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The Endless Stairs of Surrealism in Art and Literature

Relativity by M. C. Esche (1953). A legendary surrealist lithograph that gained recognition for its unique 3-Dimensional style and illustrating an absence of gravity.

The Beginning of Surrealism

It all began in Paris in the 1910s, and perhaps in an involuntary desire to break free from the grim atmosphere of World War I. Surrealism started as a literary movement that was officially established in 1924 by poet André Breton.

André Breton, titled as the father of surrealism, and his Kachinas dolls collection.

The poet’s idea was to explore his subconscious mind, through automatism, or automatic writing. Publication of Manifeste du Surréalism was the hallmark of surrealism which turned into an intellectual movement in France and soon after, across the globe. Breton described his writing as “free from aesthetic or moral preoccupations.’’ He looked at the world through critical lenses, and his style was at odds with rationality, science and, above all, bourgeois aesthetic.

Roots, Rise, and Expansion

Many factors influenced the budding and growth of surrealism. Some believe that the movement was a fruit of an unkind reality, to which surrealism created an escape portal.

Sigmund Freud’s extensive studies on human consciousness are also noted as an influential element on surrealist movement. According to Freud, the primal ID, that always dwells beneath the crust of the mind and rational self, carries the blueprint of human behaviour and is the source of symbolic vision induced in the dream state. Freud’s definitions of the psychic abilities of human mind fueled many unorthodox practices by the 20th century surrealists. Art historians, however, look back a few centuries and to the era of proto-surrealism to find the roots.

Artists from around the world welcomed surrealism to celebrate the obscuring of the barriers between dreams and reality, conscious and subconscious minds, logic and irrationality. To facilitate automatism, surrealists created their works in a trancelike state. Later, the same work was refined by conscious artistic touches, yet leaving the initial idea intact and unfiltered. They were revolutionaries that rose against social norms by refusing to conform. Whether it was the political issues, mundane cultural limits, or solely the artist’s search for boundless and convulsive beauty, surrealism became a powerful form of expression with bizarre, though creative ideas.

The word ‘surreal’ has its roots in the French language, and a combination of the words sur- “beyond” + réalisme “realism”. It referred to concepts that were beyond the limits of reality and perceived as otherworldly to the viewer’s rational mind. Unlike most of the stylistic movements, surrealism withstood time and cultural exchanges, a characteristic that some of the ideologists link to Spiritus Mundi, or according to W. B. Yeats. “a universal memory and a ‘muse’ of sorts that provides inspiration”. Through the years, surrealism has influenced storytelling, poetry, paintings, cinema and other artistic expressions, highlighting an enduring art practice in the contemporary era.

Czech Surrealism

Parisian-initiated art flourished in the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934. The translation and publication of Manifeste du Surréalism, by the Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval in 1930, was key in forming this artistic movement. Two years later, Mánes Gallery exhibited the most extensive display of surrealistic art to date.

The movement included both fine arts and literature, which eventually turned into an underground movement, following the opposition by the totalitarian government. Nonetheless, Czechoslovakia held its demeanour as a social hub for surrealists. Breton himself attended group meetings, alongside eccentrics such as Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Josef Šíma, Salvador Dali and many more notable figures.

František Muzika, In memoriam II., 1943, an example of Czech Surrealism.

Surrealism in Japan

Japanese Surrealism began through literature and also after the translation of Breton’s book. By the year 1928, surrealism was in full bloom, manifested in many intellectual works, both in literature and fine arts. Although, the Japanese surreal artworks received a rather different consideration. The movement was unique in the fundamental perception of the practice itself: while the European surrealists tried to create art pieces that connected the dream world to reality, Japanese surrealism followed its ancient tradition and oriental keynotes to create ideas and art pieces that definitely separated reality from creative illusions.

The Sea, 1929, oil painting on canvas by the Japanese Surreal artist Koga Harue.

Surrealism in Dance

Before cinema, dance was the first form of surreal art in motion. Involuntary movements, abrupt and out of balanced poses are the peculiarities of these dance performances. The surreal dance movement was both loved and hated at the same time. While the common viewers and forward-thinking commentators embraced the idea, classical dance critiques frowned upon the movement and labeled it as grotesque, distastefully unrhythmic and drunken-like.

Surrealist dance was deliberately used to condemn bourgeois aestheticism and its didactic purpose, such as l’Acte manqué (1938) performed by Hélène Vanel. Later, this movement found its way to theatre and cinema in the following years.

Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme with Hélène Vanel in L’Acte manqué, 1938. Paris: Galerie des Beaux Arts

Surrealism in Latin America

Surrealism was introduced to Latin America in the 1920s and soon became a dynamic form of statement making and artistic expression. In addition to political oppression, artists used surrealistic approaches to address and rebuild the cultural boundaries in terms of sexual taboos, role of women in society, and conservatism. The movement helped the artists to articulate their wants and needs with the apparatus of style, which was priorly inaccessible. Interestingly, Latin America Surrealists applied the ancient myths to define a liberal future, among whom are celebrated names such as; Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam, William Cordova and Ana Mendieta.

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas): A double self-portrait of Kahlo representing the contrasting look of herself in a European garb and indigenous clothing

Surrealism in Literature

Juxtapositions are the main characteristic of surrealist literature, embedded in scenarios that defy the discrepancies between conscious and unconscious minds. By chaining the words together in an aesthetically sensible manner, literary surrealism makes sense out of what is considered bizarre, confusing and unreal to the reader.

Unlike visual arts, surrealism did not endure in literature for long. Perhaps it was the disciplined and clarifying nature of writing practices itself that limited expansion of surrealism in literature. Nevertheless, the movement was regarded as a turning point in modern literature, and inspired the creation of unmatched literary collections, including; Breton’s works, Rose Colored Glass by Desnos, Screams by Joyce Mansour.

Surrealism in Cinema

There are only a handful of films that are made intently within the frame of surrealism and that defy logic within the story and technique. Although the quintessential irrationality and absurdism of this movement has been used in numerous films ever since.

An Andalusian Dog, 1928 and the Golden Age, 1930, by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali are the strictly surrealist films in the history of cinema. This movement provoked the imaginative creations by many directors during the neo realist era of Italy and later the experimental films and animations.

An iconic scene from the film Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) created by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali.

Source of the Featured Image:

1. Totally History (2020), Relativity

2. La Reppublica (2016), Rivolta e poesia del Papa del surrealismo André Breton

3. Wall Street International, 930–Present: Czech Modern Art

4. Wnforwx, Un Chien Andalou

5. Smart History, Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas)

6. Tumblr, Hélène Vanel in L’Acte manqué (The Unconsummated Act)


1. Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch, Jonathan Owen, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 1918–1956, A Reader in East-Central-European Modernism

2. Gerard Durozoi, 1997, History of the Surrealist Movement

David Hopkins, 2004, Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press Inc., New York


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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