Ceci n’est pas un titre

A window on Surrealism by Monica Fernandez


You see it and get that nightmarish shiver you can only recall from your dreams. It is an image inviting you to get lost in the world in front of your eyes while the world behind them strives to decipher that strange familiarity. It is an unconventional word and a plot twist in the story. It is absurd and childish. It is real and abstract. A philosophy: surrealism.

Surrealism in art is by definition the expression of the subconscious and the automatism of the mind (Voorhies). This results in the irrational juxtaposition of elements that together evoke a reaction, and the beauty of it is that the interpretation is different to each spectator. This art movement started in the 1920s. It is inspired by the earlier movement of Dadaism (Voorhies), which according to one of his founding members, the artist Jean Arp, it seeks “to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order”. (MoMA Learning). Surrealism applies mainly to visual arts and writing, but in my opinion it works as long as it puts images on your mind with its contradictory atmosphere.

Even though there is one definition for surrealism, each artist developed the idea in a great variety of styles and contexts. Let’s take for instance four of the most famous surrealist painters: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Remedios Varo and Max Ernst. Each of them is part of the same movement but their art speaks in different ways. Salvador Dalí’s art is the fascination for the weirdness and the pure expression of the automatism of the mind. René Magritte takes a more philosophical approach where he challenges the spectator about their perception and categorization of things. From the title of his paintings he seeks to free the viewer of any suggestion that might tie him to what he literally sees in the canvas. He seeks that contradiction of the word against the image. Remedios Varo shows us the dream realm with a touch of fantasy, where she creates mystical characters full of colors that linger in labyrinth worlds. Max Ernst was one of the leading figures this art movement and some of his late paintings can be described as the abstract side of surrealism.

Surrealism extends to literature too. In fact, one of the founders of this movement is the French writer and poet André Breton. Be warned that surrealist poetry is not very easy to read. Surrealist poetry reflects the same irrationality of elements as visual arts. The poets where more interested in the psychological association of the words than their meaning (Columbia Encyclopedia); it is like a stream of thoughts. It is different when you talk about a surrealistic novel. You can still find strangeness in its elements, descriptions and motives, but there is a story line you can follow.

Entering to the cinematic world, surrealism has developed through this medium in very different ways. The movement started with pure abstraction such as the film Un chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. For the process of writing the script, the director explains:

“Our only rule was very simple. No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind will be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us without trying to explain why”. (Buñuel 104)

Later on, directors started to actually create a dramatic line. The advantage of cinema is the tremendous amount of tools you have at your disposal to deliver the appropriate atmosphere. Surrealism became present in the way the story is told, and it is very common to find a plot twist in its structure; a twist that only makes things more bizarre than they where before. We can also find the ideology of surrealism present in very different contexts and styles. Let’s take for example directors Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. The work of both directors is clearly influenced by the original surrealist movement, but each has its own vision in their stories. Terry Gilliam’s films are bright and full of color. Their stories treasure the elements of fantasy and freedom like in the films The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. They are also comic and dark mixed with science fiction like in Brazil or Twelve Monkeys. The comedy in his movies emphasizes the more day-to-day side of surrealism: the absurd. On the other hand, the world of David Lynch’s films is strange in a dark way. The subconscious and the dream realm always influence the plots and motives in his stories. Generally his characters have secrets that are evolving in their minds until a breaking point, and it is that state of mind that can be seen in the film.

And how does one can sit and enjoy a piece of art based on irrationality and abstract concepts? One thing is for sure: to truly appreciate surrealism in art, you have to let yourself go from all judgment and rationality. One has to understand that maybe the juxtaposition of the elements you see are meant to be unrelated. Instead of feeling frustrated by it, I would suggest to have fun and observe how even the illogical idea of its content starts to play with your mind since, inevitably, it will try to establish an order within the chaos. Even if you choose to hate it you can’t deny the initial curiosity because we all are drown by mystery, and what could be a biggest mystery than the mind itself? The mexican poet Octavio Paz says:

“Surrealism is not a school of poetry but a movement of liberation… A way of rediscovering the language of innocence, a renewal of the primordial pact, poetry is the basic text, the foundation of the human order. Surrealism is revolutionary because it is a return to the beginning of all beginnings.” (Poets.org)

The mind identifies the elements that you can define in the physical world colliding with a concept that expands its meaning and perception. This makes surrealism relatable to everyone in spite of how bizarre it might appear to be, because at the end, surrealism is human.

List of recommendations:

    Directed by David Lynch:
    – Inland Empire
    – Eraserhead
    – Mulholland Drive
    Directed by Terry Guilliam
    – Brazil
    – Zero Theorem
    – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
    From other directors:
    – Meshes of the Afternoon (short film)- Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid
    – Le Sang d’un Poète – Jean Cocteau
    – Pi- Darren Aronofsky
    – Being John Malkovich – Spike Jonze
    – Persona- Ingmar Bergman
    – Paprika – Satoshi Kon
    – Seven Deadly Sins – Milorad Pavic
    – The Wooden Sea- Jonathan Carroll
    – Poems – Andre Breton
    – Naked Lunch- William S. Burroughs
    – The Wind-up bird Chronicle- Haruki Murakami
    Famous Painters
    – Rene Magritte
    – Max Ernst
    – Salvador Dalí
    – Remedios Varo
    – Leonora Carrington
    – Pierrot Lunaire- Schoënberg
    – Philomel- Milton Babbit

    Work Cited

    Voorhies, James. “Surrealism”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/surr/hd_surr.htm (October 2004)
    The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed. “Surrealism in Literature.” Questia. Cengage Learning, 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. .
    “Dada.” MoMA Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. .
    Buñuel, Luis. My Last Breath. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1985. Print.
    “La Generacion Del 27: Dali, Bunuel, and Lorca.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. .

    Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Monica grew up always surrounded by books, music, and art. Inspired by her family’s musical traditions, she decided to become a professional musician at an early age. She began her career as a classical pianist. Later, as an independent singer-pianist songwriter, she started to produce and record her original songs. Now, led by her passion for telling stories, she studies Film Scoring and a Literature minor at Berklee College of Music.