Ceci N’est Pas Surrealism

Even if you don’t know Surrealism, it knows you.

Since September, Surrealist exhibitions seem to be cropping up everywhere: in big surveys in London, New York, San Francisco, and soon, Paris, and in countless smaller gallery shows. Perhaps you feel that life in those and other cities has grown surreal enough already. But there’s a major difference between the little-s and big-S surrealisms: Our everyday use of the term shows how much we owe to the artistic movement of the same name, but it also glosses over its aims and accomplishments. If nothing else, the current explosion of historical Surrealism may help clarify the matter.

Even those who know something about Surrealism (the movement) often get it somewhat muddled. Because the best-known Surrealists are Salvador Dalí (he of the melting watches) and René Magritte (famed forCeci n’est pas une pipe” and men in bowler hats), many believe today that their goal was to concoct wacky, fantastical imagery. Au contraire. Like many early 20th-century art movements, Surrealism aimed to revolutionize life and art both—in this case, by accessing the subconscious and recording the results.

Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term “surrealism” in 1917 to describe a spontaneous verbal creation—one that was beyond, orsur,” reality. In the next few years, several creative types vied to expand the term into a full-fledged movement that would incarnate the Zeitgeist. But the one who won out was André Breton, a minor poet and surgeon who published his first “Manifesto of Surrealism” in 1924. In it, Breton denounced “the reign of logic” and applauded Picasso and Freud (whose work at that stage was barely known in France). He gave Surrealism a historical pedigree, which included the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud. He also delineated the many methods he and his friends had used to expand their minds, such as falling into a hypnotic trance or practicing automatic writing (made by penning whatever words came into their heads). Breton’s own automatic writing, some of which he included, drew on other flotsam and jetsam of the times, such as advertising slogans and the ravings of shell-shocked soldiers that he’d treated at a sanatorium during the Great War.

In fact, Surrealism, together with its precursor, Dada, is generally regarded as a reaction to the climate of despair that surrounded World War I, when it seemed as though Europe’s social and technological advances had culminated in nothing greater than its own self-destruction. With Dada, which began in New York and Zurich, artists protested with “actions” and other activities designed to disrupt the status quo (like Marcel Duchamp’s classic gambit—displaying a urinal as art). Surrealism, which began in Paris, took this radical impulse in a more positive and creative direction.

Surrealism was more of a religion or philosophy than an artistic style. Its artists—including Dalí, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and the poets Jacques Prévert and Paul Eluard, among others—valued any technique that would allow them to make work automatically, the better to freely associate and thereby reach into the collective unconscious. Collage was a favored method. So was Exquisite Corpse, derived from a party game: One person would begin a drawing or a sentence, cover it, and pass it on to others to be continued and completed. They also developed many other automatic methods, like decalcomania, in which watercolor was pressed between two pieces of paper to make a Rorschach-like blot, and frottage, a pencil-on-paper rubbing of an object to which one felt attracted.

The sexualized nature of some of this terminology was no accident, for the Surrealists were notably active on that front, too. In their lexicon, desire, the open relationship, the chance encounter, and the ménage à trois (or more) loom large, often as an avenue to self-revelation. (Breton’s book Nadja, for instance, which documents an intense affair, begins with the words “Who am I?”) What’s curious, though, is that these relationships were the opposite of casual: Desire was frequently accompanied by love, which often led to marriage. And in many cases, these unions lasted for years, albeit in a somewhat untraditional fashion.

But perhaps the most alluring aspect of Surrealism was that it was open to all—so long as Breton, its rather autocratic leader, approved. Poets and booksellers made collages; photographers made paintings; painters and sculptors made films and played around with word games. Perhaps because of Breton’s medical background, the movement also had a quasi-scientific bent: Its first office was called “The Central Bureau of Surrealist Research,” to which the public was invited to voice their views and find out more. They even passed out advertising fliers that bore slogans like “Parents! Tell your children your dreams” and “If you love love, you’ll love Surrealism.” By the 1930s, Surrealism had spread throughout most of Europe, with a particularly active chapter in Prague. In the 1940s, after World War II began, many of its adherents decamped for America and Mexico, where the movement continued to thrive until Breton’s death in Paris in 1966.

Art professionals are becoming hot on Surrealism because this extraordinarily long-running movement can now be seen as part of 20th-century art history—and also, perhaps, because it was so all-pervasive that it has never quite gotten its due. Surrealism, we now realize, prefigured Abstract Expressionism, 1960s Happenings, 1970s performance art—just about everything, in short, from Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings to the 1980s porn-star-turned-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle. Many of the young British artists included in Charles Saatchi’s “Sensation” show are clearly reworking Surrealist concerns. Even the ineffectual, so-called “political” art that we saw too much of in the early 1990s has a Surrealist precedent: Before the war, many of Breton’s followers protested fascism with shows, leaflets, and “actions” designed to awaken Europe to the enemy within.

Yet the truly fascinating thing about Surrealism is that American cultural life as we know it today would not be possible without it. Most of our visual culture, including music videos, television, and advertising, remains permeated by its typically disjunctive imagery, its knee-jerk desire to shock, and its fixation upon sexuality and the subconscious. Tabloid front pages, with their dummied-up composite photographs, frequently resemble Surrealist collages. Movies, too, owe much to the movement: The orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut recalls a famous Surrealist costume party, to which guests came naked from chest to thigh, as well as the elaborate masks concocted by Argentinian Surrealist Leonor Fini (also said to have inspired Pauline Réage’s Story of O). And at the Metropolitan Museum show, I was astonished to see a painting by the Spanish artist Oscar Dominguez that depicted a woman caught in an “electrosexual” sewing machine; it’s horribly reminiscent of the girl-in-a-meat-grinder idea that graced that notorious Hustler magazine cover.

The Surrealists helped to popularize Freud: Our love of therapy, self-knowledge, personal autonomy, and the child within probably could not have advanced so far without them. They also helped promote what used to be called “exploring my sexuality.” At times, reading movement histories, it’s easy to believe that the story is set in 1970s-era San Francisco. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” is a semi-Surrealist statement. So, perhaps, is the bumper sticker that enjoins us to “challenge authority” and the mandate “go with the flow.” They’re also responsible for popularizing the game Truth or Consequences.

What’s even more surprising is that the Surrealists may well be responsible for the most purportedly rational aspect of the modern world: our obsession with polls. Starting in 1928, they began holding round-table discussions, sending each other surveys, filling out questionnaires, and otherwise probing each other’s opinions on subjects like love, sexuality, the chance encounter, and the striptease. They even discussed impotence, multiple partners, “clitoral” versus “vaginal” orgasms, and how they felt about women who faked them. (Because these discussions were open only to men, perhaps they weren’t so revolutionary after all.) This happened nearly 10 years before statisticians like George Gallup began to quantify public-opinion gathering as a science and nearly three decades before Masters and Johnson started their grand study of human sexual relations.

Of course, in recent months, we have come to value the common good over individualism and are perhaps more bent on rediscovering humanist values rather than challenging what’s left of the status quo. Curiously enough, however, Breton foretold this, too. In 1960, he reflected: “The sickness that the world exhibits today differs from the one exhibited in the 1920s. … In France, for example, the mind was threatened back then with coagulation, whereas today it’s threatened with dissolution. … It’s perfectly obvious that such a situation calls for different reactions from today’s youth.”

Click on the image below for a short tour of Surrealist art. All works come from the Metropolitan Museum’s version of “Surrealism: Desire Unbound” unless otherwise stated.

Click here for a list of Surrealism shows.