Surrealism: birth and historical context

Surrealism: birth and historical context

The surrealism is a movement first literary then artistic, defined and theorized by the French poet André Breton in 1924. It was largely inspired by the irrational aspect of the horrors of the First World War. At the back, we don't always understand why we got there. In the trenches, the spectacle often seems supernatural. So many oddities that inspired new experiences for artists of the interwar years: surrealism is the most telling testimony.

A double heritage

We understand the emergence of the surrealist movement in the light of the literary and artistic experiences which followed in the 19th century, and of the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud. Since 1800, there has been a gradual move away from the classic canons. After the romantic refusal, an innovation movement is launched. Literary schools followed one another and introduced new forms (free verse, prose poem, etc.). In painting, the reproduction of reality becomes blurred, with the Impressionists at the end of the 19th century, and restructured, with the Cubists at the beginning of the 20th century.

These experiences benefited Guillaume Apollinaire, who constantly sought to innovate, particularly with his Calligrammes (1918). Besides these aesthetic experiences, Freud’s psychoanalysis seems revealing, especially for André Breton, the author of Manifesto of surrealism (1924). During the war, Breton was brought to work as a student in neuro-psychiatric centers. He reads Freud's work and draws inspiration from the principle of free association to develop automatic writing.

War, Dadaism and Surrealism

After 1918, the conflict appeared to be a failure, despite the Allied victory. The gruesome spectacle of the Great War marks the bankruptcy of civilization in the eyes of many. Young artists therefore reject the established values. Some express it with violence and provocation, like Tristan Tzara who launches a movement of pure revolt, the Dada movement. It is about denying the sources of thought and language, advocating an artistic anarchy. Many surrealists take part in this movement, but thanks to André Breton, they go beyond simple refusal with recourse to psychoanalysis. Breton conceives of surrealism as an exploration of the Unknown, as the expression of the "real functioning of thought." For this, the writer or the painter must suppress what his reason imposes on him and create freely.

The main surrealist writers: Breton, Desnos, Eluard, Aragon

After having frequented the circle of Apollinaire, André Breton becomes the theorist and the leader of surrealism with his three Manifestos (1924, 1929 and 1942). He devotes himself to poetry, but his finest texts are in prose, close to the novel (Nadja, 1928 ; Communicating vessels, 1932 ; Crazy Love, 1937). While Breton remains faithful to surrealism to the end, he seems to hesitate between automatic writing and long composition.

Desnos’s influence on the surrealist movement is less visible, but very real. He mainly focuses on his dreams which he collects. He establishes the report which must be authentic. Starting from the dream, Desnos seems a real genius at verbal automatism during collective "sleep sessions". From the end of the 1920s, he combined dream and reality. He also embarked on the cinema.

The war marks the work of Eluard who then never ceases to sing about love. The simplicity of his poetry reveals the power of words. We especially remember its sensitivity, freshness and immediacy. As a man, he expresses his inner experiences, with which the outer universe mingles without clear distinction. He attaches importance to pacifist ideas, to the will to fraternize, to a communist political commitment.

With the novel Anicet or the panorama (1921), Aragon expresses the revolt of his generation. He also devotes himself to poetry, notably with a collection that marks the surrealist movement with Le Mouvement perpetuel (1925). He also leaves a surrealist novel: The Peasant of Paris (1926). He will break away from André Breton’s group to serve the revolution under the leadership of his wife, Elsa Triolet.

Surrealism and painting

At first, André Breton did not think of the possibility of transposing the theories of literary surrealism to painting. But concrete experiences lead him to reflect on the question. In 1928, he published Surrealism and Painting, a work in which he draws up an inventory of the possibilities brought by the surrealist approach to the plastic arts. He recommends that painters rely on an interior model and not on models supplied in museums. Famous painters are based on his theories, such as Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Salvador Dali or René Magritte.

It was Max Ernst who was the precursor of surrealist painting. His "romance-collages" and "rubbings" are the equivalent of automatic writing for painting. He is followed by the Spaniard Joan Miró who applies the principle of automatic writing to his "paintings-poems". René Magritte, the main figure of Belgian surrealism, has fun with scathing humor creating unexpected associations. He plays on the gap between the representation of things and their designation: he is the author of a painting representing a pipe and captioned as follows: "This is not a pipe".

The surrealist movement, which would spread throughout the world during the 1930s and 1950s, symbolically dissolved itself with a death certificate published in the newspaper Le Monde in 1969.

For further

- Manifestos of surrealism, by André Breton. Fayard, 1977.

History of the surrealist movement, by Gérard Durozoi. Hazan, 2004.

- History of surrealism, by Maurice Nadeau. Threshold, 1970.


Video: The surreal fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. Vu0026A