My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Two summers ago, my wife and I visited the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. I knew very little about Dali except that I had seen some of his paintings and that he was part of the Surrealist school of art. I learned more about the things that informed his painting: a bitter reaction to the horrors of World War I and an interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud, which explained the dreamlike character of many of his paintings and the sexual imagery in some.
Richard Leslie places Surrealism in the context of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European culture. Surrealism came from the avant-garde arts scene of the late nineteenth century, which claimed descent from Eugene Delacroix as well as the Impressionist school. Leslie gives Post-Impressionism and Symbolism as examples of this scene, and says that the artists of this time “constructed a new and progressively ‘modern’ historical lineage outside the approved channels of recognition and support, government-sponsored salons, and academies of art” (11). Surrealism owed a debt to some of the Impressionists and Cubists for their innovations in the arts, as these artists pursued new ways of portraying what they painted. The Expressionists in Germany, who wanted to portray not the physical world but what took place in the mind, were also influential. Paul Klee, for example, “would close his eyes, turn his mind inward, and automatically doodle on a pad to initiate an image” (33-34). Leslie does not mention the Blue Rider group of artists that formed in the early 20th century (of which Klee was a part — thanks Wikipedia!), but quotes an art historian who says that the antecedents of both Dada and Surrealism can be found by 1912 (58), which is when the Blue Rider group was active.
Surrealism began in 1924 with a manifesto by Andre Breton. Leslie notes that the distinction between the nonsense Dadaist movement and Surrealism is exaggerated. Max Ernst, for example, produced both kinds of art. In fact, Leslie portrays Breton’s Surrealist movement as a way to turn Dada into a movement. Dadaism, which emerged soon after World War I, portrayed the world as crazy, while Breton said that it was too dominated by reason, “but his solution differed only in degree. Both movements held faith in the creative act and moment, insisting on absolute freedom and on the site of art as the mind rather than in its physical form.” Breton also embraced political radicalism, hoping to make revolution through art. Leslie connects this to Leon Trotsky’s idea of “permanent revolution” (61). Freudian psychology, which portrays the unconscious as being repressed by society for both good and ill, was very influential in the movement, even though Freud did not find Breton or Dali in alignment with his ideas (61, 76). Art would explore the mind in a similar way that Freudian pyschoanalysis through “automatic” creation of art (like Klee above) and hypnosis. These methods were meant to free art (including poetry) from what Breton called “the reign of logic” (61).
Breton acted as something of a guardian of the movement, kicking people out, identifying or rejecting the French Communist party, and moving away from the importance of dreams and “automatic” art in favor of radical political causes in another manifesto (1929). Surrealism then became a more international movement as it gained new adherents and fame in the 1930s and beyond.
Leslie does well in describing the history of the movement, and there are a ton of high quality photographs of Surrealist art. The book itself is quite good and informative about the roots of the movement. The Surrealist movement produced a lot of striking and fascinating art, but it’s a rejection of the created order in favor of absolute human freedom from any artistic authority. Interestingly, Breton set himself up as an authority to say who was and was not a Surrealist. Leslie’s use of the word “purges” (69) is significant, as Breton reminds the reader of a Soviet dictator. Promises of freedom from authority don’t usually work out as promised.