Surrealism: An Anti-War Art Movement

by Annie Saxena on Feb 09, 2023

Surrealism was a multidisciplinary cultural movement that emerged in Paris during WWII. It was an offshoot of the ‘anti-art’ movement, Dada, that strived for viewers to question the state of art, politics and society. Surrealism was intensely anti-war, anti-bourgeois, and held strong political affinities with the radical left. The art movement was a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests, which many Surrealists believed were the root cause of the war.

Many Surrealists believed that the reason and logic of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. So they expressed their rejection of that ideology in their artworks which rejected ‘logic’ and embraced chaos and irrationality. This artistic, intellectual and literary movement was led by poet André Breton, also nicknamed ‘the Pope of Surrealism’ from 1924 through World War II. In his manifesto he described the origin of the art movement as, “It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself.” Surrealist imagery is probably the most recognizable element of the movement, yet it is also the most elusive to categorize and define. Each artist relied on their own recurring motifs inspired from their dreams.

The two people they were greatly inspired and influenced by were Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Influenced by Karl Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.

Sigmund Freud inspired them to tap into their subconsciousness and create art that was an authentic representation of their true self or ‘Id’. Dada artists would use everyday objects that could be bought and presented as art with little manipulation by the artist. The use of the readymade forced questions about artistic creativity and the very definition of art and its purpose in society.

With its emphasis on content and free form, Surrealism provided a major alternative to the contemporary, highly formalistic Cubist movement and was largely responsible for perpetuating in modern painting the traditional emphasis on content.The founding Surrealists included André Breton, Max Ernst, Georges Bataille, Man Ray, André Masson, Gala Éluard, and Joan Miró. Although Dali was a latecomer into the Surrealist circle, he epitomizes, more than any other member, everything that is irrational, erotic, insane and fashionable. His most famous artwork entitled ‘The Persistence of Memory’, 1931 remains to be his most recognized work until today. The painting features melting pocket watches, which becomes an unconscious symbol of relative space and time. Dada’s weapons of choice in their war with the establishment were confrontation and provocation.

They attacked traditional artistic values with irrational attitudes and provoked conservative complacency with outrageous statements and actions. Dada questioned the value of all art and whether its existence was simply an indulgence of the bourgeoisie. They didn’t want a passive audience. It was all about making people think.

Surrealism was an innovative art movement wherein it aimed to represent the harsh truth about the war through seemingly distorted and unreal artworks. The Surrealism art movement had a great impact on art, literature, culture and even extending to politics. Some art historians suggest that the death of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an organized movement. However, elements of Surrealism still exist in contemporary art. The Surrealist impulse to tap into the unconscious mind, and their interests in myth and primitivism, went on to shape many later movements such as Pop Art, and the style remains influential to this today. The advancement of digital art has made it easier to incorporate surrealist elements. However, the surrealist art of today does not have the same political edge as the art movement had started out to be.