An October of Surrealism: Defining a Movement

OCTOBER is a stand out month in the history of surrealism and contemporary surrealist voices have popped up to commemorate the birth of a movement that left an indelible mark on art, literature and the very essence of life. The Freud, Dali and the Metamorphosis of Narcissus exhibition at the Freud Museum, London (from Oct 3) and The Birth of a Black Surrealism? talk at the Parallax Art Fair, London (Oct 5) are amongst the cluster of events this month. Studio UK Magazine interviews a wide range of surrealist commentators from academics to arts writers with a focus on the history of the movement and its place in the modern world.

It was on October 1st 1924 that  French-German poet Yvan Goll rushed to publish his Surrealist Manifesto ahead of rival Andre Breton’s, which was published mid month. The two tussled publicly about the definition of surrealism – literally. There were punch ups at their respective surrealist gatherings as they fought for hegemony but it was Breton’s manifestos which came to define the movement.  Already you can see how ‘definition’ can become a heated issue within,  what was then, a fractious movement and even today. 

Movie still from F.O.L.D. 1 by surrealist filmmaker Taylor Schofield

In 2018 some still regard surrealism as a sort of exclusive club; gatekeeping the Bretonian tenets carefully and allowing no room for redefining ambiguous areas. Others permit a spirit of surrealism, following the lead of Breton himself who saw surrealism in everything from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Marquis De Sade regardless of whether they were signed up devotees. This, of course did not stop him excommunicating members who ventured outside his own surrealist manifestos.

Aside from Breton’s three powerful, sometimes polemic Marxist-tinged hand-written manifestos (one of which was never officially released), is there a simpler universal definition? Studio UK interviewed academics, historians artists, filmmakers about these definitions and the relevance of surrealism in 2018. 

Movie still from F.O.L.D. 1 by surrealist filmmaker Leticia Benson

Academic and historian Nadia Choucha studied at the University of Edinburgh and King’s College London. As well as working for an academic research institute she is the author of Surrealism and the Occult published by Mandrake, Oxford in 1991 (2nd edition, 2016). It is the subject of a forthcoming talk Magic , Myth and Madness: Occult and Psychoanalytical Theory in the Art of Surrealism at the Freud Museum (Oct 31). This event runs hand in hand with the current exhibition Freud, Dali and the Metamorphosis of the Narcissus which looks at the meetings between Dali and Freud, hence the connection of surrealism and the unconscious.

Nadia tells Studio UK Magazine: “Despite the fact that surrealism officially disbanded in 1969, its ideas and influence have become part of our culture and live on into the 21st century. Surrealism sought to discover the irrational side of human nature – dreams, desire, magic – and to express this through stunningly original creative strategies. Surrealism aimed to shock, provoke and illuminate as well as to subvert mundane concepts of reality.

“To create their visionary art, the surrealists sought inspiration in a variety of sources including Freudian psychoanalytical theory, 19th century gothic fiction, medieval magic and alchemy, Marxism and utopian politics, combining these disparate elements into a heady brew which reveals to us the absurd, the uncanny and the transgressive lurking just below surface appearances.

“The surrealist influence upon cinema is evident throughout the twentieth century and can be seen in the work of contemporary directors such as Guillermo del Toro and David Lynch. In contemporary art, the work of leading figures such as Susan Hiller, Louise Bourgeois and Tony Oursler reveals an aesthetic that owes a debt to surrealism in its exploration of the unconscious mind, the irrational and the uncanny. In other words, surrealism has become an internationally recognised language which has become embedded in our shared cultural lexicon.”

Concluding her points on the relevance of the movement, she says: “I have seen a continuing growth of interest in surrealism over the past three decades and I believe it will continue to be relevant because it explores and expresses aspects of human nature which are timeless and universal. Surrealism offers a window onto an alternative world full of poetry and enchantment. It provides subversive ways of seeing below the surfaces of the mundane world of work, consumerism and social conformity. The values of surrealism – love, dreams, revolution and knowledge – are part of the perennial human quest for freedom which will never go out of fashion.”

Film critic Gregory J Smalley, founder  of 366 Weird Movies has been writing about and reviewing surrealist films, both recent and classic, for a popular audience since 2008. He spoke to Studio UK emphasising the symbolic juxtaposition common to Veristic Surrealists.

“One of the main bases for surrealism is juxtaposition, i.e. a lobster on a telephone, a straight razor and a cloud. Today, thanks to our futuristic communication technology, ideas and images clash in our heads at cyberspeed. Your Facebook feed will lead you from cute cat videos to angry political creeds with the turn of a mouse wheel. So, I believe people may be more conditioned to accept the absurdity of such connections then our forefathers were, making the surrealist technique more approachable.

“Even more, however, I think surrealism appeals to our age because we live in increasingly absurd times. Reality TV stars become presidents, half of our news is lies and the other half deliberate satire, and every day seems to bring us a weird new technology or unveil a hot new social media platform faster than we can assimilate it.

“If tragedy appealed to the ancient Greeks because it purged feelings of pity and sorrow in a world full of sickness and death, then perhaps surrealism appeals to us today because it purges our particular feelings of absurdity and irrationality. The world today feels out-of-control and hard to comprehend, so a school of art that directly addresses these anxieties, freezing them in a fixed form that can at least be isolated–if not understood–can have particular appeal.”

Clayton Dobosh freelance writer and editor: Surrealism in story structure, media, and culture. “I think surrealism has relevance in 2018. The prevailing trend in fiction for a good couple of decades now has been realism. I’m a comic book fan, and the “dark and gritty” version of characters has dominated comics since Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, one need only look at recent Marvel Netflix and DC movies to see it. People like variance, so a reaction to realism will inevitably bring surrealism back to culture.

“I can’t say it will dominate, but I think we’re overdue for a resurgence. In comics, there is a reason one of the most popular writers is Grant Morrison. He doesn’t care about realism, he often rejects it openly, and his stories are more imaginative because of it. People turn to art for different reasons, some want an escape from reality and some want to explore imagination, both of those will fuel surrealist demand in a world that’s mostly been supplying realism.”

Jennifer Nimthiriel Wynn, BA Hons Art, Wolverhampton University identifies the German Blitzkrieg of the Second World War as a defining point in understanding contemporary surrealism. Examining little known links with Sci-Fi, she states: My dissertation thesis is: Surrealism in the modern world: How has technology influenced humanities perception of reality. The one chapter I’m working on is exploring the effects on surrealism from the Blitz. It’s argued that the Blitz ‘killed’ surrealism because there was nothing that could be painted or expressed that could be more surreal than what was happening in London at the time.

“The counter argument to this however is the war photography of Lee Miller such has her series ‘Revenge on Culture’. The Second World War is important in terms of the development of the atomic and nuclear bombs which looks to have influenced the science-fiction works of Philip K Dick which have developed and inspired a number of films and television shows, one of which – Black Mirror – is still classed as surreal.”

Ultimately, those who fail to see evidence of Andre Breton’s surrealism in 2018 need look no further than film collectives such as F.O.L.D. who produce short films using the methods of Breton’s own Cadavre exquis drawings. In these folded drawings each artist participates on an incomplete section of a drawing without seeing the completed parts (because they are folded away). This inspired F.O.L.D. to make short films in the same way.

Movie stills from F.O.L.D. 1 by surrealist filmmaker Eddie Saint-Jean

The F.O.L.D. collective was formed by Eddie Saint-Jean in July 2018 with members from the England, Ireland, US, Australia, Greece and South Africa and the first film was called F.O.L.D 1 (of course!). Filmmakers Leticia Benson, Taylor Schofield, Candace Odil, Wesley Curry II,  Milosh Hughes, Xristaina Kouk used social media connectivity and digital technology to follow in the footsteps of the surrealist pioneers, ensuring their legacy is not forgotten and underscoring Breton’s influence today.

This article was written by editor, arts writer and filmmaker Eddie Saint-Jean with major contributions from interviewees: 

Academic, historian and author Nadia Choucha  – Surrealism and the Occult published by Mandrake, Oxford in 1991 (2nd edition, 2016). Also she will be presenting a talk Magic, Myth and Madness, Occult and Psychoanalytical Theory in the Art of Surrealism at the Freud Museum, Oct 31.

Surrealism student Jennifer Nimthiriel Wynn, Wolverhampton University Dissertation thesis: Surrealism in the modern world: How has technology influenced humanities perception of reality”

Film critic Gregory J Smalley, founder  of 366 Weird Movies Writes articles on and reviews surrealist films.

Clayton Dobosh freelance writer and editor Surrealism in story structure, media, and culture.

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