All the things i write here are about surrealism and the many forms it takes. So my first thought when thinking about what article to write next was ‘I know – i’ll write a brief history of the movement and some of it’s most famous contributors’. That’s all well and good. But of course the history of the genre is not brief, and it’s certainly not straightforward. Sure, the first of Breton’s surrealist manifestos was published in 1924 (the second coming in at 1929) and of course the Dada movement before it is often placed with the establishment of the club ‘Cabaret Voltaire‘ by Hugo Ball – creating a satirical antithesis to contemporary art at that time – but at the end of the day, you can find all that on pages far better than mine (I especially recommend the Dada-companion.) As well as that the trail of surrealism’s heritage goes back to cubism, expressionism and all sorts of other movements beforehand. So instead what I want to do is tell you how I got into surrealism, they ways in which I found the appeal and maybe make recommendations as to how you might go about it in your own way.
I started surrealism in the same place where many people do, a cornerstone of everything we’ve been talking about. The art of Salvador Dali. Now along with Dali and many other things I mention in this article, i’ll be going into far more depth in separate posts. This is really just an introduction to each. Now I could start by telling you that he was born in 1904 and died in 1989 in Catalonia, Spain – but I didn’t know any of that when I first saw his painting, ‘The Persistence of Memory‘. I’m sure you’d recognise it yourself. It’s the bright blue sky over an unusually cuboid shoreline with a beach and tree covered in melting clocks. To be honest it was the sky and the beach that got me as much as the clocks. Regardless of the obvious weirdness, even the environment felt surreal. It felt lie somewhere uniquely devoid and yet devastatingly familiar. I must have spent about 20 minutes just staring at this painting thinking ‘where have I seen this before?’ Of course I ran back home and looked up as much of him as I could. It’s only then I found him to be one of the most influential painters of all time, helping to embody key aspects of the original surrealist movement. Though the root of his style is based in Renaissance masters such as Donatello or Fra Fillipo, he depicts on a canvas the product of his dreams, his sub-conscious and his suppressed mind in order to carry out that same surrealist mission against the standardised aesthetics of contemporary art. But Dali’s work even further than that, he was one of the key artists who gave surrealism a reason to be, that being that his works present a certain degree of truth (or at least honesty) in expression. The idea behind it is that our chemical thoughts that are not processed through the conscious mind have not been edited by the brain, they are not altered from their raw, abstract state – they are conceptual – they are surreal. Dali focused on trying to allow this process in in his art in a fluid sense, his works often symbolic of his own abstract thought – the name of that process is ‘Paranoiac-Critical Method’. Needless to say he was heavily influenced by Freud’s work on psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. Take ‘The Persistence of Memory’ for example, many claim the melting clocks is representative of Dali’s rejection of time as a distinct and deterministic force, that it’s really only a type of logic humanity puts onto the world so we can keep track of everything. Although
While there are those who claim that Dali actually contributed very little after his short time as a surrealist (moving to more traditional styles after his visit to Italy in the 40s, shortly after his expulsion from the surrealist movement by Breton) I will always remember that painting. His representation in popular culture and influence on generations of art after him is incalculable. Of course I lapped all this up, loving the distant feeling of his art, always feeling like I was somewhere entirely separate – desolate and beautiful. While my favourite Dali work is ‘The Elephants’ (1948) I would recommend just going through as much of his art as you can, I feel like individual ones speak to different people more or less, even though the melting clock has now become a worldwide symbol for modern surrealism. Dali’s fascination with raw abstract thought takes physical form too, as he was fascinated with the shapes of certain animals like snails for example and how they could be manipulated. Anyway I could talk about him a lot longer but there’s way more I had to encounter yet after coming home from that random admin room that had the cheap copy of Dali hanging up on the wall.
Dali opened my eyes to painting, something I had avoided by accident. After him I came across people like Max Ernst (‘Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale’ 1924, and ‘Napoleon In The Wilderness’ 1941) – another who produced shocking imagery as a representation of unconscious dreaming to mock social values and norms, producing work which draws you in on a fundamental, visceral level. This was as well as Dorothea Tanning (‘A Mi-Voix’ 1958 and ‘Some Roses and Their Phantoms’ 1952.) – an American artist who was slightly less centralised to pure surrealism but one who I found to be equally as influential, yet more terrifying. Her works seem more unnerving to look at, like there’s something waiting for you in between the painted lines. However i’d say the main things after all this that appeased my seeking of the weird was TV. The more ‘out-there’ sketches of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, as well as the British comedy ‘The League of Gentlemen’ – set in a sleepy town in rural England where the locals are for more sinister than at first appearance. It was a show that just had a complete lack of respect for anything serious, even though their humour was actually very dark. Most people know them for their ‘You’re my wife now Dave’ sketch in which a mysteriously dressed black and white, travelling man comes into someone’s home and convinces them to join his circus. It’s all very odd – even for me looking back on it.
I guess the next big thing for me was theatre. Some years had gone buy since I first started looking at surrealism and I hadn’t been dipping much into it. That was until 2013, when I saw a performance of ‘The Pitchfork Disney’ (1991) by Phillip Ridley. It was insane, utterly bizarre but unique memorable. The play follows two siblings, Presley and Haley, as they exist in an East London flat, living in squalor and childlike helplessness. This is until they’re visited by Cosmo Disney – an enigmatic figure who grants all their dreams to come true. Of course the play takes darker turns as Cosmo begins to abuse the two siblings and their dreams start to become nightmares. Everything about it oozes with strange. Even the flat it takes place in seems separate from reality somehow, as if they’re totally isolated for anyone else. It seems both familiar and unfamiliar. The monologues are lengthy explorations of each characters secret desires in the form of unkempt dreams. This for me seemed the epitome of the surreal. Of course it didn’t stop there. I realised at this point that there was a whole catalogue of theatrical surrealism that I hadn’t encountered. I began to read everything from the hardcore shock value of ‘Blasted’ by Sarah Kane to the birth of absurdist theatre in Alfred Jarry’s ‘Ubu Roi’ (1896.) – a play so notoriously ridiculous that it never got through an entire original performance during it’s original run without an audience getting to walk out. There’s a lot to be said about both of those and many others, but if there’s one bout of theatre that influenced more than any other then it was the writings of Antonin Artaud.
Artaud only has a single play to his name, an incredibly short one called ‘Jet of Blood’ (1925.) But it’s from this he developed his theory of ‘anti-theatre’ or ‘theatre of cruelty’. Artaud believed that theatre should be visceral, felt as raw as feelings themselves. Every sense should be appeased or assaulted – as such Artaud made headway for huge advance in stage tech and lighting design as he ensured that the audience felt as much as the characters did. I’d be more tempted to read about what he did rather than reading ‘Jet of Blood’ itself, it’s parodies of transgressions against god and the meaninglessness of creation may be quick but they can be demanding as well to any reader. Indeed, countless playwrights after him would adopt this method, as well as the theatre of the absurd generally (even though the term was only coined in the 60s by Martine Esslin) – playwrights that followed include Ionesco, Beckett, Genet and Harold Pinte, all of whom were heavily influenced by this line of work. This got me back into it. Back into thinking about surrealism, how it started but also what it was now. I thought it was all well and good looking at the ‘canonical’ surrealists but what about contemporary ones? Well I ended up finding the answer to that in the form of ‘Silent Hill’.
I got into that through looking at the Japanese theatre/dance form ‘Butoh’ which roughly translates as ‘dance of darkness’. It’s a strikingly surreal format which relies on slow contortion, facial distortion and body movements on the stage – often it depicts the dead. Then I saw that something it had influenced was a video game series called ‘Silent Hill’ – which I had heard of before but never really given much time to. It’s safe to say that after playing them, I gave a lot of time to it. You may want to ignore it just because it’s a video game and they’re not your kind of thing. I’d say fair enough, although I am a gamer I get that not everyone is – but for gods sake at least take a look at the artwork or some of the YouTube compilations of it’s weirder sequences because it is honestly my favourite surrealist horror of all time. The series has seven games in it and each follows the story of an individual who has somehow come to the foggy town of Silent Hill, where they’re plagued by physical manifestations of their greatest fears, guilt and sins. Kind of like ‘Dante’s Inferno’ but in Pennsylvania. If anything it’s the creature design of the game that gets me, each is a physical symbol of a fear and sin of the protagonist. Take the most famous example, Pyramid Head or ‘Red Pyramid’ – a lumbering creature with a colossal blade who, on top of his pale, rotting skin, wears a giant metal pyramid. It suggested that this creature represents the protagonists guilt and the heaviness that it forces on him for murdering his wife. Not only that but elements of it are just plain weird. Take the 4th Instalment, where the protagonist wakes up to find that they’ve been chained into their apartment with no escape and ‘Don’t go out!’ written on the door. The reason this series sticks out for me is that it’s not just psychological horror, it has bits like that in it’s design which make it disturbing purely on the basis of how surreal it is. It’s influenced haevily by certain forms of theatre (like Butoh) but also other titles like the Manga series ‘Bezerk’ and the 1990 film ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ – another piece which relies on the ironic distortion of the human form as a basis for the design of it’s monsters.
Shortly afterwards I finally got round to reading Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’. Coming to this after Silent Hill made me look at the surrealism of ‘Alice…’ as having an undertone of horror. Of course i’m not alone, countless adaptations have an older version of Alice trapped in a Victorian asylum or the victim of abuse who dreams of place plagued with nightmares. But even in it’s purest form, as delightful, illogical ridiculousness I find the work enchanting. As a logician at Oxford, one can see how Carroll (Charles Dodgson being his real name) came about creating an imaginary world that so strikingly defied conventional, Euclidean order. The world is filled with its own rhythm and beauty within the weird and wonderful settings and characters. If anything this book reminded me that surrealism can be playful as well as meaningful or symbolic .
Then came the films. Now it wasn’t actually to long ago, maybe just over a year ago, that I discovered these. Throughout the 50s and 60 particularly there were a series of films which seemed completely intent on being banned. They were not only surreal but they were explicit and they were controversial for a reason. One examples is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film ‘Holy Mountain’. In this a man becomes a Christ like figure and approaches a sage of divine wisdom, he guides him and a number of other wise individuals (from other planets in the solar system) up a mountain to understand ultimate truth. Although the plot is evidently a critique on the concept of seeking spiritual truth through religion, it’s once more the images that the film throws at you which are the weirdest. Images of animals fighting wars in tiny model towns, of goats being sacrificed in rituals and of Christ models being replicated over and over again. It’s the baser elements of the film which tie into it’s overall critique, parodying both the great and small acts we do in the name of religion of divine wisdom.
However the first of these films I saw was David Lynch’s 1977 film ‘Eraserhead’. The film is a parody of the fear of fatherhood, with a loose plot leading a young man to have to marry a girl, live with her and enter into the responsibilities of parenthood – constantly plagued by dream-like realisations of his fears which prevent him from committing. The film is black and white, and the soundtrack is brutal. Half of it sounds like white noise which results in scenes that haven’t got much happening in them feeling unnerving. The sexual and phallic imagery throughout provides a strange distortion to the setting of the film, meaning that you spend the entire film wondering what’s going on, but being to afraid to ask – despite the fact it’s not actually a horror film. It’s a weird ride but it’s one that’s definitely worth while.
No I realise I’ve been going on for a while, and while i’d love to go on I feel like I shouldn’t. I would love to talk about Dave Mckean and Arkham Asylum, HP Lovecraft, Twin peaks, Francis Bacon, The Yellow Wallpaper, Neil Gaiman, Salmand Rushdie and all sorts of other stuff but like I said, I fully intend to do actually detailed articles on this kind of stuff, alongside the more contemporary reviews. Basically we’ll be having a bit of the old and new. Like I said, there are all sorts of genre defining people I haven’t mentioned here and there are all sorts of ways to get into a genre – but this has been my journey getting into what is really quite a difficult kind of art to like. I’d definitely recommend looking at what I’ve mentioned – even if you don’t like it, you’ll probably find something from it or influenced by it that you do. But there’s always more out there to find and watch and read, so i’d recommend taking this as advice only – and finding your own way into surrealism so you can get they joy that I’ve managed to have finding these things for myself.