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Surrealism emerges in Paris during the early 1920’s as a literary movement created by a group of poets. They believed that creativity’s purpose was mainly to release our unconscious thoughts and that people were incapable of acting instinctively in the modern society. They also found that humanity’s natural concerns involved violence, death, and sex – what they considered to be the three fundamentals of existence.
Andre Breton and Louis Aragon were the two principal poets of the early Surrealism and were the ones who first gave the term sur-réalisme practical and theoretical meaning, thus starting the movement. This term was meant to describe weird coincidences, as well as bizarre events, and was first used in 1917 by critic and poet, Guillaume Apollinaire. The group of Surrealists created a journal called The Surrealistic Revolution and would publish articles about the meanings of Dadaism, a movement that joined contradictory aspects of reality to create a new reality, having ended before Surrealism starts.
Breton enjoyed the iconoclasm and the spontaneity of Dadaism and considered the collage technique to be the perfect method to materialize his artistic thoughts, but criticized the movement for being anti-art and nihilist. At this period, many Dadaist artists moved to Paris, like Max Ernst who painted different life forms he invented. Ernst produced many collages after moving to France’s capital, and develops some graphic techniques, like frottage and grattage, that consist in achieving textures on paper or canvas directly from objects.
The Surrealists would discuss Sigmund Freud’s principals on psychanalysis while collectively discussing and analyzing their dreams. They felt the need to discover new states of mind and would often experiment with drugs, alcohol, hypnosis, spiritual séances, and anything else they could think of to alter their conscience mind. The group would try to find word associations by quickly responding to words without thinking, and later create poems with the results.
In 1924, the painter Andre Masson joined the Surrealists, adapting the poets’ automatic word association and applied it to his paintings. The artist Joan Miró, introduced to the group by Masson, also played with the idea of incorporating randomness into the painting process, working with fantastical and hallucinatory forms and intense colors. During the 1920’s he portrays visions he experienced during his days of poverty and hunger. The well-known Cubism painter Pablo Picasso was extremely appealed to the pure and saturated colors used by Miró and Masson, as well as the organic forms they produced in their paintings. Because of this influence, the Guernica, painting that represents the horror of the Spanish war, was described in a strong surreal style.
Breton advised artists to search a unique template coming from within in Surrealism and Painting – the artistic manifesto he published in 1928. He also states that Surrealism was the only progressive and relevant creative movement going on at the time. In 1930, members of the movement wanted to show that their concern for political issues is bigger than for the psychological ones and, because of this, Miró and Masson depart from the movement for being questioned for involvement in a more commercial realm.
Afterwards, Surrealism takes on a new phase where artists use traditional media, like painting and drawing, to portray their dreams and nightmares. The three leading artists were Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Yves Tanguy – all who were inspired by the metaphysical work of Giorgio Chirico. With his most iconic painting Ceci n’est pas une Pipe (This is not a Pipe), Magritte wants the viewer to ask him/herself, then what is this? Going along with the Surrealist thought of paying attention to how reality was portrayed and how we can use this to uncover our inner mysteries.
The most influential and famous artist of this period is without a doubt the eccentric Salvador Dali. Making his debut in 1929, with an individual exposition in Paris, his work spoke to a broader audience. Academically trained, Dali was an excellent painter and drawer and would portray his phobias, wishes, and perversions in his work. He also experimented with sculpture, what resembled tridimensional collages using Marcel Duchamp’s idea of Ready-made, and wrote about it in the Surrealist journal.
Dali would often provoke extreme anxiety and distress to himself to confuse the boundaries of what is real and what is imaginary, therefore being able to create with more imagination. In his painting The Persistence of Memory, Dali paints a convincingly irrational scene that challenges our understanding of the physical world. This work is also a reference to the artist's fixation of Einstein’s Theory of relativity and how time could curve itself in certain situations.