The Surreal Life

Surrealism is not only alive and well, it could be the antidote to our modern angst

| May / June 2005

For a movement that set out to change the world, surrealism seems at first glance to have left a pretty paltry legacy: Salvador Dal?'s melted watches, Rene Magritte's little men in bowler hats, and an adjective -- surreal -- that's been abused almost as often as ironic. Yet appearances may be (appropriately) deceiving. Surrealistic currents, coursing through our media culture, transform much of what we see and how we see it. In fact, we may all be surrealists without knowing it.

In the early 1920s, poet Andre Breton and a handful of like-minded poets and artists in Paris read Freud and the more psychically extreme writers of the past, from the marquis de Sade to the German romantics. They experimented with what Breton called 'pure psychic automatism,' which was most often exercised in the form of 'automatic writing' -- rapid, uncensored outpourings on the page. They became convinced that the innovative, creative power that had previously been thought of as the province of artists alone lay latent in all human minds.

Unlike earlier artistic isms, which were driven by the search for new forms, surrealism asserted that form mattered little; what was important was tapping the power of everyone's unconscious and sparking a revolution both psychic and political. (The surrealists even established an uneasy alliance with the Communist Party. It didn't last.)

Surrealist activity would spread worldwide and take a bewildering variety of forms: the crystalline poetry of Paul Eluard; Louis Aragon's melding of prose documentary and dream-vision; Max Ernst's frottages (made by rubbing chalk on a piece of paper that had been laid over a piece of wood or another grainy surface); the Czech Jindrich Styrsky's moody, disturbing photo collages. The one quality that nearly all surrealist art shared was reveling in odd juxtapositions -- visual and verbal non sequiturs that created a sense that ordinary life and dream are two sides of one thin coin. Breton became convinced that daily life itself could be experienced surrealistically; he made forays into the Paris flea markets, enjoying the rich strangeness of the place and searching for the 'most surreal object.'

Today, a hardy band of artists in Chicago, led by Franklin Rosemont, keep surrealism alive as both an artistic and a political movement. Other groups, from Serbia to Argentina, claim the legacy formally or informally; American artist J. Karl Bogartte's Web site has links to many of them ( The work of Boulder-based writer Rikki Ducornet recalls the stories of surrealist foremothers like Leonora Carrington. Among younger artists, the playwright Lisa D'Amour and the Oakland-based alternative rapper Doseone handle language with a sense of dreamlike flow and unpredictable juxtaposition that are purely surrealist in spirit.

'I like to use the unexpected to jolt audiences into an awareness that their everyday lives don't necessarily make logical sense,' says D'Amour, an admirer of Breton whose latest play 'ends with people pulling flowers out of each other's eyes.'

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