A history of surrealism, surreal art, and the artists involved in the surrealist art movement. A definitive history of the surrealist movement.

A history of surrealism.
Stephen D. King

In the Beginning the Literary Revolution

Immediately after World War I (1914-18), the cultural sensibility of Europe was in a lively state. Young people who were left after the high-minded propaganda were brought to a state of heart felt protest, it was feared that the best people were killed in the war and that the discoveries and innovations before the war would be lost. Although Europe was certainly not without genius, the war had brought a rift in the European art community. Dada was making its mark, and the anti-art manifestations of Marcel Duchamp were building up until 1916, when an uproar was organized and promoted by Tristan Tzara. Ironically Dadaism was directed against art, particularly academic art, but also against the political society as a whole. The pamphlet Der Dada proclaimed the death of art and that Dada was politics

There were 20,000 copies printed of Der Ventilator, founded by Max Ernest and Hans Arp with Baargeld. They organized an exhibition of art which brought the police to the little restaurant where it was held. The means used by this agitation passed at the time for anti-art, but they very soon became - to some extent Surrealism - an integrated part of the renewal of artistic activity. A number of technical resources and creative approaches applied by Surrealists were invented by the Dada movement. Most Surrealists took part in Dada meetings and the first text published Les Champs Magnetiques was not classified as surrealist at first but much later on it was. It was written in the sprit of Dadist, but it also proves by the power of the imagination and certain experimental seriousness, that Breton in spite of all the dada fuss never lost hold of thread of his poetry and symbolism.

Francis Picabia arrived in Paris at the same time as Tzara. He came from America by way of Barcelona, where the journal 291 became 391 in 1917. This review-pamphlet reached nineteen issues by 1924. on arriving in Paris he shocked Salon d' Automne of which he was a member by exhibiting the products of his mechanist period. During the same period, Marcel Duchamp was in New York working on his large paintings on glass, "The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even" Which he abandoned unfinished in 1923 in order to devote himself to chess. After his success in the Armory Show, a major exhibition of modern art in New York 1913 - among which Duchamp showed his "Nude Descending a Staircase"

When Dada split into mini-groups, a single, compact Surrealist group formed. In June 1924 the last issue of "Literature" appeared. The headquarters of Surrealism, the Centrale Surrealiste, were established and from here was published on December 1, 1924 the "most shocking review in the world', La revolution Surrealiste. And Breton published the first Manifesto. Surrealism had arrived.

The Surrealist Revolution

The vagaries of history have obscured many people and events yet the lasting products of the movement are brought into sharp relief; the written painted works, the tracts, manifestos and reviews - the liveliest expressions of the group's collective life. The reviews themselves are remarkable signs of the ideological development of Surrealism. The first two used the word ‘revolution’, then the term disappeared.

Directed at first by Poerre Naville and Benjamin Peret, then from issue No. 4 (1924) by Andre Breton, Twelve numbers of La Revolution Surrealiste appeared between December 1924 and December 1929, the year of Dali’s arrival, but also and most importantly the year of the Second Manifesto which Breton used for a fierce purification of his group. Aragon, Breton, Eluard, Peret, and Unik were all members of the communist party since 1926. They were expelled in 1933, the year of the last issue of La Surrealisme au service de la revolution (l.s.a.s.d.l.r.), six numbers of which were produced between July 1930 and May 1933.

La Revolution Surrealiste deliberately practiced intellectual violence. The first issue published a photograph of Germaine Berton, who had just killed Marius Plateau, a member of the extreme right-wing Action Francaise; the portrait appeared surrounded by photographs of all the members of the group. It also raised the question "Is suicide a solution?" and containing a number of dream reports and ‘automatic’ texts. We must remember that suicide was never a solution for a Surrealist. The second issue featured the test of ‘Open the prisons, disband the army!’. The issue also contained open letters such as Breton to Deltiel, or of Desnos to Pierre Mille, and address to the ‘warped pope’.

A committee for action against the war in Morocco issued a manifesto, the Surrealists immediately associated themselves with it and signed a violently anti-nationalist text published in La Revolution Surrealist. Violence and black humor did not put a stop to the poetic and ethical experimentation: issue no. 9-10 were devoted to ‘automatic writing’ and the last issue posted question "What hope do you place in love?" The illustrations in this review were intentionally austere in appearance, were much less politicized that the content. A majority of surrealists let others speak out while they secretly thought that they would be the vehicles of a real revolution in sensibility.

That revolution took place through the medium of automatic writing; especially Eluard’s poems like Capitale de la douleur and novels such as Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris both written in 1926. Breton knew what Surrealism owed to painters and in La Revolution Surrealiste had begun a series of articles on painting which were collected in 1928 at the first edition of his now famous book Le Surrealisme et la peinture.

When the last issue of La Surrealisme au service de la revolution (l.s.a.s.d.l.r.) appeared, the Second Manifesto had made ravages in the ranks of the Surrealists, those expelled answered Breton with a caustic pamphlet, UnCadavre. Breton had supported Trotsky who had been refused political asylum in France. The following year, Aragon attended the Kharkov Congress and discovered Soviet reality in the arms of Elsa Triolet. The Aragon who now became so enamoured of the Stalinist Communism had previously written of the October Revolution: ‘On the ideological level, it is at most a vague ministerial crisis’ and had lumped together the ‘tapir Maurras’. Aragon, leaving his friends in 1931, turned violently against the dreams of his youth as Chirico. In spite of crisis, 1930 was a vintage year for Surrealism: in addition to the new review, L’Immaculee Conception, an attempt at pathological simulation by Breton and Eluard. Giacometti also produced his first ‘dumb mobile object’, The Time of the Trace. Henceforth and allowed himself the luxury of a dispute with Freud. Dali was breaking out, and together with Bunuel produced his second film. ‘transform the world, said Marx; change life, said Rimbaud; these two instructions are one as far as we are concerned’, Breton wrote in 1934. The political stalemet of Surrealism arouse from its inability to overcome this contradiction, that was perhaps one that never could be over come. Zhdanov imposed on the Soviet Union in 1934 the notion that art was a political weapon, and laid down the tenets of ‘Socialist realism’. The Stalin era had begun. It was time to pull back. ‘Traduced’ by a revolution which they had said they ‘saw only on a social level’ the surrealist with drew into the labyrinth of a myth. The review Minotaure was about to be launched.

Surrealist Reviews and the End

In 1933, for the first time in ten years, Surrealism had no review of its own. It was entering a phase of world-wide expansion. The exhibitions, such as the one in New York in 1932 and the on in the Pierre Colle gallery in Paris. Breton was lecturing and interviewing, the founding of groups in Great Britain to Japan. This showed the inward mobility of the movement and the need for it in a world soon to be on the fridge of full-blown Fascist regimes. Industrial civilization hardly overcame the crisis of capitalism, and art was typified by the rise of geometrical abstraction and what Dali was to call ‘our masochistic architecture’. Dali himself had just proved a great success in New York. A brilliant eccentric, he had become associated with surrealist in 1929 and had suggest a new means of achieving a fusion of the imaginary and the real ‘paranoiac-critical method’. His painting, for instance The Enigma of William Tell, had abandoned automatism for a more dream like record.

The review Minotaure, beautifully produced by Skira, appeared for the first time in 1933. The Surrealist co-operated and in 1935 published International Bulletin of Surrealism. Breton and Bataille took part in an anti-Fascist group counter attack. By the tenth issue of Minotaure surrealist had taken complete control of the magazine. Newcomers swelled the ranks of the painters and object makers who with Picasso illustrated the review. Surrealism was making itself a considerable success at the international exhibitions in Paris and London, and Breton was running the Gradiva gallery in Paris. In the Minotaure era Surrealism came into it’s own, both theoretically and politically. The international exhibitions in Paris in 1938 were deeply innovatory and conceptionable. Instead of exhibiting works the Surrealist transformed a office building into a quasi-magical location, decorated with suggestive models. The whole enterprise was a complete success without the scandals of the first stage of Surrealism. Breton and Eluard were already generally respected poets and Dali, Ernst, Miro, Tanguy and Magritte later, were acknowledged as first-rank painters, Hans Arp had developed half-way between Abstraction and Surrealism a form of sculpture that won acclaim. In short, The Surrealism was in the process of becoming a school.

Just as WWII broke out , in 1939 Dali, Tanguy, and Matta went to the United States. Paalen moved to Mexico, where Breton and the painter Rivera published the bulletin Cle. An international Surrealist exhibition was held in Mexico in 1940, in that same period France experienced mass exodus and collapse. Eluard, Picasso, Brauner, Domingues, Herold, and Bellmer remained in France, and Magritte stayed in Belgium. Their Diverse fate had two main consequences: the Surrealist exile gave new strength to the \American artistic group; and on the other the return of the exiled did not provide a opportunity for regrouping of the Surrealists after France was liberated. In the United States Breton broadcasted on the radio. In 1941, he took his bearings in Genese et perspective artistiques du Surrealisme. The word ‘artistic’ in the title shows how far he was from the anti-art concerns of early Surrealism. The Minotaure era had not quite come to an end yet. Breton met Motherwell and member of the New York school following Picasso. Breton Published Prolegomenes a un troisieme manifeste du surrealisme ou non, which recalled the principles of the movement. David Hare published the review VVV, edited by Breton, Duchamp, and Ernst. Three issues came out from June 1942 to February 1944.

It is important to note the lack of cafĂ© life in the US, and the way in which the painters were dispersed, some in Arizona, some in California, and some in Connecticut or elsewhere. This dispersion did not allow the re-establishment of the European pre-way system. This dispersion was complicated by disputes and differences. Masson parted company with Breton, Paalen left Surrealism in order to start his own movement, Guggenheim’s art gallery in New York exhibited Surrealists but Abstract Expressionism was already making itself felt. In the same period Surrealist in Europe had gone to nothing. Miro went to Montroig, In Catalonian, Bellmer hid in the Toulouse area, Brauner went to the Alps and started painting in wax, for want of better materials. In Paris, the young poets were supported by Picasso and published two pamphlets. Antonin Artaud was in a psychiatric clinic and Desnos died in a concentration camp(1944). When Breton returned to Paris in 1945 the era of retrospectives had already begun with a Max Ernest exhibition. Maurice Nadeau published his Histoire du surrealisme in which he seemed to set it in a buried past.

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