x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The instant expert: is that really art?

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Elizabeth Pearson explores the birth of surrealism, the art movement that stopped London traffic 75 years ago today.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Elizabeth Pearson explores the birth of surrealism, the art movement that stopped London traffic 75 years ago today

THE BASICS In reaction to the conservative traditions of the previous century, a radical artistic and philosophical movement began in the 1910s and 1920s championing the subconscious. Supported by the works of Freud and Jung, the surrealists celebrated powerful visual imagery that didn't appear to make any sense (to most people, anyway).

GAGA FROM DADA The poet and psychiatrist André Breton is credited with starting the movement in 1924. Surrealism was a natural follow-on to Dadaism. Dadaists were angered by Europe's failure to prevent the First World War, so they rebelled against society's traditional constraints by creating anti-art. Marcel Duchamp, a leading Dadaist, created one of the most influential pieces of modern art by buying a urinal, turning it upside down and exhibiting it under the title Fountain. He turned the way art was interpreted on its head and the chitterati cry "But is that really art?" was born.

THE HOLY TRINITY The surrealists favoured three main approaches to creating artistic pieces. Automatism: the idea was to write or draw whatever popped into your head and let your stream of consciousness determine the result. Frottage, grattage and fumage: no, not a den of iniquity, but techniques that involved manipulating the paint by rubbing, scraping or leaving soot marks. Veristic surrealism: the use of contemporary objects painted with painstaking detail to depict a world comparable to a dream state. Think melted clocks and you're getting the idea.

NOT ENTIRELY RUN OF THE MILL THEN? Crikey, this was heavy stuff and it took a while for the average art-lover to get his head around it. "The only difference between me and a madman is I'm not mad," said the flamboyant and lavishly mustachioed Salvador Dali, helpfully. However, within a decade, critics and the public alike were clamouring for this new and provocative form of art. The release of unbridled imagination - its deep symbolism combined with refined painting techniques - changed the face of art forever.

A TRAFFIC-STOPPER A dozen years after Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism was published in Paris in 1924, the International Surrealist Exhibition opened in London. It ran from June 11 to July 4, 1936, and welcomed more than 30,000 visitors. The show was an immediate success - large crowds on the first day brought traffic at Piccadilly to a halt. A curious and occasionally outraged British public had its first view of primitive art and works by Max Ernst, Joan Miró and the most famous surrealist of all, the wild Spaniard Dali.

GOING DOWN At the opening of the exhibition, Dali took to the stage dressed in a deep-sea diving suit. The suit, with its brass helmet and large glass face mask, weighed about 80 kilograms. It was apparent after a couple of minutes that the artist was struggling to breathe and was beginning to suffocate. He was saved by an enterprising young surrealist poet, David Gascoyne, who leapt up with a spanner to rescue Dali from what might have been the perfect surrealist end.

A FLASH IN THE PAN? Not at all. Surrealism has influenced many famous artists, such as the early Picasso and the abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. As a movement, it died with Breton in 1966, but the surrealist legacy is with us everywhere. Pop art, minimalism and conceptualism are all descendants of its studied liberation of psychic and conscious control. The marriage between fantastic and normal is now commonplace, and if we feel anything has an hallucinogenic tinge, we call it "surreal".

GOSH, WHAT A LOT TO THINK ABOUT True. The surrealist Méret Oppenheim said in 1936: "Time to put my feet up and come to grips with this. Pass the fur-lined tea cup, please!"


Four famous surrealist artworks

HARLEQUIN'S CARNIVAL (1924-25) BY JOAN MIRÓ (1893-1983) A classic example of random objects from the artist's subconscious depicted together to create a playful, but absorbing, canvas.

FOREST AND DOVE (1927) BY MAX ERNST (1891-1976) An example of grattage. Ernst frequently drew on German forest traditions and tied them in with the surrealist representation of the imagination. His trees appear to be formed by being scraped over the spine of a fish.

THE TREACHERY OF IMAGES (1928-29) BY RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967) "The famous pipe," said the artist. "How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture, 'This is a pipe', I'd have been lying."

THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY (1931) BY SALVADOR DALI (1904-1989) Arguably Dali's most famous work. A critic at the time argued that the clocks represented the relativity of time in line with Einstein's argument, but Dali protested that his imagery had a lot more to do with Camembert melting in the sun.