poem index

A Brief Guide to Surrealism

Year

2004
Printer-friendly version

Surrealism emerged as the direct result of the publication of André Bretons first Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (1924). In this manifesto, Breton presented two definitions of surrealism:

SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.

The first definition speaks to the surrealist methodology—the use of techniques, such as automatic writing, self-induced hallucinations, and word games like the exquisite corpse to make manifest repressed mental activities. The second definition lays out the surrealist view of reality and expresses the surrealist's desire to open the vistas of the arts through the close observation of the dream state and the free play of thought.

The roots of surrealism can be traced back to Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Isidore Ducasse, also known as Comte de Lautréamont. Surrealists also found inspiration in the poetic methods, such as calligrammatic poetry, used by Stéphane Mallarmé and Guillaume Apollinaire. The first text that took up the banner of surrealism and used automatic writing as its methodology was Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), penned collaboratively by Breton and Philippe Soupault.

The surrealist coalition that formed around Breton included such young French poets as Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard, Michel Leiris, Benjamin Péret, and eventually the Dadaist Tristan Tzara. The group's membership fluctuated due to changes in ideology and personality clashes. During this time several journals served as a space for the expression of the growing surrealist ideals, journals such as Révolution surréaliste (1924-29), Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (1930-33), and Minotaure (1933-39). A second generation of surrealists included René Char, Aimé Césaire, and David Gascogne.

The final stage of surrealism began after the end of World War II. By this point surrealism had disseminated around the world in various diluted forms. The far-flung practitioners were held together by their use of personal juxtapositions, placing distant realities together, so that the interconnections between them were only apparent to the creator.