Misunderstanding Surrealism

Surrealism isn't what you think it is.

Misunderstanding Surrealism

I spent years misunderstanding surrealism.

Understandable: it's most associated with Dali, who represents it terribly.

Surrealism is not about twirly moustaches or eccentric behaviour. It’s not about a type of work that's weird and different.

Surrealism is a set of techniques.

I first became interested when I realised elements of the modern world (I mean the dysfunctional aspects) aren’t necessarily so different to the post-war societies that gave birth to the Dada and Surrealist movements.

The Dadaists witnessed cracks in society around them: what they perceived to be a materialistic, hyper-rational world that had that turned men into mincemeat on the battlefield, fractured societies and had recently begun reckoning with its own subsconscious. (The name itself, people think, came from nonsensical baby-speak… a deliberate reaction against all that).

Surrealism was spurred on (eventually) by Andre Breton. These ideas were powered by Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams; a text that brewed in Breton and co. a fascination with the inner workings and power of the subsconcious mind. By 1924, Breton was ready to publish The Surrealist Manifesto… a call-to-arms that, rather than the brain-deadening clarity of modernity, artists should aspire to the ‘superior reality’ of the subconscious; find ways to bring its power into the waking world.

Key to surrealism were the techniques developed to draw from this power. Automated text production, randomised index cards and associations, marks made by smoke, rubbings of textures with charcoal and paint.

Dali saw the potency of the vision, but didn’t favour their methods. More into the ends than the means, he brought the dreamworld to life through more traditional painting techniques. (He was also rather fascist in sympathies at a time when his fellow surrealists were going in the opposite direction… Breton eventually became an anarchist). Nonetheless, if you will cultivate an outré persona, have Hollywood pals and a pet ocelot - people will remember you. Sadly, Dali overshadows the fact that such fripperies are just the shell. The movement, at its heart, was a technical one.

Even for non-surrealists the methods confer an advantage… an edge compared to everyone else, still stuck in the same old logic.

Books have been written on this - but here are three favourites. After all, if you want different results, you need to pursue a different path.

  1. Daydream

Surrealists sought ways to take the conscious mind out of the process.

Like automatic writing; filling pages without letting the pen stop.

David Lynch talks about fishing for ideas… you need a little patience to catch them.

To increase your chances, you need to create the time and space to daydream.

2. Randomise

Other surrealists didn’t trust their mind to get out of the way. They pursued techniques for more random inputs. Writing words on scattered index cards, and picking them up absently to form sentences. Or artists creating imagery from the trace of smoke on paper.

If the subsconscious creates, the surrealist attempts to curate.

Sometimes it’s better to steal from the world around you, or your own raw materials, assembled without thinking too deeply, and craft from there.

3. Unfinish

Open-endedness is an interesting component to the surrealist philosophy. Breton criticised the blanding effect of being too plainspoken - ‘clarity bordering on stupidity’.

Don’t worry about tying up all the loose ends, it’s ok to let people draw their own conclusions sometimes (‘when baiting a trap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse’ and all that).

Something with no sense of conclusion can be frustrating. But a little mystery, a little left open for interpretation, for the imagination - that’s magic.


Ohhhhh by the way. The emergence of surrealism has many more interesting elements… I simplified a bunch of stuff. Breton’s interpretation of the movement won out in the end. The rest is for another time.