Surrealism is one of the well-known cultural movements of the 20th century characterized by visual artworks and writings of various philosophers. That movement was founded at the beginning of 1920s by a French writer and theorist Andre Breton.
Surrealism is not just a simple form of art that is studied by numerous writers; it is a way of how people look at life and understand it from political, philosophical, aesthetical, and social perspectives. The best representatives of surrealism were Salvador Dali, Sigmund Freud, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp. Captivating writings and masterpieces of great people made a considerable impact on the development of surrealism.
One of the philosophers, who significantly influenced surrealism, was Sigmund Freud. To analyze how exactly surrealism was connected to Freud’s theories, it is necessary to identify the peculiarities of surrealism, to evaluate Freud’s theory, and find out how Freud’s ideas influenced the works of popular surrealists, Max Ernst, for example.
Surrealism grew out of another, not less popular movement, Dada. The peculiar feature of Dada movement was the idea to present anti-art works and to underline the darkness and sorrow of war. In its turn, surrealistic movement was characterized by more positive expression of reality. “The objective of surrealism was the infinite expansion of reality as a substitute for the previously accepted dichotomy between the real and the imaginary.” (Balakian 14)
One more peculiar feature of surrealism is that it is not one specific style, but the union of several styles, which are based on the same idea – to present the reality. This is why it is possible to define surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state by which we propose to express – verbally, in writing, or any other manner – the real process of thought.” (Leslie 59)
When we talk about surrealism, we cannot but remember such a brilliant philosopher, whose works made a certain impact on surrealism and its understanding, as Sigmund Freud. The ideas of this person changed lots of worlds, the world of psychology and art in particular. His idea of having a kind of fixation on sex and that having sex may be considered as an explanation of all human’s mental ills attracts lots of people and cause numerous misunderstandings of the others.
Freud did not afraid to break any boundaries, offer, and prove his own ideas and visions. His theories of psychosexual development, dreams, id, ego, and superego played a significant role in the history of art. As for surrealism movement, it is better to pay attention to one of Freud’s theories, the theory of dreams, where Freud called dreams as a kind of road to the unconscious. In other words, Freud was sure that dreams could easily demonstrate and explain the sense of the unconscious mind.
Surrealism presents the works of the subconscious mind. Freud identified dreams as the way to the subconscious. After we confront these two ideas together, it is possible to trace the connection of surrealism to Freud’s ideas.
In order to comprehend the ideas, which surrealists want to reproduce in their works, it is necessary to find the way to this unconscious, and it is possible only with the help of dreams. Freud’s dream theory is a kind of mechanism, the way according to which all our desires split through censorship. If a desire cannot be comprehended, it gets a form of some kind of absurdity.
For example, let us take two objects, which cannot be matched together in reality, melting clocks and trees, a bicycle and a fish, etc. These objects cannot be condensed into something one. This is possible only in a dream, when people desire something. This is what Freud’s theory about dreams is all about, and this is what surrealist representatives took from Freud.
However, Freud was interested not about the unconscious of surrealism. His burning desire was to analyze the conscious. He thought that all those experiments, which different surrealists did with psychic automatism (the release of the unconscious), are directed to ego activity.
Freud believed that such a direct release of the unconscious was a mistake. All those unconscious was shaped by the ego. So, surrealistic works could hardly be called as something unconscious. Even more, Freud underlined that if all those works were the products of unconscious, they could be much better.
One of the representatives of surrealism movement was Max Ernst. He was a German painter, poet, and sculptor. First, he enrolled to study philosophy; however, soon he gave up that affair and started painting. His works took a lot from Freud’s theories. The idea of chance and the unconscious are the leading ones in one of Ernst’s work – Oedipus Rex. The influence of Freud is felt from the very title of the work.
The Oedipus complex is often recognized in Freud’s ideas, as well as it is recognized in the work by Ernst. Each component plays a significant role for general perception of the picture. The image between the man’s hand and the bird symbolizes man’s desire to be free from the society he lives in. The wall, in comparison to the hand, is not that big that underlines that in fact does not play too significant role, however, it is an obstacle that a person cannot move on.
This picture also has a sexual character. The nut represents a woman, and the crack in this nut symbolizes the intercourse between a woman and a man. This intercourse means a lot as for a woman, as well as for a man. The point that a man’s hand holds this nut is also worthy of attention. It underlines woman’s position in the society, women depend from men, and this is one of the truths, which Ernst wanted to represent in his masterpiece.
In general, surrealism and Freud’s theories have lots in common. All of them are about the subconscious and the conscious. People sometimes cannot understand where the reality ends, and dreams start. Surrealism is one of the artistic movements with strong political, social, and aesthetical components. It was one of the most organized movements of the 20th century. Its leader was Andre Breton, however, not his ideas only were considered.
One of the most influential philosophers for surrealism was Sigmund Freud. His theory of dreams and the unconscious influenced a lot the development of surrealism. The main difference between surrealism and Freud’s theory was Freud’s statement that numerous surrealistic works were shaped by the ego, and this is why they cannot be considered as the unconscious works only. A part of the conscious is still present is the works, such as Oedipus Rex by Max Ernst.
Balakian, A. E. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Leslie, R. Surrealism: The Dream of Revolution. New York: Smithmark, 1997.