Surrealism: NOUN. [mass noun] A twentieth-century avant-garde movement in art … which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind …  

Coined in 1917 by French playwright Guillaume Apollinaire, the term ‘surrealism’ is made up of the words ‘sur’ and ‘réalisme’ with the combined meaning of ‘above realism’. It refers, therefore, to the expression of that which lies beyond the physical world – that which is more real than reality.

A comprehensive cultural movement, taking in art, literature, philosophy, cinema and music, surrealism grew up in the bohemian Paris of the Twenties. In 1924, the founder of the official Surrealist movement, André Breton, published the first surrealist manifesto. This defined the goals and character of the movement, describing surrealism as ‘dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’

By the time the second manifesto was published in 1930, the group had many members, including popular artists Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí. These artists each had their own unique way of interpreting surrealism, and the result is a rich and varied body of work, unified in a common goal: to access a higher realm of knowledge and understanding through subversion of the immediate reality.

Through a variety of techniques, artists sought to bring images of the subconscious mind to the fore,  painting and drawing images coming directly from the imagination, unmediated by rational thought or consciousness. Dalí and Tanguy, for example, called upon images seen in dreams and the use of recurring motifs representing childhood and nascent memories, presented all together in what then become bizarre ensembles of images, arranged within the composition as if unified in a common landscape.

Many artists were influenced by the surrealists, and took inspiration from their artistic pursuit. Miró was among these, and his hallmark ‘automatic painting’ technique developed out of his own surrealist experiments. Painting directly onto his canvases without making prior sketches, Miró called upon lines and non-figurative forms from a stock he developed from his own subconscious, representing different emotions or ideas. Similarly, artist Paul Nash used dreams as the inspiration for many uncanny combinations of objects in many of his most famous landscapes.   

The surrealists’ works opened up a hugely important door for artists and movements that followed. Visual arts no longer had to be based on rational ideas, and a greater emphasis was made on the value of art as an expression of the artist’s emotions and subconscious, an idea which prevails in contemporary art today.   

Dalí and Surrealism is at Aidan Meller, 40 Broad St., Oxford until October 31st.

Front cover illustration for the First Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924

Front cover illustration for the First Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924

Yves Tanguy, Indefined Visibility (1942), Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Yves Tanguy, Indefined Visibility (1942), Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Joan Miró, Picture (1925), The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

Joan Miró, Picture (1925), The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8), Tate Britain, London

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8), Tate Britain, London

Helen Marten, Parrot Problems (2014)

Helen Marten, Parrot Problems (2014)