Surrealism was a Twentieth-Century cultural and artistic movement that placed the unconscious and irrational at the fore. Known for its dream-like imagery, we often recall the bizarre dreamscapes of Salvador Dali, or the sublime oil paintings of Max Ernst when thinking of Surrealism. Often overlooked for its artistic counterpart, the surrealist movement had literary underpinnings. Here’s what you need to know about surrealist artists who used words in their artistic practice.
The Birth of Surrealist Artists: Breton
Surrealism originated in twentieth-century France during its first two decades. Its founder was André Breton (1896-1966), who had studied medicine, and in the First World War, was drafted onto a neurological ward. On the neurological ward in Nantes, the young medical student was privy to patients undergoing psychoanalysis: a psychiatric development that was influenced by the then-recent theories of Sigmund Freud. Breton was struck by the importance of the subconscious mind and dreams of those suffering from mental illness. He was interested in creative, rather than therapeutic, possibilities of the unconscious.
Psychoanalysis: Words and Thought
Psychoanalysts relied on words in order to understand the patient’s psyche. Freud’s concept of free association, wherein the subject would speak freely and unprompted, would offer a crucial insight. If the patient spoke in an uncensored manner their words would function as a fertile ground for interpretation. The close relationship between interiority and words is one that would have implications not just for Surrealism but for twentieth-century literature as a whole.
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Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce famously utilized the stream-of-consciousness technique, capturing the internal monologue and sensory input of their characters. Whilst the stream-of-consciousness technique was influenced by free association, Breton was interested in taking the capabilities of the unconscious mind much further. Automatic writing or drawing, another method used in psychoanalysis, was harnessed by Breton to create his first literary experiment in surrealism.
Les Champs Magnetiques (or The Magnetic Fields), co-authored with Philippe Soupault, is a triumph of automatic writing, made out of nonsensical, dream-like vignettes like this one:
My two crossed hands represent the celestial vault and my head is a grotesque, bald goose.
The lake we cross with an umbrella, the unsettling iridescence of the Earth—all that makes us want to disappear. A man walks while cracking hazelnuts and at times folds in on himself like a fan. He heads for the lounge where the ferrets have preceded him. If he arrives for the closing, he’ll see underwater gates opening a way for the honeysuckle boat.
The Surrealist Manifesto: Literary Influences
Whilst Breton and his circle had already invented Surrealism, (notably in a journal entitled Littérature which published surrealist writing, poetry, and drawings), the movement was grounded in social and political upheaval, with its members strongly affiliated with Communism. They wanted to shock and scandalize the respectable middle classes.
Synthesizing the ethos of the group, in 1924 Breton published The Surrealist Manifesto. In it, the writer espoused a resistance to the dogma and rationalism, which he called the bondage of realism, and proposed a renewed sense of the real world by writing:
I believe in the future resolution of two states (in appearance so contradictory), dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, ‘Surréalité’.
This reality for Breton is one that precedes and resists definition: it is found in examples, across seemingly infinite mediums, that appeal to the unconscious mind. He thought of surrealism as a point of view that could apply to either painting, literature, photography, or cinema. A litany of figures ranging from Ancient to Modern, deemed surrealists in spirit, was also outlined. Notably, a large proportion of these were writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Rimbaud, Lewis Carroll, and Charles Baudelaire.
Rather than being lauded for their particular works or formal qualities, these writers were celebrated for something less tangible—their very essence and unconventional character. The aforementioned Rimbaud was a nineteenth-century poet who produced nearly all of his work during his teenage years as a runaway, before abandoning poetry altogether. The only work published during his lifetime, A Season in Hell, is a lengthy prose poem divided into nine parts. The hedonistic, ambitious, and rebellious nature of the adolescent is felt throughout. He was a heavy drinker of absinthe, so his poems are often imbued with a hallucinatory sense. A chapter titled Alchemy of the Word proclaims the mythic and visionary power of the poet:
I invented colors for the vowels! – A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. – I made rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and I boasted of inventing, with rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize. And I alone would be its translator.
In a similar vein, the Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire left a mark on the Surrealists with his morbid and erotic sensibility. Baudelaire’s 1857 volume The Flowers of Evil provoked a public outrage. But for the surrealists, his synaesthetic imagery was a revelation. Baudelaire wrote:
like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
in a deep and tenebrous unity
vast as the dark of night and as the light of day
perfumes, sounds and colors correspond.
Breton’s Nadja: Surrealist Fiction
As the founder of Surrealism, André Breton is often referred to as the head and sinews of surrealism for his theoretical contributions. Yet as a poet and writer, he also penned literary works important to the movement. Breton’s novel Nadja (1928) is regarded as a seminal text of Surrealism. Based upon his real relationship with a young woman and a mental patient, Nadja is a mosaic-like, nonlinear account of a chance encounter set over the course of ten days.
In Nadja’s strange manner of being and speaking, Breton finds a poetic muse with which he becomes quickly infatuated. Through her elusive statements, when the protagonist asks her at the end of their first meeting who she is, Nadja responds: I am the soul in limbo. It soon becomes apparent that Nadja embodies surrealism.
As well as personifying the movement, Nadja is a self-referential work where Breton’s Surrealism explicitly exists. Merging the real and literary Breton beyond recognition, the narrator shows Nadja his manifesto and poems, to which she responds and offers her thoughts. She also participates in Surrealist games and relays her hallucinations.
Nadja transforms a real woman into a symbol: though the work is littered with photographs and verbatim extracts of conversations, the paradox of the titular Nadja is that she emerges as ephemeral and illusory.
The autobiographical influence of Breton’s experiences in psychiatry is acutely felt, as Nadja deals with the subject of mental health problems. The real woman, Léona Delacour, on which Nadja is based, also suffered from psychosis and was institutionalized, a fact that Breton seems to gloss over in favor of her idealization.
Whilst Nadja is widely regarded as a romantic novel, whether or not it is a true work of fiction is a subject of debate. Traversing the boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity, the book leaves us with more questions than answers concerning the self, love, and language. The sense of incompleteness central to Nadja captures the very essence of Surrealist writing. Its final line, now a famous surrealist dictum, reads: Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or not at all.
Poets of Surrealism: Romantics and Revolutionaries
Poetry provided the perfect conditions for Surrealism with its metaphoric potential. Surrealist Paul Eluard was one of the leading poetic voices of the movement.
Eluard was renowned for being the heart and soul of Surrealism. He wrote many romantic poems, inspired by two prominent women in his life. His first wife was called Gala (Elena Diakonova) and his second wife was Nusch (Maria Benz). Eluard was able to reinvent the most resounding theme of lyric poetry—love—according to Surrealist principles. In his poem Firstly II Eluard wrote:
Her eyes are towers of light
Under the face of her nudity
On the transparent surface
Cancel deaf words.
She effaces every image
She bewilders love and its stubborn shadows
She loves—she loves to forget herself
What is so striking about Eluard’s poetry is its perceived simplicity and tenderness. In contrast to the impulsive affair of Breton’s Nadja, Eluard’s relationships are characterized by lovers who are equals, mutually inspiring one another.
Aside from his romantic poems in Love, Poetry, and Capital of Pain, Eluard is perhaps best known in France for his political commitment and poetry of protest. In 1927, he joined the French Communist Party, of which his fellow Surrealists were members. During World War II, Eluard composed the poem Liberté. In a historic feat of poetry to instill hope in the face of oppression, British Royal Air Force airplanes parachuted copies of the poem over German-occupied France.
Surrealist Artists and Their Words
All Surrealists, both artists and writers, shared a common goal in their rejection of reason as we know it. Arguably the experiments in the written word rivaled those in the visual arts. Surrealist writing turned towards suggestion and fragmentation.
Yet the Surrealists inevitably fused the two. Drawings were published alongside poems in the Surrealist journal Litterature, and the photographs and full-plate illustrations of Nadja were central to the text. The philosophic reliance of imagery upon words is brilliantly demonstrated in the work of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, whose word-pictures stress the absolute role of language.