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  A child of Dada, surrealism was christened by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917, and defined by André Breton in 1924 as ‘pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express…the real processes of thought’. Inspired by Freud\'s theories of the unconscious and especially his interest in dreams, the Surrealists tried to explore the irrationality of the subconscious, to smash the barriers imposed on the arts by the need to conform at least to some extent to the ‘realism’ of life. Their ambition was to break through into the ‘superior realism’ of the subconscious, unhindered by such objective correlatives as the trappings of everyday existence, and they hoped that this activity would liberate the subconscious not only of artists, but also of spectators. The various subconsciouses would then unite in the face of everyday reality, and so purge it of show and sham.

For a time in the 1910s and 1920s, surrealism held sway in every art save architecture (which needs firmer ground to build on than the subconscious). But it soon proved a sterile form in music—even Cage, the greatest surrealist composer, wrote his best works when he disciplined his random plinks and plunks and became associated chiefly with fine art, literature and theatre. In literature, surrealism is a combination of cuteness and hallucination. Sentences, words, even single syllables and letters disengage themselves from syntax and float free, producing in readers either the feeling that they, too, have been liberated into new spheres of meaning, or bafflement. Surrealist poetry (whether by Hans/Jean Arp, Paul Eluard, David Gascoigne or the imagists, objectivists and Beat poets they influenced), and surrealist prose (where the range is from Gertrude Stein to William Burroughs, and those influenced include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and the exponents of magic realism) is pretty more often than beautiful, entertaining more often than meaningful. Surface, in short, can sometimes be all, and style can gobble form. In fine art, a similar problem arose. The difficulty was finding a means to represent the subconscious in conscious terms, and the chosen solutions (for example juxtaposing unrelated objects) often meant that the images (whether de Chirico\'s piazzas and mannequins, Magritte\'s room-filling apples or Oldenburg\'s floppy toilets) tended to absorb the attention for a moment only, and to provide clues to the artists\' sense of humour and (often dazzling) technique rather than to the ‘superior reality’ they were seeking to reveal. Surrealism in both literature and fine art was like talking with spirits in a seance: good fun while it lasted (if you believed in it), but no substitute for genuine person-to-person dialogue.

In the theatre, and particularly in film, where the element of performance essential to surrealism could be allowed full scope, the style had its greatest success and led to work of true substance. Antonin Artaud began as surrealism\'s ‘Director of Research’, was ‘expelled’ from the movement by Breton and founded his own movement, Theatre of Cruelty. Early surrealist drama (its ancestor was Jarry\'s Ubu roi, and its chief 1920s creator was Jean Cocteau, who continued to use it for 40 years, notably in his films) was inconsequential, shocking and delightfully ridiculous. Apollinaire\'s play The Breasts of Tiresias, Dali\'s and Buñuel\'s short film The Andalusian Dog or Cocteau\'s and Satie\'s ballets Parade and Relâche (‘Theatre Closed’) are typical examples: soap-bubbles which only the most earnest ever took for art. But the seeds were sown which 30 years later blossomed into the work of directors such as Fassbinder and Fellini, and their myriad admirers and acolytes, and into the theatre of the absurd, a genre which transformed the art—and incidentally transformed surrealism, by letting the spectators into the secret (philosophical, moral or otherwise) for which the work itself is just a metaphor. PD MG KMcL

Further reading D. Ades, Dada and Surrealism Revisited; , André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism; , M. Nadeau, The History of Surrealism.



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