Surrealism started as a movement in Paris in 1924. Heavily inspired by the father of psychoanalysis - Sigmund Freud, a group of young Frenchmen centered around Andre Breton explored new ways of creating art. By practicing automatic writing and drawing, they wanted to reach the unconscious parts of the mind and reveal one's true nature. Some even used drugs and practiced hypnosis in order to discover the hidden parts of the human psyche.
Breton, who himself was a medical student, was always interested in exploring mental states and described Freud as “the human explorer”. Obsessed with Freud’s theoretical ideas, Breton used them to establish the philosophy of Surrealism. In his Surrealist Manifesto, Breton defined Surrealism as “a pure psychic automatism” through which artists expressed their thoughts with no control of the mind.
Surrealists used Freud's theory of dreams as inspiration. For Freud, dreams represented the direct expression of the unconscious. They showed our true desires, thoughts and fears.
In surrealist dream paintings like Dali's Dream, Caused by the Flight of a Bee we see the painter's wife Gala sleeping on a rock, surrounded by a rifle, fish, elephant, pomegranate, and two tigers. This type of painting showed an irrational mix of objects that had symbolic meanings and more often than not - sexual connotations.
This mix of contrary elements is also seen in paintings of Rene Magritte. In his work Golconda, Magritte painted more than a hundred figures of identical men falling from the sky like raindrops. All men are painted realistically, but Magritte’s surreal setup of bodies floating in the air looks like something you can only see in dreams.
Freudian dreamscape is present in Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical paintings too. The dreamlike atmosphere of the empty piazzas, the sexual symbols seen in towers and arcades, and the mixing of contradictory elements - it's everything Surrealists loved!
But there’s a big difference between Freud and the Surrealists. Freud's theories were primarily meant to help people feel better. Surrealists didn't care much about the therapeutic side of psychoanalysis, they just wanted to explore its creative potential.
So, when Breton invited Freud to write an introduction for an anthology of dreams he put together, the famous psychoanalyst refused. In 1921 Breton decided to go to Vienna and meet Freud but left feeling very disappointed because the Austrian psychoanalyst showed little interest in artistic adaptations of his theories. Breton even bitterly described Freud as "an old man without elegance".
You may be asking yourself: what did Freud think of the Surrealists?
Well, he made his point quite clear in a letter sent to Breton in 1932. Freud wrote: "I am not able to clarify for myself what surrealism is and what it wants. Perhaps I am not destined to understand it, I who am so distant from art.''
So, we get it, Freud was a bit sceptical about Surrealism. But, Surrealists still wanted to explore the human psyche and thought of Surrealism as a philosophy of the mind. They wanted to give psychoanalytic theories a poetic expression through art. Maybe Surrealists didn’t really care for the health benefits of Freud’s ideas, but they still made many fascinating artworks we enjoy today. And let’s not forget that enjoying art is also a benefit for the mind!
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