Surrealism was an approach rather than a style. It was a new way of seeing, of looking inwards. Inspired by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, the surrealists turned away from rational reality, and embraced the irrational hidden sides of the human mind.
There were various styles of surrealism, but they all originated in the author André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, which he wrote in 1924 in Paris. The city also attracted young writers and painters from the dada movement. Automatic writing and dream resumés were used to tap into the subconscious, with the aim of dissolving dream and reality into an absolute reality – a super-reality (surreality). The surrealists wanted to change society and liberate the individual.
Giorgio de Chirico was a seminal surrealist painter. In what he called his ‘metaphysical paintings’, made before the First World War, he portrayed a fictive, eerie world with near-photorealism. Salvador Dalí and René Magritte used the secret imagery of dreams in a hyperrealistic figurative style, while Joan Miró created a universe of symbolically-laden abstract signs. Max Ernst experimented with different techniques, including frottage and collage, in paintings of transformations and metamorphoses, forcing himself to react to the unexpected and surrender to chance.
Erotically-charged fantasies were central to surrealism, lending an undercurrent of taboo, desires and sadistic themes in many of the works. The surrealists also pioneered the use of moving images as an artistic medium. L’Age d’Or (1930) was written by Luis Buñuel together with Salvador Dalí two years after their scandalous success with Un Chien Andalou (1928). The proponent’s dreamy and so-called subjective focus in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) has inspired generations of experimental film-makers, and the part is played by Maya Deren herself.