Surrealism  means “beyond reason” and was launched in Paris in 1924 with his ‘First Manifesto of Surrealism’ written by poet Andre Breton.   He defined surrealism as ‘thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations’.  Breton claimed the ideological precursors to be Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky and the poets Comte Lautreamont and Rimbaud.  Marxism, psychoanalysis and the occult were influences on Breton.  Lautreamont provided their motto “As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”.

Whereas Dada was chaotic, spontaneous, negatory and fairly short lived, Surrealism was highly organised with doctines, surrealism was optimistic, and realtively long lasting.  “Surrealism was supposed to transform the way people think by breaking down the barriers between their inner and outer worlds , and changing the way they perceived reality, Surrealism would liberate the unconscious, reconcile it with the conscious, and free mankind from the shackles of logic and reason, which thus far had only led to war and domination” (Dempsey).

The visual artists associated with this movement at the beginning were Max Ernst, Man Ray and Hans Arp, ex Dadaists.   Others joined the movement later: Yves Tanquy, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti, and according the Dean Gallery both Picasso and Miro were associated but not full members.

Even though Freud himself was very dismissive of the surrealist artists a number of key Freudian themes were central to the Surrealists: the unconscious, dreams, castration anxiety, fetishes and the uncanny and the notion of the devouring female.  Unsurprisingly, given the influence of Freud, all three books I studied on this by Bradley, Parmesani and Dempsey consider Surrealism to have a strong element of misogeny and the concept of the devouring female reoccurs.  Parmesani states ‘eroticism, perversion, power, religion, almost all the declared principles of the current bourgeois culture were rendered explicit in the surrealist works in order to reveal them and scandalise bourgeois society’.  However despite this there were a number of important women Surrealists.

Some examples of works by key Surrealist artists are listed below.


Max Ernst, Forest by Night

This painting is in the Tate collection and this is their explanation: ” Forests are a potent symbol in German tradition, and were also adopted by the Surrealist group as a metaphor for the imagination. In this work, a small dove, which Ernst liked to use as a symbol to represent himself, is trapped among menacing trees. The shapes are created using a technique he called ‘grattage’, in which paint is scraped across the canvas to reveal the imprint of objects placed beneath.”


Man Ray- Rayograph, Hand with switch and cord


Alberto Giacometti, 1932, Woman with her Throat Cut.


Salvador Dali Narrative Surrealist Painting, 1950

 scylla4Ithell Colquhoun – Scylla 1938

This picture is hanging in the Tate, who describe it has follows: “Colquhoun said that the title refers to the female sea-monster who, according to the ancient legend in Homer’s Odyssey, inhabited narrow straits and devoured passing sailors. However, this reference to mythology was provoked by an unexpected recognition of one form in another, as Colquhoun explained: ‘It was suggested by what I could see of myself in a bath … it is thus a pictorial pun, or double-image’  “.  Bradley gives a further interpretation that the picture is also a reassertion of a womans right to her own body.


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