Surrealism – Art and Photography

Art and Photography: modernisms and posts

Topic: Surrealism

© Brett Dorron 2001  

Surrealism: What is it? Why was it brought about? What was it supposed to mean? And what does it mean today?

Surreal / Surrealism – prefix: sur = super

Surreal: super-real, as in hyper real – above, beyond, over, extreme – reality.

Many American and Australian eyewitnesses to the terrorist events at the World Trade Centre and The Pentagon, independently used ‘surreal’, in their search for descriptions of their experiences and sights during the immediate aftermath. One such witness likened his view of the second jet striking the World Trade Centre to “something in the movies”, especially sci-fi space thrillers, with smaller space craft docking or landing at high speed in cleared landing bays of much larger craft. Some, with resulting explosions. But, he said, “the producers make those look ‘not real’. This was sort of ‘surreal’”. What do they mean by surreal? Do they mean that the reality, the real experience of the event, was hyper, or super real, as compared to their normal experience of movies, or images, etc. Is reality becoming surreal, and imagery becoming reality? Very possibly! But, I suggest the emotive and connotative source for their choice of ‘surreal’ as a description, is their sense of confusion, not their sense of realism. Confusion, disbelief, unable to comprehend what had, and was happening. It was happening, all around them. It made no sense. It was like a dream.

Today, ‘studies’ of the surrealist movement seem to elicit this same kind of confusion and disbelief. The kind of abstract reasoning of dreams and automatic writing, that allows it to be ‘accepted’, without making sense.

The Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary (1991) defines surrealism as, “A 20th century movement in Art and literature purporting to express the unconscious mind by depicting the phenomena of dreams etc.” and goes on to say surrealists, “(influenced by the ideas of Freud) sought to push beyond the accepted conventions of reality by representing in poetry and art the irrational imagery of dreams and the unconscious mind . . . disorienting realist imagery often based on dreams, hallucination, and paranoia.”

Surrealism seems to be endlessly incorporated into modernity, or deemed to relate to modernisms, either, simply through the timing of its movement, as surrealism the movement, took place at the heights of modernity. Or possibly as some kind of investigation of the then new Freudian unconscious, subconscious, and interpretation of dreams.

But, surely it is only possible for the massive upheaval of modernity, at least, to begin from within. For, there are many problems and contradictions with the classifications and definitions of surrealism, and the art or works that compose it, still evading the theoreticians and critics of today. Some eighty years after Andre Breton first grappled with emerging ideas which were to take part in, possibly, the most influential, and most misunderstood, art movement of all time. And, beyond the struggle with the body of works, critics and historians also struggle unconvincingly to explain surrealism’s place in, or links with, modernity. Those that do attempt, seem invariably to contradict their arguments in the very next page or paragraph. These contradictions are purported to have developed, or existed, from the outset through Breton, Man Ray, Dali, and those at surrealism’s centre. But everywhere I look, everywhere I read, I see links with the post-modern.

So what is Surrealism? Surrealism began as a movement in art and literature. Photography was very much on the eccentric outer. Rosalind Krauss (1985) wrote:

It would seem there cannot be surrealism and photography, but only surrealism or photography. For surrealism was defined from the start as a revolution in values, a reorganisation of the very way the real was conceived . . . . Its leader and founder, the poet Andre Breton, declared, ‘For a total revision of real values, the plastic work of art will either refer to a purely internal model or will cease to exist.’ These internal models were assembled when consciousness lapses. In dream, in free association, in hypnotic states, in automatism, in ecstasy or delirium, the ‘pure creations of the mind’ were able to erupt. (p.15)

But, Krauss and co-authors, Jane Livingston, and Dawn Ades, in “L’Amour Fou – Photography and Surrealism” (1985), go on to establish photography firmly at the heart of the surrealist movement.

Pierre Naville, a founder of “La Revolution Surrealiste”, wrote in Vol 1 (April 1925), as quoted by Krauss, (1985) “ Masters, master-crooks, smear your canvases, everyone knows there is no surrealist painting. Neither the marks of pencil abandoned to the accident of gesture, nor the image retracing the forms of the dream…” (p.19)

At the heart of the surrealist movement, and within all of its publications, painting and drawing struggled, if not failed, to evince the aims originally set for surrealism.

Krauss, in “The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths”(1986), argues for a fresh look at photography’s role in surrealism, She wrote:

To forge any kind of unity from the apparent diversity of surrealist production, the failure to arrive, that is, at what Rubin called an intrinsic definition of surrealism, we might be led to the possibility that, it is within the photographic rather than pictorial code that such a definition is to be found – that is, that issues of surrealist heterogeneity will be resolved around the semiological functions of photography rather than the formal properties operating the traditional art-historical classifications of style. What is at stake, then, is the relocation of photography from its eccentric position relative to surrealism to one that is absolutely central – definitive, one might say. (p.101) [my emphasis]

The direct realisms (proofs) of photography form the basis of her assumptions.  Krauss (1986) said:

Surrealist photography exploits the special connection to reality with which all photography is endowed. For photography is an imprint or transfer off the real . . . . The photograph is thus generically distinct from painting or sculpture or drawing. On the family tree of images it is closer to palm prints, death masks, the shroud of Turin, or the tracks of gulls on beaches. For technically and semiologically speaking, drawings and paintings are icons, while photographs are indexes. (p.110)

She goes on through an exploration of spacing, doubling, and repetition, in both dada and surrealism. She said, “It is spacing that makes it clear – as it was to Heartfield, Tretyakov, Brecht, Aragon – that we are not looking at reality, but at the world infested by interpretation or signification, which is to say, reality distended by the gaps or blanks which are the formal preconditions of the sign” (p.107)

Photomontage was one of the Dadaist traits, clearly, from which surrealism grew, but, Krauss said:

[Surrealist’s] interest was in the seamless unity of the print . . . . by preserving the body of the print intact, they could make it read photographically, that is to say, in direct contact with reality. But without exception the surrealist photographers infiltrated the body of this print, this single page, with spacing . . . . an experience of the real itself as sign, the real fractured by spacing . . . . It is doubling that produces the formal rhythm of spacing – the two-step that banishes the unitary condition of the moment, that creates within the moment an experience of fission . . . . The double is the simulacrum, the second, the representative of the original . . . . It can only exist as figure, or image. But in being seen in conjunction with the original, the double destroys the pure singularity of the first. (p.107-109)

She says “When Aragon wrote about the effect of the separate elements in Ernst’s montages he compared them to ‘words’.”(p.105) And, “The photographic medium is exploited to produce a paradox: the paradox of reality constituted as sign – or presence transformed into absence, into representation, into spacing, into writing.”(p.112)

She explores Breton’s three conditions of “Convulsive Beauty”. “Beauty will be convulsive” through mimicry “When in nature, one thing imitates another.” Through, “The expiration of movement” – When motion is stopped, derailed, delayed; “Frozen in time” – “intrinsically photographic”. And the “Found object or found verbal fragment.”(p.112)

She said, “What unites all surrealist production is precisely this experience of nature as representation, physical matter as writing.”(p.115) “Surreality is, we could say, nature convulsed into a kind of writing”(p.113)

Krauss (1986) also explores the edges of the image through framing or cropping, where she says:

Photographic cropping is always experienced as a rupture in the continuous fabric of reality. But surrealist photography puts enormous pressure on that frame to make itself read as a sign . . . a signifier of signification. The frame announces that between the part of reality that was cut away and this part there is a difference; and that this part that the frame frames is an example of nature-as-representation, nature-as-sign. (p.115)

I believe Krauss makes some very important and valid points from today’s perspective, but, when using or paraphrasing other’s words, I feel she misses their fuller or deeper meaning. John Pultz (1995) certainly questions whether the effects of doubling were intentional. (p.72) And Krauss herself, through a cursory avoidance of some issues, seems, possibly, unconvinced at times. Krauss is saying, the reality, “the continuous fabric of reality”, in front, or before the camera, is produced (or reduced) as signs through it. This opposes a common ‘realist’ view of photography, where ‘nature’ is in front of the camera, and ‘reality’ recorded through it.

But, many of the confusions with the explanations of surrealism, I see, as developed through language, and the central thread is always ‘reality’. What is real and what is not? What is realism, and what is not?

Within the critical and academic ‘art history’ there seems to be no accepted singular binary opposite to the real. And it is constantly confused with and/or reduced to nature (and not always to ‘the natural’). For what seems like the most common (or accepted) classification of ‘real’, is shown through its incorporation into nature by the likes of Geoffrey Batchen, with this list of oppositions.


Nature             v           Culture

Real [ism]                     Ideal [ism]

General                         Particular

Science                         Art

Object                           Subject

Reflection                     Expression                        (Batchen, 1997, p.81)


But, the term ‘nature’ is at least as problematic. It has such various meanings. Is it wild Mother Nature – untouched by man? Is it the organised, structured, and decorative terrarium in the living room? The genetically engineered tomatoes in the pantry bowl? Then, there are our friends, whose disposition, or temperament, is their nature (superficial nature).

What about the opposite to realism? At first thought you would reject ‘idealism’, even though the Oxford Dictionary states for realism – “Usually opposite to idealism.” Its definition for idealism is: “1) The representation of things in an ideal or idealised form; imaginative treatment; the practice of forming or following after ideals. 2) A system of thought in which the object of external perception is held to consist of ideas.” It is this second definition: “A system of thought in which the object of external perceptions is held to consist of ideas”, which can both allow it to sit comfortably opposite realism, but as we will see, also allows it to incorporate surrealism.

But first I want to explore art and realism. Long before photography, idealisms versed realisms throughout art and literature, eg:


Realism           v           Idealism

    “                                Romanticism

    “                                Surrealism

    “                                Symbolism

    “                                Constructivism

    “                                Formalism

    “                               Dadaism

    “                                Cubism

    “                                Abstract Art

    “                                Abstract expressionism

    “                                Digital        (etc. etc.)

All are critiques/challenges/attacks on the truths of realism in imagery.

Real                              Image


Throughout art history, artists who could produce realistic, or believable representations (likenesses), were highly regarded, and most often, claimed their aims were to copy nature. A nature where all things were created by God – and simply recorded by man according to God’s gifts.  Perspective drawing rules and devices, including the camera obscura, were developed and used primarily as an aid to realistic art.

Victor Burgin (1986) said:

At times the aims of visual art became effectively identified with those of a science of seeing; Berenson complained of the Renaissance preoccupation with problems of perspective: ‘Our art has a fatal tendency to become science and we hardly possess a masterpiece which does not bear the marks of having been a battlefield for divided interests’. (p. 53)

But art’s claims or aspirations for realism, or its ability to represent realistically, ended with successive developments within the photographic medium. Art became in one sense a caricature, idealised. Photography, from Daguerre’s fairy pictures, became a document, a faithful or realist recording of a scene. Add to this, that all early photographs were monotone, and in comparison to the art and culture of the time were, minimalist, without colour, less exaggerated, less poetic. Colours invite emotive and connotative responses of their own. Poetry and fiction is colourful. Academia is more black and white (authority and realism).

The photograph became associated with the real. A science, a mechanical, chemical, unmediated capture of what was real. As opposed to what? As opposed to art and literature, which was man-made – fiction.

The mediation of the photographer, and his or her grasp of visual language, and the mediation of the lens, the negative and print, with its borders (the process), were ‘invisible’, a kind of self-delusion. But even more importantly than this, for the surrealists, as I will shortly conclude with an extract from Andre Breton’s “Surrealism and Painting” (1927), was the view, that the ‘subjects’ (the world, the external realities), are mediated by ‘culture’, ‘before’ the camera begins to record. There is no ‘real’ image. All is representation. The scene is written, and then recorded. Same as art. Same as literature. Written by society, by culture, by the ‘conscious’ mind. It is written all around, and it writes us. We choose the: model or subject, location, set up, make-up, pose, props, lighting, lens, film, angle, composition, cropping, exposure, mood. All pre-visualised – ‘coerced’ (acceptable/not). To write unconsciously, or automatically, through what Betty Edwards called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” (in her book by the same name), is to avoid the linguistic signs and symbolisms so essential to the left (brain).[1]

Pultz (1995) came close when he wrote, “by treating the female body without conventional respect, Bellmer (and other surrealist photographers) seem to be admitting that the female body already exists as representation.” (p.76) And, he said of August Sanders’ 1920s photographs of bodies and professions, “the young ones in particular, suggest through their poses that they are acting themselves and their professions for his camera. The photographs then read as records of performances . . .” (p.80) For Breton and the surrealists, the rational and conscious was a masquerade. Reality was something else – maybe something inherent, automatic, internal.

Liz Wells (2000) said, “Fundamentally, surrealism was premised on challenging philosophical distinctions between interior experience and exterior realities. The radicalism of surrealism lay in its aims; to push towards the destruction of conventional ways of seeing; and to challenge rationalist frameworks.” (p. 274)

Man Ray  (1935) said:

If one didn’t have complete confidence in the automatism of this eye [the ‘single’ eye, as used through the viewfinder] and the way it functions with a social consciousness imposed by its own physiology, its power was frittered away in feeble attempts. But when no fetters were imposed on the camera, the results, with very few exceptions, fully justified the confidence placed in it [the automatism of the eye].

Surrealism has so far been the only force capable of bringing luminous, impressive, true forms out of the darkroom. It has never been afraid of going too far, it has never betrayed our authentic impulses, it has never acted with tact or circumspection. We know to what lies an entirely aesthetic preoccupation can lead ‘beauty’ and ‘morality’, to the point where the length of the beard is taken as an index of intellectual strength and virility.

Only complete contempt for all formulas, aesthetic or timorous [timid; frightened], joined to a total familiarity with the craft, can serve a new social condition and show its worth.

Perhaps someday photography – if we allow it – will show us what painting has already shown us, our true portrait, and will give to the spirit of revolt that exists in every truly living, sensitive being, a plastic and enduring voice of its own [very post-modern!]. (in Phillips, 1989, p. 58-59) [my emphasis]

But, perhaps Breton said it best of all. In “Surrealism and Painting” (1927), he said, of Man Ray and his photography:

“Far from entrusting himself to photography’s avowed aims and making use, after the event, of the common ground of representation that it proposed, Man Ray has applied himself vigorously to the task of stripping it of its positive nature, of forcing it to abandon its arrogant air and pretentious claims. If, as Ramon Lulle has stated, ‘the mirror is a diaphanous body disposed to receive all figures presented to it’, then one cannot say as much for the photographic plate, which begins by requiring that these figures assume favourable attitudes, or goes even farther and takes them unawares at their most fugitive moments . . . . I would consider it fruitless to try to divide his [Man Ray’s] artistic production into photographic portraits, photographs inappropriately called ‘abstract’, and pictorial works properly so called. I know only too well that these three kinds of expression, signed with his name and fulfilling the same spiritual mission, are all bordered at their outer limits by the same conspicuous or inconspicuous halo.

The very elegant, very beautiful women who expose their tresses night and day to the fierce lights in Man Ray’s studio are certainly not aware that they are taking part in any kind of demonstration. How astonished they would be if I told them that they are participating for exactly the same reasons as a quartz gun, a bunch of keys, hoar-frost or fern! The pearl necklace slips from the naked shoulders onto the white sand, where a ray of sunlight whisks it away together with other elements near by. What was merely adornment and what was anything but adornment are abandoned simultaneously to the declaration of the shadows. The caves are full of roses. The ordinary preparation to which one surface will shortly be submitted will not differ in the least from the preparation being applied to the other surface so that the most beautiful features of the world may be created on it. The two images live and die from the same trembling, the same hour, the same lost or intercepted glimmers of light. They are both nearly always so perfect that it is very difficult to realise that they are not on the same plane: one would have thought that they are as necessary to each other as that which touches to that which is touched. Are they golden-haired or angel-haired? How can we distinguish the wax hand from the real hand?” [an extract from “Man Ray” by Manfred Heiting (2000) p. 17]


[1]   The following poem was inspired by Betty Edwards’ book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, and an elective drawing unit at Edith Cowan University, Mt Lawley  (semester 1, 2000). Edwards’ book opened my mind to the possibility (belief) that, I ‘could’ learn to draw. The lecturers, the practical experience, and the opportunities (the models), did the rest.

As young children, we learn to draw symbols. We learn to draw (or represent) the visual symbols for eyes, a face, a house, a tree, a bird in flight, a cat, just as we learn the verbal and linguistic symbols for the same (signs/sounds/words). We learn to construct larger visual narratives where the visual signs relate, like words, to become descriptive sentences. The persons become the family, the trees and flowers become the garden, the house becomes the centre piece – the family home, and the bright yellow sun, and the clouds and birds, become the signs for peace and happiness.

Later on (about our teenage years), some people (those seen as inspired, or gifted artists), accidentally, or otherwise, learn or discover a more mature (realistic) way to draw. But, most do not. We get stuck, through left brain dominance (schooling – academia), in an endless cycle of repetition. The repetition of signs – this stands for (means) this – that does not.

Edwards’ book, and the simple exercises within, aim to confront the left brain with tasks only suitable to right brain modes, and thus to consciously tap the creative abilities available within us all. With practice, you can actually feel or sense the shift. If you find yourself thinking or asking – ‘how do I draw (or represent) that?’ – you are in a left brain mode, and will be offered (by the left) a sign (a substitute, a symbolic representative). The right brain does not usually ask, it already knows what’s needed (automatic).


A Right Brain Kind of View

I lived awhile, and learned to draw
And then I learned, that I could not.

Years and years have wasted – slipped right out the door
And then I learned that I ‘can draw’.
A whole new way of seeing – it’s not a gifted few
Embarrass and frustration are ceasing to be true.

I learned at school to read and write, and other things as well
I learned and crammed, and crammed and learned between that ding dong bell
But this whole new way of seeing – it’s not a gifted few
Never came from schooling – it came right out the blue.

I’ve lived and learned, and learned and lived, and lived and learned again
But not till now did I ever know, the right side of my brain
A whole new way of seeing – that bloody gifted few
Only ever had – a right brain kind of view!

Brett Dorron




Batchen, G. (1997). Burning with Desire. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

Burgin, V. (1986). The End of Art Theory – Criticisms and Postmodernity. London: Macmillan Education Ltd.

Burgin, V. (1982). Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan Education Ltd.

Edwards, B. (1993). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (New rev. ed.) London: Harper Collins.

Heiting, M. (2000). Man Ray. Koln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH.

Krauss, R. (1986). The Originality of the Avant-garde and other Modernist Myths. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

Krauss, R., and Livingston, J. (1985). L’Amour fou – Surrealism and Photography. New York: Abbeville Press.

Phillips, C. (1989). Photography in the Modern Era; European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Aperture. 

Pultz, J. (1995). Photography and the Body. London: Everyman Art Library. 

The Australian Reference Dictionary. (1991). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (2000). Photography: A Critical Introduction. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge.