The emergence of surrealism, the international intellectual, artistic, and political movement, was marked by the publication in Paris of poet André Breton’s “First Surrealist Manifesto” in 1924. Traumatized by the irrationality and bestiality of World War I and using Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis as a primer, surrealist literary and visual artists rejected traditional codes of conduct as repressive. In their works they advanced instead the arbitrary, the uncanny, acts of transgression, and the breaking of taboos. Tapping into alternative states of consciousness, including dreams and trances, they sought to liberate the imagination through what they termed psychic “automatism,” a stream-of-consciousness method of painting or writing.
Surrealism’s broad-ranging pictorial expression—what has been aptly described as its stylistic schizophrenia—used disruptive visual tactics, often through the titillating juxtaposition of unrelated ordinary objects. Exploring violent, irrational, and sexual subject matter, the surrealists engaged in campaigns to disturb classical ideals of beauty and challenge social conventions. Photography, as a means of distorting reality and revealing the strangely marvelous in the everyday, became a particularly potent medium.
The political turmoil of the 1930s accelerated the dispersal of surrealism across Europe and beyond as artists sought asylum from the spread of war and fascism. From Mexico to New York, artists absorbed and transformed its ideas. Some employed chance to destabilize artistic agency. Others examined, extended, or critiqued the commodification and objectification of the human body—especially the female body—by using mannequins, dolls, or machines in their work. The exchange of revolutionary ideas that surrealism engendered would act as a vital catalyst for avant-garde artistic practice on both sides of the Atlantic during the second half of the twentieth century.