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Surrealism was created in the years 1920 in France. Surrealism was born out of Dada. Its foremost theoretician was the writer André Breton who wrote ‘Le Manifeste Surréaliste’ in 1924. Breton also founded a ‘Bureau of Surrealist Research’. President of this bureau became Antonin Artaud. The name ‘Surrealism’ came probably from a preface to Apollinaire’s play ‘Les Mamelles de Tiresias’ of 1917.

Surrealism was directed against the nihilism of Dada and declared its attachments to traditional art forms, and to bourgeoisie concepts of taste. One of Breton’s goals was to integrate dream and reality.

The Surrealist paintings stimulated the subconscience of the viewers. The artists appealed to the illusion of our senses. Thus, Surrealists explored the possibilities of automatism, spontaneous creation and the world of dreams. By the automatism they hoped to explore the human psyche, the true functioning of the mind, and the unexplored domains of the unconscious. They thought that the automatism would reveal the true, individual nature of the artist. Surrealism was the discovery of the unconscious by artists.

Surrealism did not stop at the middle of the twentieth century; painters continue to be inspired by the ideas and the spontaneity of illusionistic representation until our days.


The word Dada has no meaning. Dada means a child’s first words. The name expressed merely the simplicity of the form of art. Dada was an art movement that lasted mostly during the period of 1915 to 1922. Its centre was the ‘Cabaret Voltaire’ in Zürich, Switzerland, a place in a coffeehouse where artists came together to talk about bizarre art forms such as nonsense poetry and noise-music. The German poet and philosopher Hugo Ball founded the ‘cabaret Voltaire’ in 1916. The next year a ‘Galerie Dada’ opened in Zurich and then the art trend spread to other countries.
The Dada artists were very much opposed to traditional art. They used all their fantasy to shock established ideas on art. Objects were for Dada artists simple, normal objects torn out of their common daily contexts. Dadaism emphasised the irrational and was thus a precursor of Surrealism. It was essentially proposed as an art without meaning and without sense. Dada art also introduced notions of chance. Dadaists saw the war and contemporary society as a world based on greed and materialism, a bankruptcy of ideas. Dada was essentially a revolt and it was even more a way of life than a real style in painting or sculpture. The public and the established art critics were to be provoked and shocked with nonsense. The traditional notions of good taste and harmony and Academicism were to be drawn into derision. Dada was thus nihilistic. It presented meaningless objects in exhibitions and showed the non-superiority of the artist as a creator.
In Zurich worked Tristan Tzara, Marcel Yanco, Hans Arp, and Sophie Taeuber. In New York: Marcel Duchamp, Raoul Hausmann, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, and Kurt Schwitters.

Pittura Metafysica

Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà founded metaphysical painting in 1915 in Italy. They were then both recovering in a military hospital in Ferrara. This art was characterised by deformed perspectives and unworldly images. The artists placed common objects in strange settings and thus created dreamy, poetic scenes. This art trend had much in common with Surrealism and its artists were at times members of the Surrealist movement, but Meta-Physical painters took their distance from Surrealism in applying stricter compositions based on academic principles and on classic inspiration. Painters of this style were Carlo Carrà, Giorgio De Chirico, and Paul Delvaux. De Chirico was first called in by the Surrealists, but rapidly took his distance from them by underscoring his classic traditions.

Surrealism in general

There are two broad tendencies in Surrealist art. The first tendency privileged realistic representation of unreal, fantastic combinations of objects and environments. Among the painters of this group are Dali, Magritte, Delvaux, de Chirico and others. These Surrealists preferred clear lines to merely coloured areas. This Surrealist art was much elaborated in design, so naturally much attention was given to line. All kinds of lines and directions were applied, depending on the subjects. These Surrealists gave much attention to form, harmony, balance and symmetry. They were often quite academic artists, who contrasted clear line, clear forms with fantastic settings and combinations. Most of these Surrealists were very good artisans of painting and their Surrealism was a very formalistic art.

The second trend showed on the canvas ideas in symbols, unrelated and even abstract forms, brought together in a context that could be full of content and meaning or totally unrelated and content-less. To this group belonged, broadly, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, Wilfredo Lam and others. This distinction between the groups was proposed by Patrick Waldberg, a historian of the Surrealists.

The Surrealists gave much attention to colour. They used bright, primary, clear colours of high tones.

The Surrealists varied much in their means to arrive at illusion and surprising effects. The artists combined real objects that were seldom seen together in normal life creating thereby strange moods in poetic images. They arranged images of objects in free associations. They placed the objects in no relation to each other, as may appear in dreams. They thought dreams created imagination in its most primitive state. Dreams were the pure expression of the marvellous. They sought escape from banal, everyday experience. The Surrealists created a joyful, optimistic, surprising art. They combined images of reality into experience of the world of imagination. They looked beyond immediate reality and took to images as revealed by the unconscious or by our senses in a state of heightened sensibility. Automatism as the Surrealists saw it was a procedure employed to avoid control over composition.
The result was an art of painting centred on the beauty of the images and on lyrical perceptions. In dream paintings the illusionistic techniques predominated; they were not necessarily records of dreams. Surrealism was illusionistic reality for Dali and Magritte. Surrealists questioned our assumption of the world and the relationships between a painted and a real object. They made unforeseen analogies, strange associations of normal objects that were until then neglected in art. The artists depicted a state of sur-realism, a state beyond reality.

Many Surrealists were painters who represented objects and figures separately in a very realistic way. Thus they applied chiaroscuro to give volume to their subjects. They placed these objects in wide theatres for which they applied techniques of perspective realistically.

Surrealist painters were Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, René Magritte, Juan Miró, Victor Brauner, Paul Delvaux, Frida Kahlo, Arshile Gorky, Yves Tanguy, Edward Wadsworth, Giorgio de Chirico, and Roberto Matta.

Dada and Surrealism presented a change in content, as so many art forms of the twentieth century. In this art emphasis was not on absence of content but on content as had never before been seen: strange, deranging, surprising in its combinations of unfamiliar objects and surroundings combined together. As to form, Surrealist artists and some of the Pittura Metafysica painters returned to clear lines and shapes, clear compositions and colours of Classicism. Surrealism was a very figurative art, which may be somewhat of a surprise amidst so many abstract experiments.

The Human Condition

René Magritte (1898-1968). National Gallery of Art – Washington. 1933.

René Magritte was a Belgian painter, born in 1898 in the town of Lessines in the southern, French speaking part of the country. He started to draw very young, scarcely twelve years old. He was sixteen years, and a very sensitive boy, when World War I broke out. The horrors of the war and the suicide of his mother who threw herself in the Sambre River affected him much. Magritte first lived in the coal-mining town of Charleroi, later worked mostly in Brussels. He married at 24 a girl he had already met when he was 15. He would stay married with this same wife Georgette and lived a peaceful life. He was generally happy, not always rich but usually at ease. He walked the streets of Brussels with his bowler hat and his dog.

In the middle of the 1930’s, Magritte was recognised as one of the most important painters of modern art. He was particularly appreciated in the United States, where large and successful exhibitions of his works were held from 1936 on. He had many friends with whom he could discuss the main movements of art. His friends and correspondents also gave him ideas for paintings; he made photographs and humorous films with them. One would almost say that he led an uneventful, nice middle-class life in Brussels, until his death of cancer in 1967.

Yet, Magritte thought of himself as a revolutionary. And he made some of the strangest, deranging pictures of all times.

René Magritte’s images are not easily explained. There is much more to them than a quick view might suggest, although Magritte himself told repeatedly not to look too deep for explanations. He tried only once to explain in public how he made pictures and how he thought of the world. That was during a speech he gave on November 20 of 1938 in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. We will follow the lines of that speech and illustrate his ideas with some of his most remarkable pictures. Magritte called the speech ‘The Line of Life B6 ’.

Magritte said that we are subjects of an incoherent and absurd world, where one manufactured arms to avoid war. His contemporary world was a world in which science was applied to destroy and to kill, to form and to prolong the life of wrongdoers, in which the craziest activities worked to reverse effect. The world only pretended to be civilised but intelligence and stupidity, baseness and heroism lived well together. Indeed, when Magritte spoke these words he had experienced a first World War, Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany had come to power and the Spanish Civil War was almost finished with the advancing victories of Franco’s fascist troops, ending communist involvement in Spain. These were all contradictions and tensions in times when the Russian revolution seemed to become a success. Marxism was appealing to certain intellectuals and the rising power of the working classes was regarded as a possible alternative to bourgeois society.

So, Magritte continued to say that this state of the world could and would not continue. Magritte was talking here along the lines of Marxism, the dialectic materialism theory of Karl Marx. Marx had predicted that all capitalism would end in a socialist proletarian dictatorship. Marx’s theory was based on the philosophy of Hegel. Each thesis generates its anti-thesis, or its contradiction, which produces a synthesis. Marx applied this theory to history and he considered the strives between the classes as the most important power in historical development. Marx thought that the ultimate meaning of history would be in a proletarian victory over materialism. He thought that as long as classes would exist, art and science would sustain and support the ruling classes, whereas only in a classless society a complete spiritual development free of all influences would be possible. The classless society could only come through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Magritte subscribed to these theories.

Magritte continued to state in his speech that although many found these ideas to be Utopian, he – Magritte - consciously desired the proletarian revolution that would transform the world. However, while waiting for the destruction of the current mediocre reality, each person had to defend himself with the means he had. Nature had endowed Man with the state of dreams that could give to his body and spirit the freedom that it needed so dearly. Dreams especially could protect people by creating for the impatient and the weak the madness that protected them from the suffocating atmosphere of a world shaped by centuries of idolatry of money and gods B6 . We find here already the main themes of Magritte’s paintings: the world of dreams and love, and of isolation.

For Magritte, Surrealism would bring to humanity a method and a spiritual orientation to investigate domains that one chose to ignore and to despise, but that really could interest Man directly. Surrealism claimed for awakened, alert life, a liberty comparable to the life of dreams. He referred to the founders of Surrealism. André Breton, the French poet and writer, who called on that liberty. And Giorgio di Chirico had found in the juxtaposition of unrelated objects a new triumphant poetry. This was the new vision that broke with established mental habits of traditional artists, prisoners of the talents and virtuosities of their small aesthetical specialities. In this new vision, said Magritte, the spectator finds his isolation and hears the silence of the world.

For Magritte, Surrealism was the art by which to free himself of a world that human reason could no longer explain, the world of fascism and bourgeoisie values, a world that was chaotic and full of fears and contradictions.

Somebody showed Magritte a catalogue of Futuristic painting in 1915, when he was seventeen, and he started to paint in that Futuristic, and in the Cubist way. Magritte thus put into question the relations between an object, its real form and its apparent form as the Cubists had done. He looked for the plastic equivalents of what objects essentially were. The painted image very vividly suggested, as opposed to what we see in real life, an abstract existence. But Magritte told that he found in the appearance of the real world itself the same abstraction as in his pictures, because notwithstanding the complicated combinations of the details and nuances of a real landscape, he could see the landscape as if it were only a screen put before his eyes. So, he became very uncertain about the depths of the countryside and very little persuaded by the distance of the blue of a horizon.

Look at the painting ‘The Human Condition’. The frame holds a landscape. The canvas is flat. It is a screen. Behind the canvas is another, a real landscape. This landscape is the real three-dimensional one, but that landscape perfectly continues on the canvas. And of course, in contradiction and to extraordinary effect: both these landscapes are one-dimensional on Magritte’s painting itself.

This feeling of landscape as a flat screen was not new for painters. The French impressionists like Seurat had equally seen the world this way, when they decomposed the colours of objects. Magritte had to animate this new world that, although in movement, had no depth whatsoever and had lost all consistency. He thought then that the objects themselves had eloquently to reveal their own existence and he sought how to make manifest this reality.

Magritte’s previous experiences of painting having led to an abstract representation of the world, the abstraction became unnecessary from the moment on he had understood that this abstraction still and also identically characterised the real world B6 . His attempts to show the essentials, the evidence of an object, were neutralised by the abstract image that served to represent the object. This conclusion meant for Magritte that abstraction of objects, that abstract art, was not enough anymore to represent the essentials of objects. He needed another way of representing the real sense of an object.

Magritte continued then to explain that by giving the objects in his pictures all their details of reality he could again go beyond the plane of merely bringing reality into image, and put into question the real world. So, in 1925 he decided to only paint objects with all their apparent details.

From 1925 to 1926 Magritte painted about sixty paintings in which he objectively presented the objects in a detached way. He painted the sky blue, as a sky in our mind should be. He painted picturesque details. The picturesque charm was evident as long as it was not traditional. Its charm was in the unexpected, in the novelty of a strange ordering of objects B6 . For Magritte, picturesque could be efficient, under the condition that it be situated in a new order and in certain new circumstances. Magritte applied the picturesque but in an equivocal way. He showed objects where they usually are not expected.

Now, putting objects together in unusual circumstances was also not a very new method in painting. Even traditional painters had used the technique, made small allusions by juxtaposing objects so that they told a story or conveyed a special meaning. Magritte made this technique much more obvious. He wanted to make familiar objects cry out. They had to be put in an entirely different order and obtain an overwhelming new meaning. To illustrate this we can refer to a picture called ‘The secret Player’. In this picture wooden table legs stand as trees and form a forest; branches are growing out of their crowns. A form like a turtle flies in the airs like an angel. A player is holding the bat that has just struck a ball, or so we are made to believe, because there is no ball to be seen. The player that ought to catch the ball is behind the striker and both look in the same direction, the direction the ball has gone. Is there an invisible player outside the frame? Is there a ball? Our mind implies there is. For Magritte, this is the art of showing the invisible. In the midst of the forest stands a house, more only a cubicle. A woman stands at the window but she or he has a strong beard. Strange combinations.

Once Magritte had an inspiration of such a strange image he dwelled on it, analysed it, represented it in different ways. Remember how important he found analysis. And new ideas are almost automatically generated out of a first one, the sense of psychic automatism also being an appreciated theme of Surrealism.

Magritte said he had looked in the previous years, from 1926 to 1936, to consciously introduce overwhelming poetic effects, and that he could obtain this effect by showing objects of the real world. One of the means to obtain these effects is the change of scenery for the objects, for instance putting a Louis-Philippe style table on pack ice. Magritte advised to use very familiar objects in order to give the estrangement its maximum efficiency B6 . In the picture ‘The Voice of the Airs’, a very familiar object, so small that we hardly give any importance to it in our daily life, the small horse bell, comes floating in the air. Another trick is the creation of new objects by the transformation of existing ones, for instance by changing its substance.

Magritte continued to denominate the effects he used. He especially used words associated to images in uncommon ways. He gave objects wrong names. The titles of his paintings were more poetic phrases than explanations of meaning. They prevented to situate the pictures in the familiar reasoning of thought. There were all kinds of relations between objects and words, Magritte said: an object does not so much depend on its name that it would not be possible to name it otherwise, there are objects that do not need a name, an object encounters its name on the painting, a word can take the place of an object, sometimes words written on a painting designate a precise thing whereas an image may designate something only vaguely, and so on. Magritte liked thus playing with words and objects, one of the rare painters in history having thus linked image and word.

Magritte made a painting called ‘The Key to Dreams’. The painting shows some objects, a bag, a knife, a leaf, and a sponge. Under the bag is written ‘Sky’, under the knife ‘Bird’, under the leave ‘Table’ and under the sponge ‘Sponge’. Magritte said that this painting induced serious meditation. He wondered whether this was a list of things by which some are represented by their image and the other by their names, is it a melody the music of which would be made of objects and wherein the words would remain words, is it a deliberate poetic machination functioning by the errors of naming, or a revolt against speech? We are here at the limits of understanding and confronted with the basic difference between word and object. An object is not a word, a word not the object. Magritte would paint a pipe or an apple and write under it ‘This is not a pipe’; ‘This is not an apple’. Right he was.

Magritte further told that he represented in his pictures visions of half-sleep half-wakening. All that, so that objects would become sensational and would establish a profound contact between consciousness and the exterior world B6 . He once saw a cage and a bird asleep in the cage. He imagined the bird gone and replaced by an egg. The cage and egg had no link, yet they could bring to light a new, particular aspect: the egg could become a bird and the bird could normally be in the cage B6 . He investigated these directions. He had three elements: the object, something that could be linked to that object in his subconscience and the sudden light in which this something had to come forward. A door could have a large gap that showed what was behind the door. Magritte painted this idea. See also the painting ‘The Human Condition’. The scene represented on the painting hides exactly the same landscape behind. Does it? Remember what Magritte told earlier: that a landscape became for him merely a scene; this idea also is represented in the picture. We see the world: we see the real world exterior to ourselves and yet we only have a representation inside us.

Magritte represented a tree by its leaves, but by just one huge leaf. He painted huge leaf forests, something like Mondriaan had done in ‘Flowering Apple Tree’. In his painting ‘The Wonders of Nature’ another metamorphosis has happened: people have half changed into fish and thus have become sea creatures. Yet: can these navigate in clipper ships? Light has only meaning on an object, so only the object can give life to light. Magritte made several paintings with candles and light on objects.

Magritte then continued to explain some of his analysis on familiar things we encounter in everyday life and how he transformed them into astonishing pictures. He handled rain, which became clouds ramping on the ground. He took the idea of a horse and changed a woman into a horse; a hand showing forward direction with its index finger replaced a horse’s head. A horse was painted running on top of a car, and so on.

Magritte concluded by saying that the current world, so full of contradictions and chaos was continued because of the complex and ingenious explanations that justified it and made it acceptable to most men B6 . These explanations took into account certain experiences. But these experiences were devised, and not the result of an analysis of the real situation. He said that future society would develop experiences that would be the fruit of a serious, profound analysis.

The speech ‘The Line of Life’ was given in 1938. Magritte continued to experiment during and after the Second World War. He even introduced traditional picturesque elements again, for a time. Magritte also introduced Man, in the form of a dark-suited bowler-hatted man. Man became an object in itself that could be floating in the sky, usually turning his back without a face, sometimes with Botticelli’s nymphs on the back, with an apple in front of the face, sometimes with the texture of the sea or of a landscape. Magritte was not running out of tricks, but the idea behind his paintings had been proven enough now.

What to think of Magritte’s paintings and of his ideas? He certainly lived in his time, when so many new ideas and experiments were sought as a hope for too dreadful reality. His paintings can only be understood - as he said himself in ‘The Line of Life’ - by his era. His anger is understandable in view of the horrors of the wars and the hypocrisies of the period during the wars. Revolted he was; revolutionary, no not really. Magritte never went to fight in the International Brigade of Spain, as did Ernest Hemingway. He was acclaimed in ambitious exhibitions in Europe and the United States by the same middle and higher bourgeois classes he denied. Revolution remained most often limited to words. Sometimes also, we cannot but suspect that Magritte’s life was devoted to tricks, to the application of certain simple mechanics in pictorial representation. But Magritte would be outraged at that: he believed profoundly in his tricks.

And yet, René Magritte was a great painter. He was an excellent artisan and a great poet. His paintings do make us reflect profoundly on reality and dreams and on the twilight zone between both. They establish a strong link, strong communication between picture and viewer. His pictures do make us wonder, do make us look at reality otherwise. And many of his paintings are endowed with real poetic breath.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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