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Surrealism is a large format
300-page book full of full color images of surrealist art work and thoughtful
discussion. It is divided into three main sections: a 38-page survey of the
history of the surrealist movement by Mary Ann Caws, 143 pages of examples of
surrealism, each with a paragraph of explanation, and then about 100 pages of
reproductions of surrealist writings. The book is handsome and beautifully
produced, and should please those with a strong interest in surrealism.
It is rather easy to forget the
complexity of the surrealist movement and just think of well known paintings by
Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. Caws' survey of surrealism puts it in
historical and political context. While the Dada movement was frankly
political (and the
recent exhibition at MOMA brought this aspect out well), these days
surrealist art can look more pretty and amusing than subversive. The
psychoanalytic theory that inspired many surrealist artists now seems dated,
but it's possible to bracket it or have view it through a modern perspective
and still appreciate the art. One of the central ideas behind the surrealism
was the idea of bypassing reason or rationality, which was viewed as censoring
and even bourgeois, and letting imagination and the unconscious express the
workings of the inner mind. The poet and theorist Andre Breton
was a medical student who studied with Martin Charcot, and he worked on a
psychiatric ward. He studied the work of Freud, who was profoundly influential
to Breton, but he took on many other ideas too. Caws sets out the development
of the movement, with its different phases from the 1920s through to the 1940s
and even beyond. It is a very helpful introduction to the topic.
The section of images is itself
organized into six different parts, and it contains both many familiar and a
good number of unfamiliar works. It is a little daunting to try to read
through each paragraph about each work, so one tends to browse through these
pages. Caws includes the early "automatic drawings" that were
supposedly done without thought, as well as paintings by Miro, drawings and
collages by Arp, paintings by Ernst, "found" graffiti by Brassai,
photographs by Man Ray, various sculptures, some stills from films, and many
more pictures. Caws has chosen to include a good number of images which means
that most of them take up half or less of the page, and we do not get the
visual pleasure of seeing them as large as possible. However, her inclusion of
more artists enables the reader to follow up on those artists who are
The "Documents" section
includes many texts; the names of Dali, Giacometti, Breton, Arp, Man Ray,
Artaud, and Bataille will probably be familiar to those with an interest in art
theory, while other writers included will again be less familiar. Again, this
is a difficult section to read from start to finish, and it is more tempting to
flip pages to see what strikes your interest.
Overall, Surrealism is an
excellent resource for those with an interest in art, and it may be of some
interest to more serious scholars.
© 2006 Christian Perring. All
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main
research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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