Uncovering Surrealism

By Indi Stilling

Why is there a lobster on the handle of a telephone? What makes this art? A reason for being, is part and parcel of modern art, its meaning is not always obvious, but the coherence of aspects within the piece often give it a sense of wholeness. Unity is an important principle within art. When you look at a piece of surrealist art however, you are often left confused and find yourself questioning its meaning. A group of unconnected items dot the canvas. Even reading their manifesto written in 1924 by Andre Breton will leave you asking questions as the text is almost surrealist in of itself. A new exhibition as the Design Museum in London aims to showcase the journey of this movement since its origins in the 1920s to today and uncovers how it has impacted design today. So what is contained within the manifesto that has led to the work not following the harmonious principles of art ? How has this movement united the mind with the physical surrealist pieces of work? Find out more here in Uncovering Surrealism

Art manifestos are critical in helping us to understand art movements throughout the 20th century and the era of the beginning of modernism. Each group and style of art has adopted this written form to criticise a paradigm in society. Then they proposed a set of aesthetic values to counter this. However Andre Breton the writer of the aura list manifesto decided to take this notion but write it in his own surrealist way.

In his text he combined humour, theoretical points of view with autobiographical points to create a mix and match manifesto which many deemed as being useless. The first revision of the text was met with mixed reviews. People questioned his logic and ideas, because he was going against everything that people knew in modern society.

Surrealist art is as straightforward as it looks. Not very. It is not just about creating art to shock and confuse the viewers. There is in fact a whole science behind it.

The whole movement naturally birthed from the Dada movement in the years prior. This movement was formed during the First World War, their art was created with the aim of challenging the norms of society and creating art to shock the viewers. It combined the these ideals of challenging social norms in a negative reaction to the horrors of war, with Freud’s theory of the subconscious.

In the manifesto, Breton defined surrealism as:

“Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccuptation”

In simpler terms this means they created art without conscious thought by using their subconscious mind in the creative process and getting ideas from there.

The term ‘psychic automation’ was coined by Sigmund Freud. It refers to a process of freeing the mind from the rational values and constraints as well as moral judgement. He argued that the subconscious can reveal a lot, but it can also interfere with our conscious actions. This reinforces the idea that thought has a wider scope that initially thought.

Andre Breton took this idea and expanded on it. He saw our dreams as a space of free exploration that is uninhibited by the constraints of our lives when we are awake. Therefore, he believed that our subconscious life is a resource that is rich in visual and intellectual situations, so we should use it.

This is where the world of surrealism steps in. He presented this movement as a new means to transcendence. Allowing the individuals own conscious and subconscious to join together and then manifest themselves into works of art.

By demolishing all rational thought and unifying these parts of the mind, one can finally reach an absolute reality. This is unchangeable and unaffected by the limitations of any finite being. He coined this a ‘surreality’.

So while there is some unity beneath the surface, on a visual level the work takes the form of the unexpected. The imagery is often perplexing, uncanny and honestly just strange. It is meant to jolt the viewers senses and bring them away from their previous comforting assumptions about art.

While there is no set aesthetic in surrealism, they did often use dream and fantasy imagery in their work. This took the form of film, photography, fashion, painting, sculpture and literature. This showed the power of this movement because it was open to anyone of any discipline. It was for anyone who wanted to join Breton in overthrowing the oppressive rules of modern society.

In his manifesto he made it clear that it was not a style of art but instead was a movement with an agenda. They united literary, philosophy and art to explore the inner workings of the mind with the aim of revolutionising the human experience. He stated that whilst the doctrines can be applied to any circumstance of life, they were not restricted to the artistic realm.

Having this text that contained the ideas and explanations of surrealism, united the artists. It was something that could help fuel their work. The text may not have made sense to outside people but it gave the viewers an understanding of the work within the movement. It brought together the influences and the artists.

They completely ripped up the rule book. They showed that art does not have to fit into a specific box. Instead they tapped into the delves of their minds to create work that got people questioning. Who says that a lobster on a telephone cannot be a work of art?

At the time these works of art may have been questioned but today they are celebrated. The surrealist movement has ended up being one of the most influential movements of the 20th century. It has taught us to see beyond the literal when it comes to a piece of art. We should look beyond what we can see visually on the surface and instead appreciate art at a subconscious level.

Art provides an outlet for people to express their feelings more freely in either a light or dark way. Surrealism has shown us that art does not necessarily have to make sense. Art can be unexpected because with modern art there is not one definition of what a piece has to be. There is not a set of requirements it has to fulfil. Art can be anything and this movement truly shows that.

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 to Today is the perfect exhibition to learn more about this historical movement. Featuring surrealist design in furniture, interior design, fashion and photography the exhibition hopes to teach people how the movement impacted design today. Featuring works from both contemporary workers and pioneers of the movement, you will be able to see works from: Salvador Dali, Dora Maar, Man Ray, SchiaparellI, Dior and Bjork.

They have explored the unconscious and mystical by questioning the conventional and commitment to the mind. This exhibition is filled with playful, curious and poetic objects that uncover the rich history of surrealism.

Seeing these famous pieces in the flesh gives you the opportunity to see if you can understand the connection between the art and the mind, and ask the same questions that people have been asking for decades that we may never know the answer to. What makes these surrealist pieces art?

The exhibition is currently open at the Design Museum until 19th February 2023.

To find out more and book tickets check out their website here.

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