Exeter, Devon UK • May 27, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Arts & Lit 100 years of Surrealism: How far has it come?

100 years of Surrealism: How far has it come?

Amy Rushton, Online Comment Editor, discusses Surrealism as an artistic movement, its successes and the future that lies ahead
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Image: Russ Seidel via Flickr

Surrealism turns 100 this year. As the art world celebrates the anniversary of André Breton’s “The Surrealist Manifesto” what once was challenging, revolutionary and problematic in equal measure,  has become entrenched in art history as one of the most important and widespread cultural movements of the twentieth century to the point where anything even slightly weird can be termed ‘surreal’.

This transformation, from a reactionary treatise in the climate of the post-war period, to the subject of exhibitions in almost every major gallery around the world calls into question whether Surrealism has been a victim of its own success; 100 years, some melting clocks, a paradoxical pipe and many strange animal hybrids later- is Surrealism still needed in the 21st century?

Breton, a French poet, started writing in rejection of the West’s ‘realipolitik’, arguing realism and rationality had led to the First World War and instead championing the irrational. ‘Surrealism’ coined in a 1917 play and meaning ‘beyond reality’, is an exploration of dreams, unconscious states, a search for freedom through abandoning control and a celebration of the weird and wonderful. Breton did not necessarily establish Surrealism, but shaped it, taking inspiration from artists who emphasised the absurd like Kafka and Bosch in order to define this new way of thinking. Surrealist work can be beautiful, disturbing and confusing- often all at once- and at its very core it is political and radical, sitting outside the mainstream. Surrealist art has often been at the frontlines of the revolutions and social movements of the century, from the vilification of Max Ernst by the Nazis to the movement’s reckoning with Marxism and consumerism.

The face of Surrealism in art galleries and pop culture is male, heterosexual and overwhelmingly European.

Still, the face of Surrealism in art galleries and pop culture is male, heterosexual and overwhelmingly European. Scrolling through any list of the most influential surrealists will churn out the familiar figures of Dali, Magritte, and Masson, occasionally with Leonora Carrington tossed in as a token woman- but will drown out the feminist, anti-colonial and queer Surrealists which were not incidental or separate to the movement, but transformed its entire trajectory.

Surrealism had a serious problem when it came to women; drawing from the movement’s rejection of rationality (deemed a male trait), women were upheld as beautiful muses, not artists in their own right. It’s an omission which led many female artists to reject the label of surrealism, most famously Frida Kahlo but also Leonora Carrington in her later years. Many more female surrealists were, until recently, reduced only to their relationships with men. Dora Maar is well known for being the subject of several famous Picasso portraits, but her own surrealist photography is frequently overlooked, despite producing some of the most strange, unsettling and magical works photography has to offer. In fact the very philosophy Surrealism championed- freedom in the face of societal norms and values- was essential to feminist movements, and artists such as Eileen Agar and Meret Oppenheim made women’s emancipation a focus of their work. Oppenheim’s 1936 ‘Object’ is an exploration of gender and sexuality which can be read a million different ways, but in every interpretation is a mockery of the patriarchy (fitting seeing as it was reportedly inspired by a comment from famed patriarch: Picasso). In a movement focused on pushing boundaries and the transparency of external images and assumptions, it is no wonder that queer artists also found a home in Surrealism and use it to this day to push the boundaries of how to portray gender and sexuality.

Anticolonial movements were embedded in the very philosophy of Surrealism.

The Eurocentrism of surrealist histories is equally misleading; not only did Surrealist movements spawn elsewhere- the Mexican circle of surrealists for instance combined Mexican histories and magic realism with the techniques of surrealist artists, spawning artwork which was utterly new and transformative- but anticolonial movements were embedded in the very philosophy of Surrealism. From the beginning of the movement African and Caribbean artists used surrealism to depict resistance and its legacy, Afro-Futurism, have influenced famed artists and writers from Octavia Butler to Nick Cave and Wangechi Mutu.

As Surrealism reaches 100, artists and curators must grapple with how to integrate Surrealism’s popular image of Dali moustaches and Magritte clouds with histories of protest, queerness and black resistance. In an age when democracy and free speech are under threat, Surrealism- a movement which made enemies of Nazis and friends of socialists and anti-colonialists- is more relevant than ever, but to truly demonstrate that, the movement needs to be embraced in its full.

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