Key concepts in Surrealism; focussing on René Magritte

It is difficult to reduce Surrealism down to a few keywords, because while the movement had general themes of revolution, the uncanny, and new ways of both creating and viewing art, they were simply a constellation of reference points that each artist passed through. There was of course a shared dialogue on various topics including art, philosophy, social order, and politics, but each artist brought their own ideas and style to movement, with the freedom to experiment being a the most important concept.

The term ‘surrealism’ was first coined in 1917 by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. It was then built on by André Breton, also a French poet and writer, who published his Le Manifeste de surréalisme/Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. This was not a rulebook or bible, but it was a healthy springboard for like-minded writers and artists looking to break free from what they considered to be the abyss of rationalism and Enlightenment logic.

Breton, decades later, would look back and describe Surrealism as an intention to overcome obstacles of logic, morality, and conventional aesthetic imposed on them by a brutally robotic system of ideals.

René Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian artist who was a key part of the avant-garde movement in Brussels, and also spent some time with the Paris collective. Although trained academically, he had earlier dabbled in Cubism and Futurism, before finally finding his place in Surrealism, after seeing Giorgio de Chirico’s The Song of Love (1914), calling his engagement with the painting an epiphany.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Song of Love
Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, The Song of Love, oil on canvas, 73 x 59.1 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York

He was also fascinated by Dada, which in fact could be characterised as the father of Surrealism. Although there is neither a straightforward nor linear evolution of avant-garde and art history, Surrealism can be seen to be an exaggeration of Dada, which was a movement characterised by its absurd and accidental, and its rejection of the established definitions of art.

Similar to Dadaism, the first generation of Surrealism shared a sense of disillusion born out of their direct experience with World War I: anger at the nationalism, militarism, and the order oriented world that led to and then allowed such destruction. Dada used nonsense as a weapon against the institutions that in their eyes brought about the Great War, creating absurd images and sculptures that mocked rational attitudes.

Rene Magritte, Le Modele Rouge

Though later in his career, Magritte’s Le Modéle Rouge (The Red Model), 1935, can be seen as tracing back to his Dada roots, with the depiction of a pair of “human boots”: a morphing of shoes and human feet. This image at the time was heavily scrutinised for interpretational meaning, but Magritte maintained his innocent intentions. He was merely addressing the problem of the object and turning it into a crise de l’objet (a crisis of the object), and in doing so creating a totally absurd, impractical, and almost obscene item.

Surrealism picked up Dadaist ideas and ran with them, while taking a more serious philosophical approach.

During the outbreak of Surrealism, many artists used a more physical technique to create their art, such as frottage, grattage, or automatism: a type of free creation characterised as the suspension of the conscious mind to release subconscious images. Magritte never fully engaged with these practices, and is described as being suspicious of spontaneity. He did, however, experiment with other uncommon methods, mainly the inclusion of words and text into his paintings.

René Magritte, La Clef des Songes
René Magritte, La Clef des Songes (The Interpretation of Dreams), 1927. Oil on canvas. 37.9×54.9cm. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.

In La Clef des Songes (The Interpretation of Dreams), 1927, he depicts a series of objects and includes painted subtitles. But where one would expect to see the appropriate name of the object, he puts unrelated words – a bag is labelled le ciel (the sky), a pocket knife is l’oiseau (bird), and a leaf is le table (table). But the last – the sponge – is correctly identified as l’éponge. This outlier reinforces the puzzlement of the other disjunctions, while simultaneously turning the expected into something strange.

In this, he reminds the viewer not to confuse resemblance with representation, by calling attention to the uneasiness felt when the viewers’ preconceived notions are disrupted, in order to trick them into actively seeing the work, rather than falling into the habit of mere passive looking.

This is perfected a few years later in what is probably his most famous painting, La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), 1929.

René Magritte, La Trahison des Images
René Magritte, La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), 1929. Oil on canvas. 63.5x94cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Here he paints a pipe above a script that says ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’: this is not a pipe. He is right! It is a painting of a pipe. In a painting, words are of the same substance as images: literally and figuratively. This painting synthesises the earlier lessons of La Clef des Songes, deconstructing and redefining barriers of image and language.

Magrittes’ paintings were not spontaneous, but carefully chosen and meticulously crafted. He continued to use the conventional materials of oil and canvas, painting with academic technique and maintaining a highly polished finish. For him the idea of the painting was more important than its formal qualities: “it is not a question of painting, but of thinking”.

From an outside perspective, Magritte could be seen as a typical bourgeoise pig, with his strict suits and quiet bowler hat. But this was part of an outward persona that he created, generating a further sense of disjunction and paradox. In reality, Magritte was floored by the absurdity of capitalism, and, like many other artists in the movement, saw Marxism as a clear alternative. He denounced capitalism as hypocritical in its refusal to recognise a thing for what it was.

This is a theme he plays with in his paintings, wherein objects appear weightless, out of place, even formless, to allude to a world of values turned upside down.

René Magritte, Les Muscles Celestes
René Magritte, Les Muscles Celestes (The Muscles of the Sky), 1927. Oil on canvas.54x73cm. Privately owned.

An example of this is his 1927 painting Les Muscles Celestes (The Muscles of the Sky), which consists of biomorphic, suggestively sentient shapes. A cloudy sky descends into sharply outlined forms reminiscent of human figures, which stand upon a wooden stage-like base. It appears collage-like, almost cut and paste, yet the shadows and linear perspective give a sense of three-dimensionality. It is a pictorial paradox; physical solidity mixed with abstraction to create a disturbingly recognisable image; surrealistic!

Both Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx were significant in Surrealist philosophy, specifically their ideas on exploring the liberation of thought through embracing the irrational and opening oneself up to deep desires and fears. Freuds’ studies of dreams and the subconscious were an essential element of Surrealist theory.

Dreams are an inherently visual realm, fraught with imaginative creativity, and tantamount to the highest limit of mental freedom: in a dream, anything was possible.

Later in his life, Magritte insisted that his works were not derived from dreams, but from the mystery of the everyday. While this is certainly plausible, it is undeniable that his paintings contain that dreamlike quality found in so many Surrealist paintings. Yet, in saying that, what makes his works even more uncanny is his defamiliarising of the familiar: turning banal objects and everyday scenes into something eerie and disconcerting.

Paul Nougé, the Belgian equivalent of Breton, saw Magrittes’ works as an attempt to subvert a society that was no longer sure of itself, declaring that “the world has been altered – there are no longer any ordinary things”.

Magritte took commonplace scenes and turned them in on themselves as a form of sublimation: a process where reality is contested.

René Magritte, Not to be Reproduced
René Magritte, Not to be Reproduced, 1937. Oil on Canvas. 81x65cm. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Not to be Reproduced, 1937, could be viewed through Freud’s discussion of subconscious fear and desire driving our conscious actions. This painting shows a depiction of art collector Edward James looking into a mirror and seeing only the back of his head. The paradox of the repetitive image is not only the disruption of expectations due to lack of the mans face reflecting back, but the fact that the book on the shelf is reflected correctly. This could play into superstition revolving around mirrors, and the fear of looking into one and having your reflection not look back.

René Magritte was but one of many artists who, during the early and middle part of the 20th Century, used their art to try to transform the world, through activation of the viewer’s mind. Surrealism as a genre never really went away, and the term has been commonplace in language and thought. Certainly, this group of artists achieved at least part of their goal, in causing audiences to re-think how they view art, art’s place in the world around them, and also to consciously engage with that very world.

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