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Surrealism: Art of the Unconscious

Gregory Ayvazov

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The modern estimates of the total number of casualties of the First World War (defined as the deaths and injuries of both the civilian populations and soldiers) hover around forty million. That’s more than the entire population of Canada. The 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic killed at least another twenty million. At the turn of the second decade of the twentieth century, Europe lay in ruins, its population disfigured by war, disease and poverty. 


It’s only natural that people refused a return to the pre-war status quo – the old ‘normal’ way of life was destroyed, left on the battlefields of the Somme and the hospital beds of London. The task of constructing a new worldview is no small feat and, as history shows, is often taken up by artists. Who better to create a new perspective than individuals who study it in school, the ultra-sensitive masters of creation. Indeed, rather counter-intuitively that is the backdrop against which the now-famous surrealism was born – one of desolation. 


For a century prior to the First World War, Western Europe enjoyed relative peace and, fuelled by a worldwide empire and the industrial revolution, previously unmatched levels of prosperity. To be fair, it was no Paradise: the poor still suffered and the rich still lived off their backs but there was a degree of stability and measure in daily life which would be completely uprooted by the looming catastrophes of seismic proportions. André Breton, writer, poet and father of Surrealism, gathered a group of exceptionally talented creatives around him and in 1924 published the ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ where he described the style as “pure, psychic automatism”. Surrealism was a response to the rationality and stability of the pre-war era: if human ‘rationality’ led to such carnage and tragedy then why make it into a society-wide cult – why not go the opposite way, towards irrationality? (Or so the argument went). 


Thus, influenced by the ascending popularity of Freud and his ideas, surrealist artists developed a technique called ‘automatism’ – they painted spontaneously whatever came to mind. This style was meant to tap into the unconscious via a practice the great psychoanalyst called ‘free association’ revealing the deep-laden desires, fears and emotions that were previously kept deep within. Generally, surrealist art often produces a dream-like impression: imbued with archetypal symbols and metaphors it presents seemingly unrelated concepts that together create the fantastic effect dazzling audiences for almost a century now. 


Surrealist Psychic Automatism

Undoubtedly, the most renowned surrealist artist today is Salvador Dali. The Spaniard actually came to the Parisian scene quite late – in the late twenties: an avid reader of Freud and admirer of Picasso he joins the surrealists and quickly gain popularity.  

Dali’s art, like the philosophy of surrealism, would imply, are deeply personal. ‘The Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus’, for example, is a painting depicting the artist’s existential dread in the face of the wars and his own demons. In this painting, human figures are constructed out of brick seem to be abandoned remnants being examined by the curious. The presence of classical ruins adjoining the figure to the left re-affirms the message: likely horrified by the wars, Dali felt that everything around him was doomed, just like Ancient Rome was. 


The Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus, Dali, 1933

The most famous Dali work in contemporary culture is the ‘Persistence of Memory’ – a commentary on the inherently subjective perception of time in a human psyche. Time can feel painfully dragged out in a nerve-wracking waiting room prior to an exam, blissfully fast during a party with friends and strangely absent throughout an uneventful lockdown – thus the melting clocks, particularly the one sitting on top of a silhouette of a human face in the middle. Nonetheless, Dali includes a closed clock in the bottom left – likely a reference to ‘Memento Mori’ ever-present in art: human time perception is skewed yet final – we only have so long. 


The Persistence of Memory, Dali, 1931

In the end, Surrealism as an art movement is incredibly significant because it illustrated and advanced the idea of the unconscious world – its persistent popularity being a testament to its relevancy to this day. 


The Fireside Angel, 1937, Max Ernst


The Temptation of St. Antony, Dali, 1946

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