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Surrealism is dead, long live surrealism

In his first Surrealist manifesto of 1924, French writer and poet André Breton (1896-1966) advocates the dream, fantasy and the unconscious as a counterpart to rationalism. Inspired by the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Breton wants to create a new art free from the constraints of logic. Breton recounts how once, in a semi-conscious state just before falling asleep, he was struck by a sentence that just popped into his mind. "A man cut in two through a window." The phrase intrigued him, and the moment Breton decided to incorporate the sentence into a poem, new words and phrases popped up. This method of free association, free of conventions, becomes a hallmark of Surrealism. This art of the Surrealists is no longer based on reality as we know it, but on a world of dreams, fantasy and chance.

This world is shaped in the exhibition Surreal Worlds at Centraal Museum Utrecht that opens with the work of a number of Dutch Surrealists such as Gerrit van 't Net (1910-1971), Willem Leusden (1886-1974) and Jopie Moesman (1909-1988). Moesman's work in particular is a textbook example of Surrealism as his paintings show a dream world that also recalls the work of famous Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Besides the works of these Dutch artists, some paintings by well-known Surrealists such as Max Ernst (1891-1976) and Joan Miró (1893-1983) are on display. Also shown here are works by artists who cannot be directly associated with Surrealism. For instance, the art of painters from the Cobra group is based on the same principles, spontaneity and the subconscious mentioned by Breton in his manifesto.

J.H. Moesman, Meeting, 1932

Halfway through the exhibition, visitors can learn about two techniques used by the Surrealists, 'automatic writing' (automatic writing) and the 'exquisite corpse' (cadavre exquis). In automatic writing, the author uses phrases or words that come spontaneously to mind to create a new text, usually a poem. A cadavre exquis results from the collaboration of several artists. Each participant creates part of a work of art or text without knowing what the others are creating. Both techniques are based on spontaneity and chance and produce imaginative results.

At Surreal Worlds these results are designed in two parts, the first half of which has a historical bent, starting with artworks by the first surrealists through to modern artists such as Rene Daniels (1950). The second part of the exhibition shows how surrealist ideas still inspire many artists today. The fascination the Surrealists had with themes such as buttocks and breasts, hands and feet or faith can also be found in the work of contemporary artists. Some artists employ techniques that were also used by the Surrealists. A good example of this is a ready-made by Frank Halmans (1963), he combines existing objects and uses them to create a new image. His work 'Sad machines' (2007), for instance, consists of three alarm clocks and a title. Ready-mades were made even before Surrealism emerged, but were entirely in the spirit of Surrealism. 

Frank Halmans, Sad machines, 2007


Modern art history can sometimes give the impression that different movements succeed each other and that the arrival of a new movement also means the end of each preceding one. Central Museum shows that this is certainly not true of Surrealism. This movement is still alive today and traces of Surrealism can also be found in contemporary art.

This blog was written by guest blogger Danny Creusen

To learn more about Surrealism and related movements, take our Surrealism course!

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