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Salvador Dali took the stage at the 1936 International Surrealist Exposition in London dressed in an old-fashioned scuba suit with the leashes of two dogs in one hand and a pool cue in the other. In the middle of his lecture, Dali began to suffocate due to the scuba mask and began to flail his arms for help. The audience assumed this was all part of the performance. David Gascoyne, a Surrealist poet, eventually came to Dali’s rescue. Upon recovery, Dali remarked, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind” and then finished his speech with his slides presented upside down.
This story illustrates the absurdist elements of the Surrealist movement. Salvador Dali, a Surrealist painter, was considered something of a clown figure by the 20th-century art establishment. While Surrealist artists did have fun, they also sought to use the unconscious as a way to unlock the imagination. The Surrealists believed the rational mind, weighted down with taboos, repressed the power of imagination. Drawing from works by Karl Marx, Surrealists hoped that the psyche had the ability to ignite revolution. Thus, they emphasized the power of personal imagination and believed that revelations could be found in everyday life.
Surrealism was an artistic and literary movement founded in 1924 by the poet André Breton. Surrealism proposed that the Enlightenment had supressed the qualities of the irrational, unconscious mind by championing reason and individualism. Breton studied the psychoanalytical research of Freud and was particularly interested in the idea that the unconscious mind was the source of artistic creativity. Breton hoped Surrealism would become a revolutionary movement to liberate the minds of the masses from the rational order of society.
Surrealists often used a practice called automatism, which is akin to a stream or consciousness or free association. It liberated the Surrealists and allowed them to produce unconscious artwork. Surrealist artists who used automatic methods did so to embrace the element of chance, without a set plan in place for their works.
That said, many Surrealists chose to create works that weren’t so abstract. These Surrealists recognized that the representation of an object’s appearance can more effectively cause the viewer to conjure up associations to reveal a deeper, unconscious reality. Salvador Dali, for example, created hyper-realistic, dreamlike visions that offer viewers a peek into a strange world. At its core, Surrealist art is meant to jolt the viewer out of their assumptions that they have grown to be so comforted by.
The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dali
Dali’s melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory is an iconic painting that is widely recognized as the most renowned artwork in Surrealism. Dali juxtaposes hard and soft (the softness of sleep versus the hardness of reality) while the famous melting clocks are a symbol of the relativity of space and time.
The Treachery of Images (1921) by Rene Magritte
Postwar surrealist pieces saw strong influence by structuralist language theories and the gap between language and meaning. Magritte’s The Treachery of Images is a simple painting of a pipe and with a contrasting statement “This is not a pipe” to illustrate the difference between signifier and signified. This piece inspired the beginning of Pop art.