frontline 16.

Andre Breton and the Surrealist Movement.

Around the mid to late 1920s the Dada movement (see Frontline no 9) was beginning to run out of steam. However its core idea of creating a movement that was anti-art and anti-bourgeoisie continued and expanded into the movement that would give its name to any strange occurrence or out of the ordinary event, Surrealism.

This new direction in art accepted the main thrust of the Dadaists - that western civilisation which produced the glories of western art also produced the horror that was World War 1. It was, therefore, necessary to try and produce an art that did not need to rely on the traditional Greco-Roman Academy art. In so doing it also realised that a sense of direction was needed and moved in a more positive route away from the nihilism of Dada.

It’s founder, Andre Breton, a French doctor in the First World War sought to create an art form that could be done by anyone. He realised that this could be achieved if people looked into their unconscious minds to find their subject matter. He saw that the super-real world could provide an endless source of material that ordinary people could then capture without being a trained specialist. Breton who had studied Psychiatry and Freud, particularly his ‘Interpretations of Dreams’ thought that by exploring the unconscious an untapped wealth of creative power could be released.

Whilst the Surrealists were not too interested in Freud’s clinical applications, they did understand that by using his ideas they could free themselves of the bounds of bourgeois morality, particularly sexual morality, by exploring their untapped desires and fantasies. This has led to some criticism of the movement due to its portrayal of women, which I will come back to later.

One of the ways that Breton and the Surrealists sought to access the unconscious was to use automatism. First used in poetry, this technique involved just writing or painting the first thing that came into your head without consciously thinking about it. Whilst this had some success in writing, this was more difficult to do in painting and so some other techniques were tried including sleep deprivation and drug use in an attempt to contact the unconscious mind. Another method used was Frottage (rubbing) invented by Max Ernst, a Dadaist and collagist. This is similar to brass rubbing but done on any surface with the aim that out of the resulting marks on the paper art will be created which has no origin in the real or conscious world.

Another method of creating disharmony and encouraging the questioning of assumptions about the world and the natural order was to use juxtaposition. Two creations that are famous examples of this method are ‘Lobster Telephone,’ Salvador Dali (1936) and ‘Object, Fur Breakfast’, Meret Oppenheim (1936). Whilst Dali’s work is self-explanatory, Oppenheim’s Object is a cup, spoon and dish covered in fur, which by transforming the mundane creates all sorts of new ideas and associations many of a fetish or sexual nature. Another Surrealist who used juxtaposition in his art is Rene Magritte. One of his most famous paintings ‘The Treachery of Images’ is of a pipe with the words ‘This is not a pipe’ written underneath; here Magritte is making a comment about perception and reality. Another simple method was to drop coloured paper on to a card and to pass it where they landed.

Whilst the Automatist method, a form of abstraction, was not concerned with meaning and rejected traditional art as being restrictive and intolerant of free expression another method came into being called Veristic Surrealism. One of the main protagonists of this style was Dali who wanted the images of the unconscious to come to the surface to be painted then analysed as to their meaning. He invented the term ‘critical paranoia’ to explain his ideas. Paranoiac images created by him could be captured then reproduced on canvas frozen there to allow time to analyse them. In 1937 when Dali moved to a more academic style and produced paintings mainly for sale, picking up the nickname ‘Avida Dollars’ (greedy for dollars) along the way, Breton expelled him from the movement.

In this sense the Surrealism was a real movement. It had a manifesto, written by Breton in 1924, which was later updated twice and a common set of beliefs although not a common style.

Another example is the artist Paul Delvaux. Like Dali he produced dreamlike paintings. However, unlike Dali’s weird and wonderful creations like elephants with stilt like legs, Delvaux’s were dark, foreboding, erotic paintings like ‘Belles de Nuit ‘(1936) and ‘Venus Asleep’ (1944). Whilst some like Arshile Gorky were almost abstract in their composition. Others who joined the Surrealists or were claimed by them include; Mark Chigal, Frida Kahlo, Joan Miro, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso, each with a different and individual style. It is, however, the work of some of these artists, Man Ray and Duchamp for example that has created some criticism for their handling of women, possibly portraying them as sex objects or in erotic terms. Undoubtedly, the Surrealists intended to shock, and their exploration of dreams and fantasy brought up sexual images, however, they claim that in traditional bourgeois art women are portrayed as sexless, wholesome virgins or mothers, in line with the views of the Church and the State.

While this may be just an excuse, there are many women Surrealists who also produced sexual, erotic images. For example, Oppenheim already mentioned produced very sexual imagery as did Dorothea Tanning, whose ‘A Little Night Music' (1946) is powerfully sexual.

What is true about Surrealism, however, is that it is a truly revolutionary art form in every sense. The subject matter, the techniques, the aims and the individuals involved in the movement are all revolutionary. People like Breton, who regarded Surrealism as being the first step towards a human culture that would belong to all and not only the rich or educated, were members of the French Communist Party as was Louis Aragon another founder of Surrealism, with others, including Picasso, on Left if not a member of a political party.

Problems were mounting up, however, round the world that would have a profound affect on everyone including artists. In Germany, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis artists who produced modern art like the Surrealists were under attack with their art being described as ‘degenerate’ and burned. Sadly it was not just in Nazi Germany that modern expressive art was being demonised but in the Soviet Union also. With the rise of Stalin the brilliant new era of experimental work that had been done since the revolution like Constructivism and Suprematism had gone. Whilst people like Kandinsky who was instrumental in creating many Soviet art institutions had fled in fear of their lives and in place of this original and exciting art emerged the sterile form of Soviet Realism with all artists subservient to Stalin and the Party.

Tragically some individuals like Louis Aragon who had gone to the Soviet Union to argue the case for a free art came back converted to socialist realism and attacked their former comrades. Others, however, remained loyal to the ideas of Surrealism and in fact fought in Spain with the POUM and anarchist militias. Breton by this time had left the CPF and was a follower of Trotsky who he went to Mexico with and met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Here Breton along with Rivera and Trotsky produced a ‘Manifesto towards a Free Revolutionary Art’. This manifesto whilst attacking the barbarism of the Nazis was aimed at those artists of the left to come together to produce a revolutionary art. It attacks the role of the Soviet Union in controlling art and artists in that country and condemns its attempts to control and bend art and artists to its will. It calls for the setting up of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (F.I.A.R.I) as a counter to those on the left who may be drawn to the USSR in opposition to fascism.

These ideas of Trotsky on the role of art and artists in revolution were not new, in the 1920s during his battles against the rise of the bureaucracy he declared that the party had no role in telling artists what they should create. His ideas on revolutionary art and the argument against a proletarian art are expanded upon in the books, ‘Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art’, Pathfinder (1977) and ‘Literature and Revolution’ RedWords (1991) and are invaluable and recommended reading for any socialist interested in art and literature. Unfortunately the attempt of Trotsky and Breton to create an international revolutionary art did not come to fruition; Trotsky was murdered by one Stalin’s assassins in Mexico and the Second World War ensured that Breton could not go on alone. Surrealism, however, did survive the war and there was a major exhibition in the 1950s of Surrealist artists, and in Paris 1968 the slogans ‘long live the surrealist revolution’ and ‘all power to the imagination’ could be heard. Eventually the movement broke up, and most art historians now ignore the political dimension of the Surrealists, however, surrealists still exist and the ideas of the imagination creating a revolutionary art still pervade.

There are many Surrealist sites on the web and the Manifesto of Surrealism by Andre Breton can be downloaded here.