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Surrealism and WW1

The Surrealist Movement and a Radical Way of Seeing the World

World War 1 unveiled human beings at their darkest potential, capable of brutality toward others, surrounded by mass political upheaval. Cozy humanist notions regarding human identity diminished as a new intellectual movement known as Surrealism emerged in Paris and spread across Europe out of the ashes of the First World War. As Surrealists responded to this disillusioning time, they became inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis, and regarded the unconscious as the primary determinant of human identity. As a result, the Surrealists produced works that defied all rational boundaries not only to represent their own unconscious desires, but on a wider spectrum, the irrational nature of humanity. This abandonment of logic and reason defined the Surrealism, one of the most notoriously radical movements in modern history.

The Surrealists’ emphasis on irrational imagery was motivated by the political upheaval unleashed on Post World War 1 Europe. After the atrocities witnessed during the war, Europe was plagued with a strong sense of cynicism with the understanding that society could never return to the former positions and attitudes. In response, passionate artists cultivated a movement to address this new found awareness. Moreover, artists were also rebelling against bourgeois values, which they blamed as the cause for the conflicts in the world. As Mathews explains, ” The Surrealists reaffirm the Dadaist’s concern for the value and role of human destiny within the social and cultural framework of the modern world, holding society responsible for aggravating, if not for creating, man’s unhappy condition.” By addressing society’s culpability for the cynicism associated with Post War Europe, the Surrealists were able to move their agenda forward. For this reason, artists starting producing art that defied rationality, a principle that was valued by the bourgeois class. Ultimately, the Surrealists’ nonsensical subject matter and the element of surprise to provoke confusion and awe amongst viewers.

The Surrealists achieved these reactions by embracing the modern theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that the mind held deeply repressed thoughts and impulses in a space called the unconscious. In this part of the mind, people contain memories and feelings that may be too taboo to share openly to society and as a result, they are held deep within the unconscious. In his article, Conscious and Unconscious Placing of Ritual, Robert Cummings argues that the unconscious mind has an extremely selfish, infantile orientation to motives with regard to people, events, and situations that compromise our context. These bewildering and irrational aspects of the unconscious mind captivated the Surrealists. Consequently, the Surrealists used these ideas as the source for their subject matter, transmitting a new radical social movement.

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