Surrealism, Freedom and Art

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)
Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

Far from believing in Utopian technology,
most of them hardly knew how to change a light bulb.  

“The wish for absolute freedom is one of the constants of intellectual life, and of all the art movements of our century, the one most concerned with this essential quest was Surrealism.”  Most of the members of the movement had been raised as Catholics and Surrealism had a similar structure with dogmas, rituals, catechisms, saints, baptisms and excommunications. At the top of the hierarchy, behaving as if he were the Pope, was Andre Breton (1896-1966).

“Chance, memory, desire, coincidence would meet in a new reality—a sur-reality, in the word he [Breton] borrowed from Apollinaire, who in 1917 had described the ballet Parade, whose collaborators were Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, and Leonard Massine, as producing ‘une espèce de sur-réalisme.’” 

Looking at the nightmare-like images of the surrealists we can have no doubt that we have entered the world of P-B. There is often a feeling of a lost innocence as if there is anger and fear at having been banished from the Garden of Eden without knowing why. A fear of nature itself is present as a key split in the shattering of human consciousness. Max Ernst expressed this feeling in his painting entitled Two Children are Menaced by a Nightingale.

Just as P-B can be defined as absurd, an illusion and an hallucination, Ernst described his art, referring to his early collages, as just such an experience. “Here I discover elements of a figuration so remote that its very absurdity provokes in me a sudden intensification of my faculties of sight—a hallucinatory succession of contradictory images.” 

Surrealism expressed not so much the irrational as the anti-intellectual and it did this unconsciously as an expression of the false self. But they were in need of some source to draw from. “And so the Surrealists turned to three kinds of expression that had been around for a long time, but had not been taken seriously [especially by the intellect-driven arbiters of what constituted legitimate art]—child art, the art of the mad, and ‘primitive art.’” 

The most well-known of the “primitive” or amateur painters was Henri Rousseau whose “day job” was as a minor civil servant, “le Douanier” or Customs Man. Rousseau might have wanted to paint like Gauguin, but he had a different story in his mind than that of Gauguin. He was trying for a literal representation of “reality.” Although his well-known Le Reve (1910) might look to us as if it were filled with Dali-like symbols, to him he was trying to portray a literal jungle scene.

Like most of us, Rousseau thought that he lived in a “real” world rather than the surrealistic nightmare of P-B. “The clarity of Rousseau’s vision further heightened its compulsive, dreamlike quality: there the image is, all at once, with no ambiguities, done (as he would have insisted) ‘from life.’”    Like Rousseau, we are prone to trust our senses and our intellects to “tell” us what is real.

Of course, at the heart of Simple Reality is the ability to distinguish reality from illusion. Rousseau was mesmerized by his senses, as most of us are, and saw what he wanted to see. We do not look at a Rousseau painting without realizing that it is not an accurate representation of reality. With Salvador Dali no one believes they are looking at a representational painting but instead at outrageous and irrational symbols. He “needed a system of images, and this Dali approached through what he called his ‘Paranoiac-critical’ method. In essence, it meant looking at one thing and seeing another.”

Take his Metamorphosis of Narcissus painted in 1937. We see “the hand sprouting from the ground, holding an enormous egg—from whose cracked shell a narcissus sprouts—can be made to ‘turn into’ the figure Narcissus in the background, gazing into the pool.” Dali was urging us through his bizarre-seeming images to find the courage to look at the unconscious as it manifested itself in our dreams as Freud was doing at this same time. Most people at the time, including his fellow artists could not take Dali seriously nor did they understand the profound message he was sending and resisted the implications of his graphic “dreams.”

“Dali rightly pointed out that a censored dream was no dream at all, but a conscious construction; if his colleagues were interested in the marvelous workings of the unconscious, they must take them warts, dung, and all.” Today we can add a deeper insight and come to the realization that both the contents of the unconscious and the so-called conscious human community are both sadly clueless as to the nature of reality.

Rene Magritte realized this last truth in his paintings The Use of Words (1928) and The Human Condition (1934). “Thus, the play between image and reality suggests that the real world is only a construction of mind.” Magritte had the very profound insight that the illusion that mesmerizes virtually all of humankind is seated in the intellect itself, in the mind. “If some part of the world can be shown to be irrational but coherent, Magritte’s work argues, then nothing is certain. And so, his visual booby-traps go off again and again, because their trigger is thought itself.”  

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References and notes are available for this essay. 
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry. 

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