Is Surrealism Dead?

Mark Polizzotti, author of Why Surrealism Matters, answers some of the web’s most-asked questions about Surrealism.

When did Surrealism begin?

MP: The Surrealist movement officially began in Paris in 1924, with the publication of André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism, but the first Surrealist text properly speaking, the automatic prose poem The Magnetic Fields, was written by Breton and Philippe Soupault in 1919. One reason for the five-year gap was that the future Surrealists were sidetracked by their involvement in the Dada movement, which its co-founder, Tristan Tzara, brought to Paris in 1920. After Tzara and Breton had a falling-out in 1923, it spurred Breton and his friends to return to their experiments with automatic writing – writing without intention or conscious control – and other forms of unconscious expression. In the summer of 1924, Breton composed a collection of automatic stories, titled Soluble Fish. Wishing to give these texts a theoretical underpinning, he began writing a preface that would explain the importance of automatic writing. The preface quickly ballooned into a book-length manifesto, which was published in October of that year. As it happened, Breton’s timing was perfect: in those same months, another group of writers tried to stake a rival claim to the label “surrealism.” Ultimately, it was Breton’s manifesto, which laid out a stirring philosophical program in an engaging style, that carried the day, and our understanding of Surrealism still aligns with the definition he first provided: “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express . . . the actual functioning of thought.”

Where was Surrealism most popular?

MP: The Surrealist movement began in Paris and is still largely associated with that city, in part because the French Surrealists made Paris such a central feature of their writings. By the mid 1930s, however, it had spread to other countries and become a fully international phenomenon. In Europe, there were major centers of Surrealist activity in Belgium (birthplace of the artists René Magritte and Paul Delvaux and the writer Paul Nougé), England (which brought, among many others, Leonora Carrington, David Gascoyne, and Herbert Read), Spain (which gave the movement Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, and Joan Miró), and Prague. Over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Surrealist groups have also been active in the Middle East (especially with the Egyptian “Art and Liberty” group), Japan, Romania, Scandinavia, Latin America, Mexico, Martinique (home to the Surrealist writers and activists Aimé and Suzanne Césaire), and the United States, birthplace of Man Ray, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, and Ted Joans, as well as of the Chicago group started by Penelope and Franklin Rosemont. While many of these groups adapted the movement’s original tenets to their specific cultures and contexts – the Egyptian and Japanese currents viewed Surrealist principles through their own iconographies and traditions; the Chicago Surrealists focused on American political events  – for most people, the Surrealist movement remains primarily Parisian, and it is still France that lays the most visible claim to it.

How did surrealism affect society?

MP: Surrealism’s impact on society involves many factors, including art and writing, public demonstrations, and social activism. Its spirit has now infused such everyday manifestations as film, advertising, fiction, journalism, and other aspects of daily life to the point where it has become ubiquitous, and the word “surrealist,” though often misused, part of our common vocabulary. In addition to Surrealism’s more visible influences, there are two lessons to be learned from the movement that seem particularly relevant to contemporary society: its fierce independence of thought, even when that independence contradicts prevailing opinion and one’s own allies; and its absolute belief in the liberating potential of keeping yourself open to the wonders of everyday surroundings, as a form of rebellion against the mental drudgery of modern existence. For the Surrealists, practices such as automatism were attractive not as a pastime or technique but for their disruptive potential, a way of refreshing language, of freeing it – and with it, the mind – from the tyranny of standardized meaning. This was not an easy message to put across, and it became particularly challenging when the Surrealists engaged in direct political action. For the leftist militants they tried to join, “revolution” primarily meant working conditions, and these militants had little interest in the Surrealists’ promotion of experimental literature and sexually suggestive art. The Surrealists, on the other hand, argued that you had to revolutionize ways of thinking before you could meaningfully change how people live; that merely bettering material conditions and replacing one power structure with another was a recipe for falling back into the same repressive trap. While their proposals might strike some as frivolous, they were aiming at a form of revolution that is arguably deeper and more lasting than economics can provide.

What forms did Surrealism take?

MP: While Surrealism is often considered a movement in the visual arts or in literature, its primary goal was, in Breton’s words, to “transform the world, change life, refashion human understanding from top to bottom.” Its orientation, in other words, was philosophical, even scientific (“the actual functioning of thought”), rather than aesthetic. That said, since the movement was founded largely by writers and artists, many of their productions took the form of writing (especially poetry), art (notably paintings, collages, and assembled objects), and films. So far this sounds no different from many an artistic avant-garde. But one way in which Surrealism does differ is that its works cover a wide variety of forms and styles, without stressing any one in particular: writing can be poetry, stream of consciousness, fragmented autobiography, subjective reportage (much like the later “New Journalism” of Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson), or a mix of all of the above; paintings range from the hyperreal dreamscapes of Salvador Dalí to the allegorical tableaux of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo to the underwater vistas of Yves Tanguy to pure abstractions; and so on. Whatever the form, these works were meant not as an end but as a means to convey a spirit, an idea: as Breton wrote, “It is impossible for me to envisage a picture as being other than a window, and my first concern is then to know what it looks out on.” This is largely why it’s difficult to define precisely what makes a work “Surrealist,” and why works that take inspiration from Surrealism’s “style” but misread the spirit behind it often fall flat. It’s not about style or talent: a beautiful turn of phrase or exquisite brushstroke is less important than a work’s ability to produce a shiver-inducing thrill, or to help recast our sense of the world. This is what Surrealist expressions, at their best, can do.

Is Surrealism dead?

MP: Although Surrealism is widely considered a twentieth-century phenomenon, and even though the Paris group formally disbanded in 1969, Breton always maintained that its principles long predated his codification of it. In the Manifesto, he cites Dante, Swift, the German Romantics, Poe, Hugo, Rimbaud, and even Shakespeare as among those who “could pass for Surrealists.” Looked at from this angle, the spirit of Surrealism – a spirit of revolt, of constantly questioning what we’re told is reality, of keeping yourself open to chance discoveries and to the marvelous potential of everyday life – remains constant and timeless. Moreover, several Surrealist associations are still active today in various parts of the world. Surrealism might no longer have the headline-grabbing currency that it did in the 1920s and 30s, but only because it has spread out of the art gallery and lecture hall and into the streets – exactly where the original Surrealists intended it to be. During the tumultuous student protests of May 1968, many of the slogans graffitied on the walls were Surrealist statements. That same month, the poet John Ashbery reflected that “the Surrealist Revolution cannot happen again because it is no longer necessary. We all ‘grew up Surrealist’ without even being aware of it . . . Surrealism, as its originators hoped it would, immediately spread to all levels of life.” Those words still resonate today.

Mark Polizzotti is an award-winning writer and translator. His previous books include Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton and Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto, as well as many translations from the French.

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