30th January 2023 – The Surrealist Movement – Tom Smith

Tom Smith specialised in foot and ankle surgery and retired in 2005 as a Consultant at Claremont Hospital in Sheffield but continued to lecture until recently.  He was quick to explain that his interest in the Surrealism Movement has very little to do with his professional life. 

Before the First World War there was a period of artistic and literary movements like Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism centred around Italy, France and Germany.  From these movements emerged an art movement called Dadaism around 1916 and after the War it flourished in Paris until the mid 1920s.  It produced works of anti-art that deliberately defied reason.  From Dadaism grew Surrealism but its emphasis was not negation but on positive expression.  The movement represented a reaction against what its members saw as the destruction wrought by the “rationalism” that had guided politics and culminated in WW1.

A major spokesman for the movement was Andre Breton, a poet and critic who published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.  For him it was a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realm of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in “an absolute reality, a surreality”.  From theories adapted from Sigmund Freud, Breton saw the unconscious as the wellspring of the imagination. 

The Movements achievements were and are mostly in the field of painting. Giorgio de Chirico and Marc Chagall were an early influence.  Breton demanded firm doctrinal allegiance to be a Surrealist resulting in expulsions, defections and personal attacks.  Each artist sought their own means of self-exploration.  Joan Miro used Surrealism as a liberating starting point for an exploration of personal fantasies, conscious or unconscious.  Max Ernst and Andre Masson followed this approach.  At the other end of the spectrum was Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali who produced minutely depicted paintings that made no rational sense. 

A few women were in the movement and it may be surprising that Breton met Frida Kahlo in Mexico in 1938 together with Leon Trotsky. Two years later Trotsky was assassinated  Differences between the anarchists and the Trotskyists split the movement as surrealism spread around the world. Today surrealism lives on with groups like the Chicago Surrealist Group, the Leeds Surrealist Group and the Surrealist Group of Stockholm.