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André Breton, Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme?, Brussels, René Henriquez Editeur, 1934


Invitation to the Exposition surréaliste, La Louvière, October 13th – 27th 1935

What is surrealism?

Surrealism is an artistic movement that officially proclaimed its existence with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.  The movement owes its name to French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who in 1917 uses the term 'sur-réaliste' to describe a form of expression that surpasses realism.  Originally, surrealism was essentially a literary phenomenon: the proving-ground of the surrealists, with the French writer and poet André Breton at the fore, consisted in hitherto unheard of language experiments.  This principle was rapidly adopted by the plastic arts, by music, film and photography.  Surrealism developed in Paris, then world capital of art, and this city proved a magnet for artists coming from elsewhere in Europe and the United States.  From 1924, Belgium became the first country outside of France to mount nascent initiatives leading to a fully-fledged surrealist scene.  In November 1924, Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte distributed a series of tracts, Correspondance, albeit addressed to a rather limited audience.  A few months later, in March 1925, Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens and René Magritte publish the one-and-only issue of the review Œsophage.

Surrealism finds its roots in feelings of revolt and aversion to the atrocities of the First World War, the same train of thought applying to dada. This goes to explain the link between these two movements: surrealism is in part born of dada, and develops in parallel to it.  Dada erupts only sporadically in Belgium, out of synch vis-à-vis this movement’s development in Zurich, Paris and Berlin.  Both surrealists and dadaists had a preference for the spontaneous, the subconscious and play, as opposed to the rational.  For the two movements, it is the creative process itself that counts artistically, and not the resulting artefact. The main divergence between dada and surrealism is in their view of the past: while dadaism’s creativity had as objective the destruction of and radical rupture with the past, surrealism’s vision did not want to obliterate the past, but rather offer positive alternatives.

The surrealist movement aimed to unleash a revolution in human experience, a liberation of the individual from the domination of the rational in matters personal, cultural and social.  The works of Sigmund Freud on free association, dream analysis, desire and the subconscious, are of primal importance to the surrealists: their artistic methods of liberating the imagination drew their inspiration here.  Max Ernst uses 'frottage' and 'collage', Man Ray develops his 'Rayographs', Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí create symbolic images composed of disparate and unexpected elements.  And while the painting of René Magritte also contains dreamlike images, comparisons with the oeuvre of Miró or Dalí remain difficult.  Magritte refuses to use the term symbol to describe the objects that appear in his works.  They are objects whose 'inappropriate' juxtapositions provoke unease, even terror: they are 'objets bouleversants', as termed by his friend, the Belgian poet Paul Nougé.  From the outset, the French and Belgian surrealist groups tread different paths – automatism and analytical experiments for the French, with the Belgians more anchored in reality.

The movement’s maiden group show, La peinture surréaliste, takes place is 1925 in Paris.  René Magritte, whose first paintings of a surrealist character date from 1926, does not take part, but will participate in most of the surrealist exhibitions to follow.  Surrealism became widely known internationally thanks to exhibitions that took place, among others, at La Louvière (1935), London (1936), New York (1936), Tokyo (1937) and Paris (1938).  The immigration to the United States by a large number of surrealists owing to WWII, had a great influence on American art: the oeuvre of the action-painter Jackson Pollock, for example, must be seen in the light of surrealist methods like automatic painting.

Pinpointing the end of the surrealist movement is a matter of disagreement: some art historians see WWII as the end of surrealism, others believe that the death of André Breton in 1966 or that of Salvador Dalí in 1989 marks the movement’s close.  Still others maintain that surrealism’s flame has never been extinguished.  This also obtains for Belgium, where historians of art recognize, from 1924 up to the present day, succeeding generations of surrealists.