modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism


people, terms, and concepts: the subconscious, id, superego, repression, displacement, free association, psychic automatism (active automatism, passive automatism), frottage, collage, exquisite corpse, dream verism, paranoid-critical activity

additional reading:  selections from André Breton and Max Ernst

The basic aim of Surrealism was to express and exercise the subconscious mind.

What is the subconscious?  Be able to briefly describe the Freudian theory of the subconscious, including id-related desires and aggressions, the idea of id-superego conflicts such as the Oedipal Complex, and the mechanisms of repression and displacement that cause unacceptable desires or traumatic experiences to become buried or disguised.

Since by definition we do not have direct access our subconscious thoughts, the Surrealists developed a variety of techniques to get the subconscious to express itself.  The readings from Breton and Ernst outline several of these techniques.  Most of them have their roots or analogs in Freudian and other psychoanalytic strategies such as free association, monologues, Rorschach blot tests, and dream interpretation:

(1) psychic automatism -- In active automatism, the artist writes or draws without any conscious intent or control (by means of rapid monologs, doodling, spilling ink, etc.), which would hopefully allow the subconscious to take over.  In passive automatism, the artist tries to envision things in abstract forms found in nature or produced through techniques such as frottage or decalcomania.

(2) irrational juxtaposition --  Putting together two or more things that do not belong together, like the Comte de Lautréamont’s famous “sewing machine and umbrella on a surgical table,” the exquisite corpse drawings, Magritte’s mislabelings, Ernst’s collages, and Cornell’s box assemblages.

(3) dream verism -- Reproducing, as realistically as possible, images seen in dreams or states of half-sleep, or, in Dalí’s related technique of paranoid-critical activity,  projecting your fantasies onto real objects until they seem to transform under your eyes.

I’m not too concerned with what these works ‘mean’ (that’s more of a question for psychoanalysts than art historians), but do be able to describe which of these techniques are used in the works below (sometimes it’s more than one), and how these techniques were intended to evade or bypass the censorship and control of the conscious mind in order to allow the subconscious to express itself.

The social agency of Surrealism

Expressing the subconscious of the artist is a very narrow goal, relevant only to the artist (really, why should you and I care what’s in Dalí’s or Ernst’s subconscious?). But Surrealism did have a broader goal:  the works were really intended to stimulate subconscious activity in the mind of the viewer.  Where psychoanalysts try to access to subconscious in order to “cure” (i.e. tame and control) it, the Surrealists typically did so in order to strengthen and exercise it, with the ultimate, long-term goal of undermining the dominance of the conscious mind so that we can all use our subconscious minds to transform the world to the measure of their desires.

It would be a very interesting question to compare and contrast Surrealism to De Stijl: both intended to change our mental states in such a way that the world in general would be changed, but their ideas of what this change should consist of and how it should be achieved are very different, eh?

Max Ernst, Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924

Miró, The Birth of the World, 1925

André Masson, The Battle of the Fishes, 1926

Salvator Dalí, The Accommodations of Desire, 1929

Magritte, The Key to Dreams, 1930

Ernst, Collage from Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness), 1934