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Surrealism is an aesthetic-political movement that emphasises the critical and imaginative powers of the unconscious. Often misinterpreted as an artistic movement, it transformed post-World War I visual art, writing, poetry and film.

Although surrealism is related to the earlier Dada movement, and many of its initial members came from Dada, it is significantly broader in scope than the Dada movement. While Dada is relatively nihilistic in nature, surrealism possesses a more positive perspective.

The publication of André Breton's [First] Surrealist Manifesto marked its beginning in 1924, where Breton defines surrealism as "pure psychic automatism"; "automatism" being spontaneous creative production without (conscious) moral or aesthetic self-censorship. By Breton's admission, however, as well as by the subsequent development of the movement, this was a definition capable of considerable expansion. At first automatism was only conceived in the realm of writing and language. Breton and Philippe Soupault[?] wrote the first automatic book, Les Champs Magnetiques[?], in 1919. Later, automatic drawing was developed by Andre Masson[?], and automatic drawing and painting, as well as other automatistic methods, such as decalcomania[?], frottage, fumage[?], grattage[?] and parsemage became significant parts of surrealist practice. Surrealist films, such as Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or[?] were also produced.

Games such as exquisite corpse also assumed a great importance in surrealism. Surrealists continue to play old surrealist games and invent new ones, such as Time Travelers' Potlatch and What is Wrong With This Picture?.

The surrealist artists made up the most popular artistic movement of Paris throughout the 1920s and 1930s. These artists included Louis Aragon, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine, Hugo, Oppenheim, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy[?], Jacques Prévert, Raymond Queneau.

Often described as French, surrealism was in fact international from almost the earliest period, with an early Czech group[?]. Some of the most significant surrealist theorists[?] and the most radical of surrealist methods have hailed from countries other than France, the technique of cubomania, for example, was invented by Romanian surrealist Gherasim Luca[?].

Although in popular culture, particularly in the United States of America, surrealism is often identified with the paintings of Salvador Dali, Dali was in fact expelled from the surrealist movement in the late 1930s for his far right-wing tendencies, and after that time his painting has little significance for surrealism, moving farther and farther away from the movement.

Surrealism successively drifted left, adherence to the Moscow communist party line became a requirement, and Breton (who would later denounce that same party line) purged those who disagreed with him as the movement gradually splintered and drifted apart, only to reunite in exile in New York in the early forties during World War II. Upon Breton's return to Paris, in 1946, membership in the Paris Surrealist Group[?] grew dramatically.

Although it is often falsely stated that surrealism ended either during or shortly after the Second World War, or with the death of Breton in 1966, the 1960s in fact saw a dramatic expansion of international surrealism, including the founding of the Surrealist Movement in the United States[?] by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont[?]. Other surrealist groups were later founded in the United States, such as the Portland Surrealist Group[?] of Oregon, and the Houston Surrealist Group[?]. An abortive attempt was also made to found a Surrealist Group of Palo Alto[?]. In 1986 the Surrealist Group in Stockholm[?] was founded, and surrealism survives today around much of the world. Yet after World War II, many of the once-startling effects of surrealism moved into popular culture, so that even advertisements commonly display "justaposed realities" such as Breton once cultivated. Today, as noted later on in this essay, one can see the surrealist influence in TV shows, music, theater... .

If one looks back in American poetry, the work of the first American Surrealist Poet, Charles Henri Ford[?], stands out. He wrote his first surrealist poem in 1929, welcomed Breton when he came to New York during WWII. Other American poets brushed shoulders with surrealism, William Carlos Williams among them, but none surpassed Ford in creating astonishing images, compelling landscapes of the mind.

While Surrealism is typically associated with the arts, it has been said to transcend them. Surrealism, in this sense, is not specifically the privilege of self-identified "surrealists" or those sanctioned by Breton, it refers to a range of creative acts of revolt and efforts to liberate the imagination. Thus, one might say that surrealist strands may be found in movements such as Free Jazz (Don Cherry, Sun Ra etc...) and even in the daily lives of people in confrontation with limiting social conditions. At one level, surrealism may be said to be the product of a specific culture, time and place - that is, early 20th century Europe. But thought of as the effort of humanity to liberate the imagination as an act of insurrection against society, surrealism dates back to, or finds precidents in, the alchemists, possibly Dante, various heretical groups, Hieronymus Bosch, Marquis de Sade, Charles Fourier, Comte de Lautreamont and Arthur Rimbaud. Some people believe that "Non-western" cultures also provide a continued source of inspiration for surrealist activity because some may strike up a better balance between instrumental reason and the imagination in flight than western culture.

What if you don't understand a movie like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie[?]" ("le charm discrete de la bourgeoisie"): Please consider that Luis Buñuel was a (some say the) surreal film maker. Surrealism is according to "the Penguin all English dictionary[?]": the school of art or literature that aims at producing irrational fantasies or hallucinatory and dream-like effects, so during the film long dinner all kinds of weird things happen and nobody gets a bite to eat. Another famous surreal artist was the painter Rene Magritte in Belgium who painted flying men with bowler hats and umbrellas and who drew a pipe and wrote under it: "Ceci n'est pas un pipe" ("this is not a pipe[?]"). It isn't a pipe, it's a drawing of a pipe.

A more recent example of surreal art was the American television series Twin Peaks by David Lynch. Most of his films have been described as surreal. The same is true of the American television series Northern Exposure that seems to be inspired by Lynch. Other examples include American television comedy-series like Green Acres[?] and (a bit less) NewsRadio (which often references Green Acres in later episodes). What all these art forms have in common, is that whatever is depicted seems to be real, yet highly unlikely dream-like things happen. Most of the sketches in the British "Monty Python's Flying Circus" are also very surreal.

The later films of Luis Buñuel aren't as surreal as his early work and that may be confusing to the inexperienced viewer. An example of his surreal work is his movie "L'age d'or" ("the golden age") that he made together with then-surrealist Salvador Dali.

Recommended reading

  • André Breton, "Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism" (Gallimard 1952) (Paragon House English rev. ed. 1993).
  • "What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings of André Breton" (edited and with an Introduction by Franklin Rosemont).
  • André Breton, "Manifestoes of Surrealism" containing the 1st, 2nd and introduction to a possible 3rd Manifesto, and in addition the novel "The Soluble Fish" and political aspects of the surrealist movement.

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