"I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality." (André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)
The founders of Surrealism thought of themselves primarily as advocates of a new, revolutionary view of the world rather than representatives of a new current in art. In the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), André Breton defined Surrealism as "psychic automatism" in which the free play of thoughts must liberated from control by reason. He believed that kiberation of the metaphorical capacities of the mind and an intensive study of forms of free association would lead to recognition of a higher reality. In this context, the Surrealists emphasized the importance of dreams, fantasies and suppressed emotions. The influence of Sigmund Freud's scientific findings is clearly evident here. The Surrealists were very interested in medicine and the newly emerging science of psychoanalysis.
Literature was initially the most important medium of the Surrealist movement, which began to take shape around 1920. The journal La Révolution Surréaliste was in circulation between 1924 and 1929. The young writers in Breton's circle were soon joined by a number of visual artists from Dadaist groups. The two movements shared a proclivity for provocative utterances and an attitude of radical rejection of existing standards of art. Visual art soon became the primary form of expression for Surrealism.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, artists such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and René Magritte produced numerous pictures reminiscent of dream sequences. In these works, familiar objects appear in alienated form or in unusual combinations as references to the existence of worlds beyond the sphere of visible reality.
The self-taught artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) preferred techniques which relied on the power of coincidence. He invented frottage (a technique of transferring relief patters, such as wood grain, to paper by rubbing) and even let paint drip onto the canvas or paper ground (like the Action Painters of later years) as a way of emancipating the process of artistic creation from aesthetic control. Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was a firm believer in the creative power of neurosis. Inspired by Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, he regarded the induction of paranoid states as an artistic method. Dalí's deliberate cultivation of his image as an eccentric and the disturbing motifs in his paintings stand in sharp contrast to his painstaking technique. Equally ghostly and unsettling are the dream worlds created by Richard Oelze (1900-1980), the most significant German Surrealist. His landscapes are populated by teeming plant life and demonic beings. The scenes in the paintings of René Magritte (1898-1967) seem almost poetic and light-hearted in contrast. Upon closer examination, the combination of more or less mundane motifs grows increasingly mysterious. With his complex systems of signs and symbols, Magritte sought to encourage viewers to reflect upon the limitations imposed upon human perception.
The unconventional style of Joan Miró (1893-1983) represents a current of Surrealistic painting dedicated to realizing the direct transfer of subconscious images to the canvas through spontaneous artistic expression. This spontaneity is articulated in Miró's brightly colored compositions consisting of pictograms resembling hieroglyphics and calligraphic elements. The desert-like panoramic landscapes of Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), in which bizarre structures cast their shadows, appear much more precisely calculated in comparison.
Surrealism exerted a significant influence on 20th-century painting style. Surrealist films (Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau) and Surrealist photography (Man Ray, Dalí, Halsman) had a substantial impact on the stylistic developments in these media and even affected advertising art, which often made use of surreal elements.
Aspects of Surrealism have also assumed renewed importance in contemporary art. Many artists seek to penetrate into yet another unfamiliar level of reality - the world of virtual reality. Digital image processing offers almost limitless possibilities for altering familiar motifs or incorporating them into surreal collages. Yet such calculated applications of the aesthetic resources of historical Surrealism tend to diminish its expressive power. In view of its inflationary use in the commercial spheres of computer gaming and the Internet, artists have shown relatively little interest in this technology. What we observe instead are experiments with habitual patterns of human visual behavior involving visual irritation. The technical process of image creation is obscured or appears diversely fragmented. The young British painter Glenn Brown, for example, copies well-known works by such artists as Dalí, van Gogh or Rembrandt, smoothing their surfaces completely but also making recognizable alterations in the originals. Viewers are perplexed at the sight of pictures that look like photographs but clearly neither display the familiar painting nor - because they are devoid of structure - reveal the hand of a different artist.
Other artists allude to surreal aspects of everyday life by presenting them with extreme realism or in oversized form in museum settings. This applies to the lifelike sculptures of Duane Hanson and the provocative art of Jeff Koons, to name only two examples. Contemporary artists do not share the Surrealists' interest in exploration of the human psyche. Instead, much recent art is concerned with the question of how images disseminated in the mass media influence the collective consciousness and our ideas about reality. Photo artist Cindy Sherman uses such images stored in the collective memory in Untitled Film Stills, her best-known work. These photographs, which remind viewers of scenes from classic films, turn out upon closer examination to be images of the artist herself, who takes on a different role in every scene.
Surreality and the stylistic tools of historical Surrealism have become part of the standard repertoire of forms of expression in contemporary art. This was illustrated in an exhibition featuring works from the past fifty years presented at the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Hamburger Kunsthalle. The title "Hypermental" alludes to historical Surrealism but also calls attention to the innovative character of Surrealist elements in contemporary art. The show included works by Matthew Barney, Marcel Duchamp, Glenn Brown, Duane Hanson, Jeff Koons, Sarah Lucas, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Tom Wesselman and others.
05.05.2002 Andrea Gern