Art of the 20th Century
A Revolution in the Arts
Art Styles in 20th century Art Map
The Great Avant-garde Movements
Surrealism - 1924
"A Week of Kindness"
(A surrealistic novel in
"Thought rendered visible"
Surrealism officially emerged as a movement in art, although not necessarily a
movement in the visual arts, with the 1924 publication of a manifesto by the
French poet Andre Breton.
Breton's sensibilities, like those of Surrealism in
general, were sharply denned by the broad and preceding development of ideas in
the European art world.
But Surrealism embodied a contradiction. Like the
avant-garde, their dream of revolution was a radical break from the past into
something new. At the same time, they argued that their moment of "revolution"
was heralded by history—if one selected the right history! Surrealism was to be
the heir of a new, modern spirit at the same time that it was also an historical
accretion, slowly emerging from broader, older streams of human creativity. The
broad tapestry provided individual threads to be rewoven—from the naturalism of
Renaissance to the ideas of the major avant-garde movements such as
Dadaism. So important are
these multiple fibers that the first two chapters of this book are given to
The central shaping force was the energy of the nascent
century, the feeling embodied in the coming of electricity, the airplane, and the
motorcar. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the First World War, a
conflagration that began on horseback and ended with tanks. The Second World War
served as a bracket to energies that defined the European avant-garde before,
during, and after the Surrealists.
One thread begins, ironically, with
Pablo Picasso and
Cubism in Paris. Little could seem further from the rebellions of the
Surrealists than this art, with its clean, almost machinelike edges of flat
"cubes." But not only was
Breton's favorite artist,
Cubism was also the
origin of a basic pictorial language and attitude for the avant-garde of the new
century. The techniques developed by
Cubism during the years 1912 to 1914—such
as the use of collage and the inclusion of found objects— were applied by many
artists and movements throughout Europe to ends quite different than the
had envisioned. Nowhere was this more true than among the German
many of whom became members of the
Dada movement after 1916. By 1919, collage in
the hands of an artist like
Max Ernst was considered to be proto-Surrealist.
Thus Surrealism drew upon the earlier elements in
there were other sources.
The young hellions of the Italian
began in 1909 to develop an art and philosophy of energy and dynamism to force
their classically laden past to merge with the future of a speeding automobile.
Much of the nihilism and many of the tactics they developed were picked up
several years later by the
Dadaists, whose cabaret's drums and performances beat
steadily against, or perhaps in tune with, the drums of war.
Andre Breton and his group of French poets
were direct heirs to
Dadaists ideas that had developed across Europe and were
beginning to congeal in Paris. By 1922, they began to break away from the
Dadaists to form a less negative program.
Breton, especially, turned to the
ideas of Sigmund Freud to establish a psychoanalytic foundation for the
Surrealist dream of revolution. Two years later,
Breton published the "First
Surrealist Manifesto." Within one year the Surrealists mounted their first
exhibition of visual art in Paris, and by 1926 they opened their own art
gallery. In 1929 dissension in the Surrealist ranks broke into an open schism
against Breton's authoritarian leadership and political alignment with the
French Communist Party. This period of crisis in the movement opened a second
branch of Surrealism associated with the more radicalized ideas of Georges Bataille. Ironically, new members arrived in the early 1930s, and the movement
became known worldwide with a series of international exhibitions that lasted
into the 1950s.
By 1939, with Franco's Fascist
victory in Spain, the Russo-German pact, and the beginning of World War II, the
Surrealists, already international in membership and orientation, spread away
from the Continent. Many arrived in the United States by 1941 and their presence
profoundly affected the development of art in New York. By the end of World War
II, the Americans had accumulated sufficient information from the Europeans to
begin their own synthesis of ideas, culminating in
But the impact of Surrealist ideas did not end there.
Many of the Surrealists continued to work into the
1950s and '60s, and they provided a focus to two more generations of artists.
Young Americans, such as
Robert Rauschenberg and
Jasper Johns, exhibited with
them in the 1950s. Other artists in the late 1950s and 60s involved in
Happenings and the beginnings of performance art felt the shaping force of the
Surrealists. Assemblage artists, such as
Lee Bontecou, and those using organic
shapes and psychological motifs, like
Louise Bourgeois, owed much of their
aesthetic to the first systematic explorations of the psyche employed by
A book on Surrealism also becomes a book addressed to
the avant-garde spirit, a span of time and ideas which forms a large part of the
most stimulating art and ideas in the twentieth century. It was a period of
great promise, a Utopia, where they dreamed the dream of revolution.
BEFORE SURREALISM THERE WAS...
Surrealism aimed to revolutionize life through art. It succeeded in
revolutionizing the history of modern art by opening new doors of
perception, but this was neither a simple nor a linear development.
The general histories we have come to accept as the pathways of the
radically new in the history of modern art were generally rejected by the
Surrealists as irrelevant if not downright stupid. They countered with a
different construction of history from selections bounded by their
particular desires. To study those histories and selections is to learn a
great deal about the nature of Surrealism.
Men Adoring Beast with Two
From Commentary on the Apocalypse.
Belgium, 3d quarter of 15th century.
The New History
In the late nineteenth century, young radicals in the visual arts
across Europe agitated for their art and ideas as direct descendants from
the early part of the century. In Paris, they wrote a new history that ran
from the broken brushwork, "modern" subject matter, and brightened outdoor
colors of the painter
Eugene Delacroix, through the experiments in light
and atmosphere of Impressionists like
Claude Monet in the 1870s and '80s,
to arrive at their own
Post-Impressionist easels and
Symbolist ideas. They
constructed a new and progressively "modern" historical lineage outside
the approved channels of recognition and support, government-sponsored
salons, and academies of art. This was the avant-garde art, and it is this
history that is widely accepted today as the origin of modern art.
In the early twentieth century, artists and commentators alike
recognized that their concerns and styles were directly related to this
line of avant-garde art. The now "scientifically" systematized colors and
Georges Seurat's quiet scenes were said to correct the
lack of structure in Impressionism while maintaining its bright palette and concerns for outdoor effects.
structural slabs of paint also were proclaimed to lead out of the lessons
of Impressionism through a revitalized concern for surface structure, and
Pablo Picasso and
Georges Braque. Concurrently, the
lessons learned from the Impressionists led
Vincent Van Gogh and
Paul Gauguin through a revitalized concern for expression and a symbolism
located less in subject matter and more in the newly modern language of
colors and lines.
The two accepted roots of twentieth-century art— structure and
expression—were formed with a newly modern pedigree accepted by today's
"academy of the new." But to understand Surrealism is to know there
neither was nor is a single history of modern art or the avant-garde. The
Surrealists chose from a far less restricted understanding of art, and
rejected or rewrote much of what was to be "modern" within their own
history of modernism.
The New Old History
On one hand,
Andre Breton considered labels such as "Cubism"—and even
"Surrealism"—too restrictive to encompass the true powers of creativity:
To worry "whether X or Y succeeds in passing himself off as a surrealist,
are matters for grocers' assistants." Art history was for clerks;
Surrealism was beyond that. On the other hand,
Breton spent great energy
clerking—by claiming, proclaiming, and eliminating various artists from
the lists of Surrealism.
Breton was convinced that the issues Surrealism addressed were age-old.
He asked in 1928, "Am I to believe then that everything began with myself?
There were so many others, heedful of the dash of gold lances under
a black sky—but where are
Uccello's Battles? And what is left of
them for us?"
Uccello serves as a good example to demonstrate both the
historical perspective of Surrealism and the idiosyncrasies of its
Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was a
Renaissance artist preoccupied with geometry and elements of the newly invented linear
perspective, to a degree recognized in his own time as excessive. His
three versions of a battle scene show the lances
Breton mentioned, but it
is not the clash of armies
Breton's words were meant to evoke. Rather, the
Surrealists saw the battle as being between the real and the unreal, for
Uccello's excessive use of a technique applied to the natural world gave
an unnatural look to his figures. In this way,
Paolo Uccello was part of the
Surrealists' history, just as excess was considered surrealist wherever
and whenever it existed.
Uccello, an Italian painter of the early-Renaissance, was the
only historical figure mentioned in the first Surrealist Manifesto of
1924. Like Bosch, he was admired because he was obsessed by a particular
vision which used—but perverted—"normal" vision.
The Surrealists used the same criteria to sift through the immediate
past of art. Where they rejected
Seurat's art as an advance in the
scientific study of optics, they admired the "magic" and confusion of his
lighting, which gave "disturbing" effects.
Gauguin may have developed
decorative flat colors that affected
Matisse, but this was art
history of no interest. It was
Gauguin's attempts at primitive innocence
and reimpowering myths that the Surrealists felt brought him close to
their own aims.
Gauguin were accepted as part of modern art but
rewritten as a new history, equivalent to poets like Arthur Rimbaud and
the Count of Lautreamont, who attacked the world of appearance.
The Problem of the Visual
The roll call of visual artists active in the Surrealist movement is a
list of many of the most visually powerful and disturbing creators in the
twentieth century. So it comes as a surprise and even a problem that
Breton and the Surrealist poets were, at first, not at ease with the issue
of visual arts or many of its ideas in Surrealism. It was a movement begun
by poets within literature; there were no illustrations in their first,
transitional journal, Litterature. In his first manifesto in 1924,
Breton makes exceedingly limited reference to the visual arts, except in one place. To a list of writers, all of whom he calls Surrealist for
one or another reasons, he attached a footnote as if an afterthought:
I could say the same of a number of philosophers and painters,
including, among the latter,
Uccello, from painters
of the past, and, in
the modern era,
Matisse (in "La Musique," for
(by far the most pure),
Chirico (so admirable for so long),
and, one so close to us,
Art is Not the Issue
As late as 1953
Breton restated the case that everyone who argued for
an "aesthetic" component for Surrealism placed its history "in a false
Breton, anyone concerned with "art" was bound to be misguided.
Art took you into illusion and away from the "real." Surrealism had been
born into a relation to language, but it was a search for the "prime
matter" of language. This search led to the regions of the human
unconscious where desires arose unbidden and unconstrained. This was the
proper domain for art in a new understanding, and anything accepted as
"art" needed to lead to the "real" by way of this path.
Those visual artists who had felt such a compulsion— and compulsion is
the key concept here—and given it concrete form throughout history were
admitted to the Surrealist pantheon. Surrealism constructed their "modern"
history from those driven by compulsion, not from those who used colors
and lines in innovative ways. As late as their 1947 international group
exhibition, they planned to present from history several such "Surrealists
despite themselves" alongside their own work, such as the
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, famous for his grotesque figures composed
from fruits, vegetables, and animals.
Another such artist is
(c. 1450-1516), whose strange
vision and grotesque sense of fantasy has long appealed to modern
audiences. Despite his devout religious beliefs and otherwise normal life,
Bosch's vision existed outside the main line of development for the rest
of the Low Countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even his
painted themes are normal, most based on the life of Christ. But it is in
the marginalia that his imagination created a world of demons, half-animal, half-human creatures doing fantastic things set within
imaginary landscape and architecture.
Bosch's superbly realistic painting style rendered images that fit
Breton's criteria of clarity and concreteness but they also were part of a
history Breton saw of a primitive vision made manifest, one which included
a number of naturalistic artists.
Bosch as an artist was able to impose
simultaneously the reality of his images on the beholder while also
altering normal relationships to the images. By means of images he created
the real, but the real now included, by necessity, the unreal.
Rethinking the Visual
Breton expressed his opinion about
Bosch in the 1928 essay "Surrealism
and Painting," in which the poet wanted to do for visual language what he
had done for poetic language in 1924—call visual art to task, disclose its
real goals, and outline those who had done so in the past, like
in the present, like
Picasso. The central argument
Breton used was an
important and widely shared one for Surrealists.
The visual arts are based on the most powerful of physical faculties.
It is vision that allows us control over the world, and the Surrealists
took it seriously because they valued reality, or their own definition of
Breton recognized that a "few lines" and "blobs of color" could give
immediate power. The formal elements of painting lent a power to painted
objects that compelled us to move into the illusion of the world
represented. This happens through all visual art and the subject does not
matter. We could therefore conclude that any work that so transported us
would do. But the Surrealists wanted something more specific, and not all
works either called to them or answered their call. Visual art must give a
sense of following an internal vision or model more than an external one,
yet never abandon one for the other.
This makes a great deal of Surrealist writing about the nature of art
confusing, especially with its insistence on reality. The Surrealists
wrote a variation on the theme of "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" but
purposefully avoided prescribing a formula for its accomplishment. It was
a revision of reality, one which moved to include what had been excluded,
what was "invisible" to the normal, conscious eye. It was a different
vision—the ability to see a primitive world—that they desired. In a sense,
they were opposed to vision, but only as it had been used merely as an
organ of perception.
The Savage Eye
Breton opened his major defense of the visual arts, "Surrealism and
Painting," with the assertion: "The eye exists in its savage state." The
only possible witness to the "marvels" of the world is the "wild eye." But this eye could not be
inscribed within any one arena or category. It existed in academic
painting as well as in the avant-garde; in some but not all fantasy art;
most certainly in art from "primitive" cultures; in the art of those
considered to be untrained; and especially in those psychologically
displaced from the mainstream of society. But perhaps the greatest
challenge was to locate it in those working in the world at the moment and
to develop it within themselves. In either case
Breton possessed a
secular-made-holy priestly power to select, bless, and excommunicate those
moments, artists, and works.
Breton was sixteen he visited the
Moreau museum in Paris
and found in the women and mythology of this nineteenth-century French
academic artist both a temple and a magical brothel whose luxuriant tones
evoked the forbidden sensuality so adored by the
Symbolist poet Charles
Breton, like Baudelaire and
Moreau, should write his
fantasy onto the body of woman as simultaneously saintly and erotic tells
us much about the orientation of Surrealism. Indebted to the Symbolist
femme fatale, woman was adored but served the male libido as sensuous
muse, an embodiment of eros to which the Surrealists would attach the constructions of
madness and pornography.
Moreau's liberal teaching methods were later praised by his more
radical students, such as
Breton chastised their inability to see
him also as "a great visionary and magician." The issue of "vision" was
taken in a primal sense in Surrealism, since only the "wild eye" of the
visionary could see into the abyss. Indeed, one of Breton's central
criteria for painting was that it be a "way of thought directed entirely
toward the inner life." This was a thin paraphrase of
statement about art. Yet interiority had to reveal itself in nonliteral
ways. Many artists who apparently painted internal fantasies, such as
Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), were provocative but finally
too direct, too literary in their symbols. However, the breadth and
diversity of the artists associated with Surrealism guaranteed
appreciation for the broad current of fantastic painters. While
seems to have escaped Breton's list, he was admired by
Ernst and by
the most often cited and important precursor to Surrealism,
Giorgio de Chirico.
Famous for his moody landscapes peopled
by mythological and symbolic
figures, this Swiss painter is mostly absent from Breton's lists, although
admired by others.
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) derived his visions from his dreams and was
perhaps the first artist to openly accept the role of the subconscious in
Breton embraced Freud's dream therapy and ranked
those who waged the battle against the "retinal" painters.
was the eye turned inward, so admired by many Surrealists. That
far more conscious of the plastic values of art set him apart from many
Surrealists but his compulsion and biologically derived dream world of
weird amoeboid creatures with symbolic titles—admired by his poet friends,
such as Stephane Mallarme—made him an important precursor. In a
Redon has an eye move toward the infinity of
the abyss; a perfect image for Surrealist intentions.
Surrealists placed Redon with Seurat and Gauguin as those working against
"retinal" modern painting, which propagated "utterly superficial values."
Redon's mysterious symbolism and poetic sensibility separated him from the
Romantics, who merely illustrated dreams.
Vision was best that came unbidden,
hence compulsively defeating the process of will—from
dreams, for example. Those who were untrained were often less restricted
and more open to this type of vision. The Surrealists were not the first
to celebrate the naive artist. For instance, Guillaume Apollinaire
(1880-1918), the French poet and spokesperson for much of the Paris
avant-garde, was a great defender of art from outside the mainstream of
Western culture. And his example was closely followed by
and others, who were most vocal in support of the naive.
The greatest of the untaught modern
so-called primitive painters was
known as "Le Douanier Rousseau." He began painting part-time after his
retirement from the Paris civil service as a gatekeeper and his "naive"
visions were much admired by leading artists of the day.
wanted to be like the academic painters, not the avant-garde. Yet contrary
to an academic belief in an objective world he made no such rational
distinctions between phantoms and reality. It was in such an arena, where
the possible and impossible could meet, that marked him for admiration.
works, like the man, were enigmatic, even to those in the avant-garde, and
thus an inspiration to the poetic sensibility.
Nowhere is the primitive or savage eye
more readily apparent than outside Western culture, which we assume in our
own naivete to be unmarked by the restrictions of rational discourse.
Interest in "primitive" art was marked by the development of ethnographic
collections in the 1880s and '90s. And it has been justly remarked that
"modern" art, no matter how one defines it, is impossible without the
influences of non-Western art and traditions. The specific sources and
their uses varied according to the ideas and programs of modern Western
artists. Many painters, such as Picasso and Matisse, were taken with the
structural simplifications of broad planes seen in figures and masks from
Africa, Oceana, and prehistoric Spain. In addition, both used the mask as
a metaphor for their excursion into the primitive. Others, such as the
early twentieth century German
and the influential forerunners to Surrealism, the
were moved by the power and cadences of African forms and music.
The Surrealists were interested both in
the general visionary quality of the so-called primitive state, and with a
far more specific, even scientific, ethnographic attitude. Many had large
collections of primitive art, ranging with knowledgeable distinction
through Africa, Oceana, and the First Peoples of North America. Writers
such as Michel Leiris published learned volumes on languages and customs
of African peoples. Despite the wide-ranging debates as to which culture
was more important to the Surrealists, they generally valued the earlier
cultures for their ability to accept in concrete ways the forces in the
world invisible to and excluded by the civilized eye.
The Surrealists embraced not only naive
and primitive art but that from mediums, compulsive visionaries, and those
judged psychotic. Although
developed his concept of the interior model for art in 1928 without making
reference to the art of the insane, he spent much of his time developing
an aesthetic whose cornerstone was madness ("la folie"). Much of this
stemmed from his and
early interest and training in medicine and psychology. But the
Surrealists were also part of the parallel interests of a larger
community. Apollinaire had certainly been interested in psychotic art, as
he had that of the naive and native peoples, and there had been French
surveys of psychotic art circulating in Paris. Principle for the
Surrealists was the collection of images produced by institutionalized
psychiatric patients across Europe published by the art historian and
physician Hans Prinzhorn in 1922, The Artistry of the Mentally III.
Commentators have remarked that it was the images in this text, alongside
their own predispositions, that turned the Surrealists from a
concentration on art produced by mediums and visionaries to those of the
clinically insane. One of the best known cases of psychopathological art
was that of the schizophrenic
Adolph Wolfli, whose drawings
collected as they circulated through Paris and whom he praised in his last
published work (1961) as having produced one of the several most important
bodies of work in the twentieth century. By 1925 the Surrealists had
penned an open letter under the editorship of the playwright Antonin
Artaud (himself interned in an asylum decades later) to the directors of
lunatic asylums, proclaiming their patients social victims rather than
victims of mental disease. With it we understand how much they
romanticized reality in their desire to forge links with unreality.
The Here and Now
The Surrealists admired what they
desired but recognized that they did and could not possess it without
special effort. Once they accessed their unconsciousness, they felt they
could actualize it in the material world, a world in need, so they
believed, of a more systematic and positive "vision" than was present in
the here and now. By this reasoning the Surrealists claimed two artists as
their own, one a famous painter, another an unknown photographer, both
quite unrelated except through a Surrealist viewpoint.
Giorgio de Chirico
(1888-1978) was an Italian painter who developed the basic ideas of a
philosophy toward painting he called "Metaphysical Painting."
De Chirico's ideas
exerted the most direct and strongest single influence on Surrealism and
he is often considered, wrongly, as a member of the Surrealist movement.
His ideas were formed by 1911 and solidified by 1915, almost a decade
before the advent of Surrealism. His paintings were purposefully
"enigmatic." He made them inexplicable by creating scenes using common
objects placed in empty spaces with strange perspectives, intended to
strip away the common associations which give viewers a context for
meaning. In place of the ordinary now stood the unexplainable, a place he
felt was prehistoric; a time that presaged that of conscious recording.
The net result was the construction of a
type of spatial theater within the painting, which became a staging arena
for dreams. Many Surrealists utilized
de Chirico's visual
stage of dreams and the value he placed on exploring the enigmatic
relationships that are possible within the everyday sense of the world.
Even as the Surrealists recognized that
de Chirico's creative
powers were lost in the 1920s, they admitted that "often have we found
ourselves in that square where everything seems so close to existence and
yet bears so little resemblance to what really exists! It was here, more
than anywhere else, that we held our invisible meetings. It was here that
we were to be found . . ."
Far more naive was the photographer
Eugene Atget (1857-1927),
who taught himself photography in his early forties in order to make a
living by providing visual documentation of the older and disappearing
architecture and avenues in Paris. With no pretensions to art,
single-mindedly devoted to recording the real and was accepted for that.
But the Surrealists in the 1920s—particularly
Man Ray's assistant, the
later to be quite renowned herself as a photographer—recognized in
Atget's works a vision that
went well beyond description, to pass into a disturbing, hence profoundly
more real, interpretation of the world. The Surrealists published several
and at his death,
thousand plates for posterity.
For the Surrealists, the real had to be
maintained as a platform for both departure and return, just as dreams and
desires were grounded in discoveries made in the world. Photography had
the inherent strength of creating a sense of actuality in the world; it
began as a document of reality and could continue to use reality as a
reference point. This opened up many possibilities for the Surrealists,
who employed photography more so than any previous art movment. The
academicized painting style of
de Chirico offered a
similar reference to reality.
Eugene Atget and
Chirico, from a Surrealist point of view, shared the ability to
dislocate normal conventions of time and space by reference to the real.
Once dislocated, a viewer was more open to a less linear and rational,
more suggestive, or poetic, sense of presence.