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SurrealismReview - Surrealism
by Mary Ann Caws
Phaidon Press, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 26th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 39)

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 especially interesting. 

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 rights reserved.

Christian 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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