Surrealism (‘surreality’) and the idea of a collective and individual subconscious are closely related. Considered a timeless tool that surfs the unconscious, it drags up dream-states as a means of re-framing and reshaping the familiar and everyday.
Officially sparked in Paris around 1924, it held global significance between the 1920s and 70s. Surrealism is an expansive, shifting term, but at its core, is an interrogation of political and social systems, conventions and dominant ideologies. Paradigms that have become Paradogmas. Inherently dynamic, surrealism has travelled and evolved in space and time – and continues to do so today.
Its scope has always been transnational, defying borders and definitions, while still being able to address local and specific constraints. In a world defined by territorial resources and control – and the consequential expansionist conflict and exploitation – surrealism has demanded cohesion and served artists as an intangibly raw and rebellious reality, in the pursuit of greater freedoms.
Surrealist activity represents collective interests that are shared across networks at points of convergence, relay and exchange. It also demonstrates individual challenges, witnessed in the struggle of liberation from dominant structures, and associated exile and conflict. Neither singular in narrative, nor linear in chronology, it illustrates a hive of activity that’s more representative of reality. Making visible the many lives and locations linked by its lucid logistics.
The Work of Dreams: Liminal Logic
Surrealist sculpture often panders to a ‘derangement of the senses’. Using unconventional, found or discarded materials such as bones, shells or leather scraps – assemblages that draw their innovative impact from the imaginative spark lit by the recombination of previously unrelated elements.
With its potential to reveal hidden truths, the uncanny is well suited to satire and political subversion. Dreams are critical to this end, because as with hallucinations and delusions, many believe they may illuminate the workings of the unconscious, bringing greater context to manifestations of conscious control.
In its quest for transformation, surrealism challenges the predominant structures of power and privilege, division and exclusion, and has been emboldened by a growing chorus of voices. Alongside the cultural and sociopolitical forces that have determined its own scope and scale over the last century, surrealism has presented an alternative model for wider engagement and agitation.
While many ideas are expressed in poetic and artistic terms, they also generate collective actions: condemning imperialism, racism, authoritarianism, fascism, greed, militarism, and other forms of force. As Léopold Senghor, the surrealist poet, first president of Senegal and cofounder of the Black Consciousness movement Négritude expressed in 1960: ‘we accept surrealism as a means, but not as an end, as an ally, and not as a master’. And in the words of Spanish Republican Eugenio Granwell, it represents ‘freedom for art – and as a consequence, freedom for mankind’.
Collective Identities: Beyond Rhyme and Reason
While embracing anti-colonial politics, surrealists in Europe perceived an affinity with a diversity of artworks across Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. This fantasy of shared ideas and perspectives is visible in early surrealist collections, journals and exhibitions. But by including Indigenous artworks within European exhibitions on ‘surrealist objects’, mainly for their perceived aesthetic values – the places, markers and original intentions were stripped away. This exposes how, even in valuing these pieces and deploring systems of colonialism, there is a remaining entanglement with such contexts and attitudes.
Collaborative and group pursuits were designed to release what Simone Breton termed, ‘images unimaginable by one mind alone’. Examples of such generative activities include seánce-like explorations of trances, cowritten manifestos and declarations, group exhibitions and demonstrations, and collective cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) drawings. The latter are made by one participant drawing a form, and after folding the paper so that only the ends can be seen, passing it on to a second person who continues the work, and so on. Group production fosters proximity and intimacy, but can also connect and make visible diasporic and transnational communities.
“Jazz is my religion, Surrealism is my point of view” – Ted Jonas (poet, musician and artist)
In Western Europe, modern political and institutional thought was structured by the Enlightenment – an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that promoted science, empirical knowledge, and reason as the hallmarks of civilised society. This attitude complemented the ideology of European imperial expansion and emphasised the importance of categorising and collecting knowledge.
For surrealists and their sympathisers, especially in Europe and N America, rejecting the more oppressive aspects of this approach to rationalism, meant liberating the mind from dogmatically rigid models of thought and behaviour. They artistically represented this reordering of rational frameworks, through their visually precise techniques of reproducing alternative narratives through imagery.
Surreal Sciences: Relational Realities
True to its core values – aspects of surrealism have been interpreted by artists in different ways. In Japan in the late 1920s and early 30s, some artists – confronted with economic and political pressures, and the criticism of surrealism as merely escapist – sought to distinguish their approach by identifying ‘rishi (reason) as its only weapon’. In deflecting this politically-motivated attention, driven by the state’s shift to authoritarian militarism, they proposed a ‘scientific surrealism’. Various forms of surrealism in Japan both celebrated and interrogated modern technologies, science, and reason in order to question the meaning of art, conventional rationality, and cultural norms.
This extends into counterbalancing traditional narratives around surrealism, sexuality and desire. Some of the most well-known examples are Joyce Mansour’s Cris (Cries 1953), Alberto Giacometti’s The Cage and Hans Bellmer’s manipulated photographs reflecting the complexities of the ‘male gaze’. The subject of desire is a recurrent theme in this surreal exposition of the holistic human experience, and encompasses fluid identifications of gender and sexuality. For example, Lionel Wendt’s intimate studies of nudes explore the fluidity of desire, while Claude Cahun’s defiant performance of self-identity challenges fixed notions of gender. These works question traditional notions of privilege and power, while also acting as representations of feelings and fantasies.
The potency of this has been witnessed by strong political opposition, including the Nazi’s denunciation of modernist art as ‘degenerate’ and in conflict with their fascist ideology. In the months before the outbreak of the Second World War, with European nationalism on the rise, surrealists in Cairo came together to form a vocal resistance. The group issued a 1938 manifesto bearing a title that translated to Long Live Degenerate Art. The group, known as al-Fann wa-l-Hurriyya (Art and Liberty), used both the Arabic and French terms for ‘free art’ as the framework for their practice.
Strongly critical of conservatism and the ongoing colonial British presence in Egypt, they aligned themselves with ‘revolutionary, independent’ art liberated from state interference, traditional values, and indoctrination. In this, they responded to ideas articulated in the 1938 manifesto Towards a Revolutionary Art drafted by Andre Breton and Leon Trotsky at the Mexico City home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It called for an international front in defence of artistic freedom. While a part of this international community and global network, the Cairo group also expressed local concerns, incorporating distinctly Egyptian motifs and symbols into their works.
With its open-door policy, Mexico was a welcoming home to those fleeing Europe, and a core community of surrealist artists who came together in the city were women. Among them were Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, with their friendship evolving around the collaborative study of Mexico’s Indigenous cultures and archaeological sites. Influenced by occult and alchemical sources, these artists also infused surrealism with feminism, magic and natural forces.
Remedios Varo: Renegade Remedies
Remedios Varo was a Spanish-born surrealist painter. Her mother named her in honour of the patron saint of Anglès, Virgen de los Remedios (the Virgin of Remedies), after a recently deceased older sister.
Varo’s father, a hydraulic engineer, recognised her artistic talents early on, and would have her copy the technical drawings of his work with their straight lines, radii, and perspectives, which she reproduced meticulously. He encouraged her independent thought and supplemented her education with science and adventure books, notably the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe.
As she grew older, her father further provided her with texts on mysticism and philosophy. Those first few years of her life left an impression on Varo, which would later manifest as motifs in her work involving machinery, furnishings, artefacts, Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Varo was given a foundational education at a convent school that was typical for young ladies of a good upbringing at the time – but this strict experience fuelled some of her rebellious tendencies. Varo took a critical view of formal religion, rejecting the dominant ideology of her childhood education, and hewed to the liberal and universalist ideas that her father had instilled in her. Catholicism still came to bear great influence on her work, and she often differed from surrealist contemporaries with these frequent religious references.
In 1924 at aged 15, she enrolled at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Madrid. This school emphasised traditional academic study, including painstaking development of technical artistic skills. Many renowned artists were alumni, including Salvador Dalí (although he was expelled for insubordination). While in Madrid, Varo had her initial introduction to surrealism through lectures, exhibitions, films, and theatre. She was a regular visitor to the Prado Museum and took particular interest in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, most notably The Garden of Earthly Delights, as well as other artists, such as Francisco de Goya. The work that Varo created from 1926 to 1935 solidified her career as an artist, but was not seen by the public.
The summer of 1935 marked Varo’s formal invitation into Surrealism, when French surrealist Marcel Jean arrived in Barcelona. That same year, along with Jean and his artist friends, Dominguez and Francés, Varo took part in various surrealist games such as the cadavres exquis. She also participated in a collaborative series, Jeu de dessin communiqué (Game of Communicated Drawing) with Breton and Péret. This was much like a game, which began with an initial drawing, which was shown to someone for 3 seconds, after which that person tried to recreate what they had been shown. Apparently, this led to interesting psychological implications, which Varo later alluded to in many of her paintings.
Compared to her sequential time in Mexico, she produced very little work while in Paris. This may have been due to her youth and the way in which women struggled to be taken seriously as surrealist artists. Reflecting on her time in Paris, she said “yes, I attended those meetings where they talked a lot and one learned various things; sometimes I participated with works in their exhibitions; I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Éluard, a Benjamin Péret, or an André Breton. I was together with them because I felt a certain affinity. But today I do not belong to any group; I paint what occurs to me and that is all.”
She had an unconventional personal life involving multiple lovers and partners, and often worked odd jobs or even forged paintings in order to remain independent. Encountering many events of political unrest throughout her life, she was frequently starting afresh. After World War II began, the poet Benjamin Péret was arrested by the French government for his political beliefs, and Varo was imprisoned as his romantic partner. A few days after Varo was freed, the Germans seized Paris, and she was forced to join other refugees leaving the city. In 1941 Varo boarded the Serpa Pinto in Marseilles to flee Nazi-dominated Europe. The terrors she experienced in her earlier years impacted her significantly.
She moved to Mexico in 1942 where she remained for the rest of her life, producing around 110 paintings in her final decade: “in this country I have found the tranquility that I have always searched for”. Here, her strongest ties were to other exiles and expatriates, notably the English painter Leonora Carrington and the French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicolle. However, because Mexican muralism still dominated the country’s art scene, surrealism was generally not well received.
She worked at other jobs, including in publicity for the pharmaceutical company Bayer, and decorating for Clar Decor. In 1955 she was ready for her first solo exhibition at the Galería Diana in Mexico City, which was a success. By this time, Mexico had opened up to other artistic trends and buyers were put on waiting lists for her work. Returning full circle, her paintings often reflected the painstaking precision and skills that she had learned earlier in her life. While there is little overt influence of Mexican art on her work, Varo and other surrealists were captivated by the seemingly porous borders between the marvellous and the real in Mexico.
Varo also turned to a wide range of mystic and hermetic traditions, encompassing her belief in magic and animistic faiths. She felt connected to nature and often illustrated the relationships between plant, human, animal, and mechanical worlds. Her fascination with science including Einstein’s theory of relativity and Darwinian evolution, has been noted by admirers of her art.
She turned with equal interest to the ideas of Carl Jung as to the theories of George Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, Helena Blavatsky, Meister Eckhart, and the Sufis, and was as fascinated with the legend of the Holy Grail as with sacred geometry, witchcraft, alchemy, and the I Ching. Referred to as a ‘sorceress‘, Varo expressed her beliefs on witchcraft in a letter to English author Gerald Gardner: “personally, I don’t believe I am endowed with any special powers, but instead with an ability to see relationships of cause and effect differently, and this beyond the ordinary limits of common logic.”
While Varo did not directly deem her work ‘feminist’, it was noted that “she stretches the limits of and directly challenges confabulated, patriarchal ideals of femininity”, as well as frequently focusing on female empowerment and agency. The androgynous figures characteristic of her later pieces also challenge gender, in that the figures do not fall neatly into normative categories. One critic stated, “because the female body, a sacred erotic artistic space, is transformed by [Varo] into non-gendered shapes and forms, namely animals and insects, the space becomes freed from monolithic sexual interpretation.”
The books ‘Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy’ by Grillot de Givry and ‘The History of Magic and the Occult‘ by Kurt Seligmann were highly valued in Breton’s surrealist circles. And she saw in each of these, broader avenues to self-knowledge, and new languages for the expression and transformation of consciousness.
Traversing Time and Space: Multi-Dimensional Models
In consistently questioning the status-quo, surrealism also depends on forms of knowledge, patterns of belief, and ways of life considered exterior to urbanised modernity. These ‘alternative orders’, located through research and practice, have the power to create effective challenges to established systems, sparking the potential for acts of liberation. Surrealist enquiry has benefitted from retrieving or uncovering the past, sometimes merging several unrelated traditions, or positioning itself between them.
For example Kitawaki Noboru drew upon both the Taoist book of the I Ching and German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book on the theory of colour. For some, such as Kurt Seligmann, the exploration has extended into magic and alchemy, while Yüksel Arslan has focused on the complete dismissal of existing forms. Through the re-alignment of systems and processes, artists drawn to surrealism across different times and places, have found ways to express models of reality operating in multidimensional spaces between cultures and eras.