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How to identify works of Surrealism

Post by: Kabita Sonowal

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” – Salvador Dali


The 1920s experienced paradoxical times on different parts of the globe. Most importantly, it was a time of angst, creativity, confusion, irrationality, skirmishes, industrialization, and political upheaval. It was the ‘Roaring Twenties’ or the ‘Jazz Age’ for the US and Canada while other parts of the world such as Europe suffered a severe economic downturn riddled with debt, an aftermath of the First World War. The rise of Communism in Russia, the shift towards Fascism in Italy, the support for the Nazi Party in the former Weimar Republic (Germany), and imperialism in other parts of the world caused a stir in the human intellect. Modernism that was an esoteric movement before the First World War influenced the Dada Movement or Dadaism. Dadaism as a cultural movement looked at colonial hegemony with disdain and it rejected conventional cultural works of art and it is also known for its stance on anarchy and irrationality. Despite a lot of criticism as a lot of people found it anti-art, it nevertheless triggered the emergence of surrealism, pop art, and punk ro


In 1917, noted French playwright and writer, Guillaume Apollinaire used the word ‘surrealist’ for the first time in his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Further it was the time when Freud stressed on the unconscious and dream analysis. Both these themes form the root of surrealism; the dream-like state is synonymous with surrealism (among surrealist paintings, Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is the finest reflection of surrealist creativity). Note that for all the Surrealists, idiosyncrasy was a norm. Andre Breton is the founder of Surrealism and is the author of the Surrealist Manifestos and he described surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism’ which illustrated the dream-analysis theme. Further he was the editor of the magazine La Révolution surréaliste with a communist bent. This magazine covered issues on the rights of man, religion, works of Marquis de Sade, and writings and illustrations by Man Ray and Salvador Dali. Andre Breton’s writings were influenced by Jacques Vaché who was known for his colossal indifference and for wearing a monocle!


Antonin Artaud was another surrealist playwright, poet, actor, and theater director. He is best known for his book The Theatre and Its Double where he interpreted The Theater of Cruelty supported by outrageous expressions of Surrealism. This concept does not deal in gory malevolence or sadism but the cruelty lies in actors to reveal a twisted, inconvenient, and cruel truth to an audience who does not want to acknowledge it.  Jim Morrison was inspired by The Theater of Cruelty and he tried to use it in his concerts.

All surrealist writers adhered to Automatic Writing which meant writing without censoring their thoughts and ideas. As a result, their works were etched with dreams, the importance of the hallucinatory state, and the unconscious mind. Romanian poet, journalist, and essayist, Tristan Tzara was yet another Surrealist writer. He remained a humanist and anti-fascist (surrealism attacked conformity and colonialism) and showed an affinity towards a communist and socialist goal. He inspired the Beat Generation. Some of the most popular surrealist works of literature are: Mr. Knife Miss Fork by Rene Crevel, Sur la route de San Romano by Breton, Death to the Pigs by Benjamin Peret, and Le Pese-Nerfs by Antonin Artaud.


While political uncertainty loomed at large, thoughts gave rise to the Surrealist movement that affected literature, fine arts, and society at large. Despite the quirky stand the Surrealist artists took, they still imbibed qualities that showed a concern for the human race in the form of art that manifested itself in the bizarre yet awfully creative and truly effervescent of today’s fine arts scene, schools of thought, and culture.


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