Light upon the surreal
January 26, 2010 1:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in reading and getting a better grasp on Surrealism. Other than Breton's manifestoes and Benjamin's essay (which i found not all that helpful) are there any illuminating essays?
posted by MrMisterio to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would start with something like David Hopkins's Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction. Surrealism flowed directly from dada, and dada only makes some sort of sense (not that they'd like that word, mind you) in the historical context of what was happening in Europe -- politically, culturally, and artistically -- in the wake of WWI. I'm a huge fan of a lot of the dadaists (and, to a lesser extent, the surrealists), and none of the crazy manifestoes, etc. really started to make much sense to me until I could see them in a larger framework. (Even then, they don't always make much sense, being that they're often trying to be crazily oblique/obscure on purpose, as well as the fact that they're often get bogged down with with the obsessive minutiae of infighting between various different groups).
posted by scody at 1:36 PM on January 26, 2010

Surrealism flowed directly from dada, and dada only makes some sort of sense (not that they'd like that word, mind you) in the historical context of what was happening in Europe -- politically, culturally, and artistically -- in the wake of WWI.

Seconding this. My theater history professor told us this in college, setting up this historic context for us -- "they felt like the world just plain didn't make sense any more, and this was sort of a reflection of that" -- and the light bulb over my head switched on and I realized, "oh, now I get it."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:42 PM on January 26, 2010

Oh, and if I can get a little tangential about how much crazy infighting was truly built in to a lot of the manifestoes, programs, founding principles, etc. of the art movements of that period, I just want to quote from one of my favorite articles of the time, "The Congress of International Progressive Artists: A Short Review of the Proceedings" from the journal De Stijl, 1922 (which I came across while being lucky enough to get to edit this book):
Being in the majority, the Unionists thought themselves strong enough to win over the minority of really progressive artists to their side and to force them to sign the manifesto unconditionally. In true Prussian tradition everybody who did not obey was to be thrown out. This provoked a violent reaction from the progressive minority.... The next thing the Unionists did was to read aloud and applaud the program of the Young Rhineland group. Their program consisted of no less than 149 paragraphs.… At the twentieth point in the 149-paragraph program, the speaker (Mr. Wollheim) was interrupted by loud protests.… After that, the sitting was adjourned and the participants all joined for a boat trip.

…[On the second day,] the last speakers were Lissitzky, Richter, and Van Doesburg. They explained their reasons for attending the conference in a statement that was interrupted partly by applause, partly by protest…. After that, Mr. Raoul Hausmann (Dadaist) read a protest in both French and German declaring that he was neither for the progressives nor for the artists, and that he was no more international than he was a cannibal. He then left the room. Mr. Werner Graeff concluded the reply to Van Doesburg with the following words: “I am nearly the youngest of all of you and I have reached the conclusion that you are neither international, nor progressive, nor artists. There is therefore nothing for me to do here.”

This was greeted with loud applause by the IFdK group. Then with intense applause on the one side, and with the boos and cheers of the other side, the IFdK group, the Futurists, the Dadaists, and the majority of others walked out of the congress buildings.

posted by scody at 2:31 PM on January 26, 2010

I also had a feverish interest in anything surrealism. Looking back, it faded as quickly as it came. The only thing that I still remember vividly are the writings of Salvador Dali. It was a collection of memories, diaries and articles he wrote in "Diary of a genius", "The Secret Life" and "50 secrets of magic craftmanship". It's been more than 25 years since I've read it, but the stories have stayed with me. The one from his childhood where he jumps off the marble stairs of a church - head first - just to experience reality. I will never be able to watch this Yves Klein picture without thinking about Dali. Wonderful romantic ponderings about Gala. Wacky stories. Unlike the manifesto's this personal work gave me an insight in the heart and soul of the movement.

To get a kick start insight into the era and its historical/cultural context, you could torrent around for the BBC documentary "The shock of the new", by Robert Hughes. It also became a book, but tv series shows incredible material, really worth watching.

Both not really answers to your question, as they're not essays. But they both contribute to a different perspective of this grasping business part of your question.
posted by ouke at 3:43 PM on January 26, 2010

Well, looka here. It's low res. Quality isn't great. But all episodes can be watched online or downloaded from something called Probably doesn't look to bad on an iPhone.
posted by ouke at 3:54 PM on January 26, 2010

The History of Surrealism by Maurice Nadeau ( from $4.90 ) is a good place to start. Nadeau was there and wrote this during the occupation of France. This is the translation.
posted by adamvasco at 11:13 AM on May 21, 2010

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