Amongst the most readily identifiable and widely recognised modern art movements, surrealism developed gradually from a range of ideas, first expressed in the world of poetry and playwriting during the First World War. The war scattered artists and creatives, and many of them were drawn into the anti-war dadaist movement and experiments with automatic writing and accounts of dreams; and these began to manifest in something beyond dada.
New manifestos and groupings of writers and artists began to emerge, seeking greater truths and societal change through explorations of dream analysis, free association, the unconscious, and juxtaposed distant realities. These broad frameworks were generally agreed upon, though many of the details of surrealism, it’s practice and meaning, would be the subject of heated and intense arguments between artists.
Visual surrealism began to truly break away from dada and other movements in the mid 1920s; André Masson experimented with automatic drawings, Giacometti began to work in simplified sculptural forms, and Max Ernst created something of a dividing line between his 1925 dadaist ‘Little Machine…’ and the surrealist 1927 ‘The Kiss (Le Baise)’. In all cases there was an exploration of the unconscious mind; a philosophy was forming, even though the movement at this point was absorbing influences from dada, cubist, abstract, expressionist, and post-impressionist artists, a clear visual style was yet to emerge.
Giorgio de Chirico and the surrealist visual art style
Giorgio de Chirico had been experimenting with dreamlike images since 1910, gradually developing a depictional, unornamented, and illustrative style with strong colour contrasts, which gradually bled into surrealism and began to be adopted by others including Dali and Magritte. As the movement came into focus, the first surrealist exhibition was held at the Galerie Pierre art gallery in Paris, featuring artists like Miró, Masson, Man Ray, and Paul Klee. Influences from dada such as photomontage were still apparent, but surrealism had momentum now, and was about to shift into it’s golden age.
Through the 1930s surrealism became more widely known, as artists like Dali and Magritte committed to exploring the style and began producing many of it’s most well known original artworks. In the UK surrealist groups opened in London and Birmingham, with the London group staging the London International Surrealist Exhibition to great acclaim. Surrealism had found it’s true purpose; the search for a psychological truth that the viewer could empathise with, and that truth was most often a sense of alienation in the modern world.
As war came to Europe, many of the great surrealist artists fled to New York, which had already seen artists like Gorky, Pollock, and Motherwell embracing concepts of dream imagery and drawing on the unconscious mind. Post-war, the US avant-garde focused heavily on abstract expressionism, inspired in part by the surrealists. Until pop art emerged, surrealism was one of the most impactful of the modern art movements for American artists, pushed heavily by André Breton who promoted Duchamp as a link between futurism, cubism, and surrealism.
Post-war surrealism, and an impactful legacy
With movements well established in the UK, US, and much of Europe, surrealist elements began to be felt in the work of other artists like Rothko, Moore, Freud and Bacon. While Magritte and Dali both continued to produce remarkable surrealist works, Breton became a key spokesperson; encouraging the importance of liberating the human mind through surrealist artworks.
This philosophy; the liberation of human imagination, has had some of the greatest impact. Drawing from dialectical thought, alchemy, philosophy, literature and even the Marquis de Sade, it has found it’s ways into moments of social unrest and revolution during the postmodern era, and into revolutions within art. Installation art, the Beat Generation, and contemporary literature, film, television, and theatre have all been enriched by surrealist elements, or it’s liberating effects upon the creators.