modernism in art

late impressionism through surrealism


readings day 1: (we'll be covering Surrealism over 1-1/2 days, so I've divided the readings up approximately)

• SH essay, Surrealism - Origins and Precursors

• SH essay, Surrealism and Psychoanalysis

• SH essay, Surrealist techniques - Automatism

readings day 2

• selections from André Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto, and from  Max Ernst, on Collage (primary sources)

• SH essay, Surrealist techniques - Collage

• SH essay, Surrealist techniques - Subversive realism

• SH video, Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened (SH covers it as Dada, but it straddles Dada & Surrealism)

• SH essay, Salvator Dalí, The Persistence of Memory

• SH essay, Surrealism and Women

• recommended: SH essay, Surrealist Exhibitions

key 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

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.  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:

• What is psychic automatism and how was it thought to express and exercise the subconscious mind? What is the difference between active automatism and passive automatism? How did related techniques such as frottage, grattage, decalcomania, and the use of biomorphic abstraction help to elicit passive automatism?

• Why did the Surrealists think that irrational juxtaposition (such as the Comte de Lautréamont's famous "sewing machine and umbrella on a surgical table") helped to exercise the subconscious mind? Be able to discuss this technique in relation to  Surrealist collages, assemblages, mis-labeling/irrational titles, and exquisite corpse drawings.

• What is subversive realism?  Why did some Surrealists employ painstakingly detailed and traditional naturalism in their works, such as dream verism, Dalí's paranoid-critical activity, and Magritte's philosophical conundrums?

We're not too concerned with what any 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 and exercise itself.

Beyond simply expressing the subconscious mind of the individual artist, what was the ultimate, long-term goal of Surrealism? How do Surrealist works undermind the credibility of the rational mind and evoke subconscious mental activity on the part of the viewer as well?

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, Dada/Surrealism, 1924

Joan Miró, The Birth of the World, Surrealism, 1925

André Masson, The Battle of the Fishes, Surrealism, 1926

Salvator Dalí, The Accommodations of Desire, Surrealism, 1929

René Magritte, The Key to Dreams, Surrealism, 1930

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