So Surreal.

“The Truth About Comets” by Dorothea Tanning. Source:

Surrealism turns one hundred this year. That seems like a weird thing to say since surrealism seems like it’s always been around, depending on how you define it, but some places are calling 2024 its centenary and there are exhibits around the world marking the occasion since it was 1924 when the when the writer Andre Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto and gathered together a group that would call themselves the Surrealists. Being surreal they didn’t have a clear plan but after the horror of World War I, which most people didn’t realize already had a sequel in the works, Breton had the idea that by exploring dreams, inspired by Freud, and dreamlike states the Surrealists could tap into an absolute freedom, unify humanity, and make the world a better place. So of course Breton set up a bunch of rules and kicked anyone out of the group if they disagreed with him. The first and most famous expellee was Salvador Dali who, in a plot twist, is an artist a lot of people think of when they hear “surrealism”, especially his melting clocks. Talk about persistence, even for people who don’t remember him. Surrealism bringing very different artists—writers, painters, even photographers from all over the world—together as a group shows what can be really good about an art movement. Most of the male Surrealists had lousy opinions of women but there were still some women like Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington who were part of the movement, and Frida Kahlo exhibited with the Surrealists although she considered them elitist and stayed independent. The divisiveness and exclusiveness of the Surrealist group also showed what’s worst about art movements, especially a movement that, for some, was supposed to be about unity and making a better world.

2024 also marks the sixty-fifth anniversary, in 1969, of what at least one Surrealist called the end of Surrealism. Breton had been dead for three years at that point and so were many of the group’s original members, while others had left, but it’s still ironic to me that at the height of the psychedelic Sixties anyone would call Surrealism “over”. A bunch of hippies descending on Woodstock must have seemed pretty surreal to people of upstate New York. And a lot of artists did push back, saying, “We’re here, we’re surreal, we’re aardvarks!”

I went through a long phase in college of being really fascinated by the Surrealist movement. Dali was my gateway but I went so much deeper than that, which set me apart from most of my friends. How many pretentious English majors have read both of Breton’s manifestoes and can name at least twenty members of the original group? A lot, probably, now that I think about it, but on a small liberal arts campus in Indiana I stood out like an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating room table. Surrealism was my jam, even my obsession. But I realize now that if you’d asked me to define it I couldn’t give you a clear answer—aside from saying it was an art movement that started in the early 1920’s. And even the word “surrealism” was only been invented a few years before that by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, from “super reality”—not a better reality, but an “above reality”.

Still the Surrealists themselves had an idea that surrealism in some form had always been around, or had at least been around a long time, making Hieronymous Bosch, Baudelaire, and Dante, among others, posthumous members. It seems like anything that presents an alternate reality, like myths, folklore, science fiction and fantasy, anything dealing with the supernatural, are forms of “surrealism”. So are cartoons, jokes, comedy sketches. Video games. Those weird pictures clickbait articles use. The Marx Brothers have been called “surreal”. So have Monty Python and The Kids In The Hall. Start thinking about this enough and you can really go down a rabbit hole of what surrealism is, and even what reality itself is, which is why it’s fitting that Lewis Carrol was also an influence on the Surrealists.

Something I never bothered to think about when I was young but which is a lot more important to me now is, did Surrealism make the world better? And I can’t answer that either. So much can be called “surreal” that trying to imagine a world without surrealism is like trying to imagine a world without plastic, although you’re less likely to find fur-covered teacups choking up the oceans.

If there’s something good about it, though, it’s that surrealism—the idea, and to some degree the movement—was so inclusive. It wasn’t the first movement to expand the idea of what qualifies as art, as well as encouraging more creative expression, but it was an early one and has an enduring legacy. I’d really lost interest in surrealism but I’m glad this centenary got me thinking about it again because stomach whoomph ichthyosaurus black hole turnip.

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  1. mydangblog

    I studied Surrealism in uni particularly as it applied to cinema. Ever seen Le Chien Andalou by Dali and Louis Bunuel? Eek! But still, a fascinating movement. For fun, read Orwell’s essay on Dali–wow, did he ever HATE him!
    mydangblog recently posted…Taking The FallMy Profile

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Oh boy, have I seen Un Chien Andalou. A couple of times, which is one more time than most people are willing to watch it. And I read Orwell’s essay on Dali back when I was studying surrealism. Orwell really nailed Dali–understood him perfectly, I think, except for one thing: Orwell’s response is exactly what Dali wanted. Dali was the original troll, before there was an internet, doing and saying things just to get reactions. Did he mean all the stuff he said? That’s hard to say. I really don’t think he cared, which is pretty awful.


    This is above most blog posts, Chris, really. Ann is here and aardvarks aar aarghhh aas aalways.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The internet may just be the most surreal thing we’ve ever come up with, but it’s also great for making connections. Thanks for not kicking me out.


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