irrational or unconscious world of psychic
anxieties, phobias, dreams, fantasies, and sexual obsessions as a deeper, more interesting
human reality. As André Breton wrote,

       "Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of
       association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the
       disinterested play of thought."

Though Surrealism was profoundly indebted to Freud, it took his idea of the unconscious
or the id as an autonomous realm of instinct never fully mastered by reason and super ego
and made it the paradigm for a new artistic freedom and autonomy beyond all reason and
social morality. Thus Breton insisted Surrealism was a
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       "pure, psychic automatism by which is intended to express, either verbally or in
       writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all
       control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations". 1

Thus the autonomy of instinct and the unconscious allowed a group of poets and painters
to claim a new autonomy for artistic expression, to free art from the "false" constraints of
social convention, morality, religion, reason, and the civilized self. The unconscious also
appealed artistically as a world liberated from all artistic conventions, a world of free
association, paradox, contradiction, simultaneity, chance, and irrationality, a world
beyond nature yet deeply rooted in it.

Put into a larger cultural perspective, Surrealism extended a tradition in European culture
extolling instinct, emotion, and the body which went all the way back to Romanticism
(for example, Delacroix) and which fueled the early modernist movements of Symbolism
(Redon, Knopff, Delville) and Expressionism. This explains why Surrealist poets
frequently hailed French Symbolist poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire
as their spiritual ancestors.

Despite their profound debt to Freud, the Surrealists turned Freud upside down by
celebrating the world of “savage” instincts and unconstrained impulses. Freud was
appalled by this use of his ideas and denounced Surrealism for indulging in the world of
the id and transforming it into a "true" or hyper reality. Like most classically-educated
Viennese doctors, Freud's aesthetic tastes were hostile to modern art and looked to
classical Greek and Roman sculpture as the highest artistic achievement.

Surrealists worked in a great variety of individual styles. Some artists such as Dali, Ernst,
Magritte, and Delvaux fashioned representational styles, each of which subverted reality
in different ways. Others such as Tanguy, Miro, and Masson developed abstract modes.


Constructivism and Surrealism: Parallel Discourses
While it may help, initially, to see Constructivism as the polar opposite to Surrealism
(mechanical vs. organic, technology vs. nature, impersonal vs. individual, reason vs.
instinct), the two movements had some elements in common and interacted in a number
of ways. The cool, geometrical rhetoric of Constructivism, after all, was for the most part
grounded in the most intensely utopian political and social passions, dreams, and
fantasies. Conversely, much Surrealism had a conflicted fascination with the modern
machine, at once reveling in mechanical forms as the paradigmatic visual sign of a
uniquely modern, abstract art and playfully subverting the utilitarian, rational, impersonal
values of the twentieth century "machine age" by making anti-machines, nonsense
machines, and eroticized anthropomorphic machines.


Machine Technology and the Rise of Collage Art as Modern Art
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In the teens and 1920, ideas about both human and artistic identity were invaded and
transformed by distinctly modern notions of technology. As shown in Barbara Zabel's
work on early modernist collage in America, the modern artist was increasingly seen as
an engineer and a constructor. Technology became a paradigm for the making of art
because it allowed American modernists to develop a self-consciously "technological"
artistic mode severing all ties to pre-modern notions of art as mimesis. As Zabel argues,
the impact of technological values went far beyond the obvious imagery of much Dada,
Constructivism, and Surrealist art in the 1920s to encompass more fundamental
procedures of art making.

No medium was more closely tied to the artistic discourse on the machine than collage.
As a "mechanical" or "constructed" medium, collage took on a larger, paradigmatic
importance for all modern artistic representation from 1915-1925. Indeed, it is impossible
to explain the rise of collage fully without relating it to the larger discourse on technology
and the machine age. It was no accident that collage was most central in the two
modernist art movements which most obsessively dwelled on technological imagery and
modernity as a "machine age": Dada and Surrealism.


Machine Age, Gender, and the Ambiguous Machines of Dada and Surrealism
As Barbara Zabel has shown, the relation of early modernist art in America to machines
and technology was complex and contradictory. One the one hand, American modernist
art (including the work of immigrants like Man Ray) took up a confident, striking
impersonality tied to utopian technological visions, notions of modernity as progress and
freedom, and positive analogies between the machine and the modern experience of
human work and social interactions. On the other hand, the same works of art registered
widespread Western anxieties about rapid social change, increasingly impersonal social
relations, and the loss of authentic identity.

Not surprisingly, the modern discourse on technology was profoundly inflected with a
whole series of contemporary social concerns and assumptions including values on
gender. Though it often presented itself as a universal, impersonal discourse, the rhetoric
of the machine in mainstream and modernist culture operated as an emphatically
masculinist discourse tied to notions of male power over "female" nature, matter, and
body. Within modernism, this discourse of the "machine age" overlaid masculine notions
of "modern mankind" and the artist as engineer with older notions of artistic creation as a
"masculine" conceptual activity going back to the Renaissance.

The discussion of sexual values within Dada and Surrealist machine imagery illuminates
the ways in which technological and constructivist developments within modernism
worked in part to legitimize decidedly pre-modern notions of gender at a time when
traditional sexual values were profoundly threatened by the emergence in American
society of the "New Woman" and the suffrage movement (seeking the right to vote). By
exploring the subtexts of gender in modernist technological representation, one can see
previously hidden continuities between nineteenth-century femme fatale imagery and
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seemingly impersonal, mechanical works such as Man Ray's Object to Be Destroyed
(discussed below).

In a still larger sense, the discussion of gender values in Dada and Surrealism sheds light
on the larger problem of patriarchal values within modernism as a whole and the
relentless exclusion of female artists by male artistic groups, institutions, museums,
galleries, art schools, critics, influential collectors, journals, and art historians writing on
modern art.


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