The Art Lovers Guide to Surrealism
Have you heard of “surrealism?” If so, like most of us, including myself, you probably think of Salvador Dali. He has become almost the poster child for surrealism.
You know, this guy:
Dali’s: “The Persistence of Memory”
He is famously known for this painting of the dripping clocks aka: “The Persistence of Memory”
Dali painted “The Persistence of Memory” during a self-induced hallucination. These were common practice for him and he even coined the method: “paranoiac-critical method”. Let’s take a look at this “hallucination”, shall we.
“The persistence of memory” brings up depth of thought on “what is memory, what is time, what is our place in time?” Thoughts ranging from the super natural to quantum physics and everywhere in between have come up about Dali’s work depending on the viewer’s own perspective.
Look deep into this piece: What does it make you think or feel? What does that reveal about you?
Salvador Dali is but one tiny piece of the surrealism puzzle. I’m going to be going in depth on surreal topics, so feel free to skip around to what interests you.
Some of you won’t agree with everything expressed in this article. That’s good. I think it’s important to think for yourself. I will try to share what sums up my view of surrealism and art in an unbiased way.
There is this small thing in surrealism called the surrealist manifesto (okay by small, I mean that this manifesto basically brought surrealism into existence as its known today.) It was written by André Breton and it is pretty cool. I recommend you check it out if you like to delve deep into this kind of thing.
This manifesto contains all kinds of things that I didn’t expect. For example, this is the contents section in the front of the 304 page book:
Secrets of the Magical Surrealist Art
– Written surrealist composition, or first and last draft
– How not to be bored in company (okay, that’s interesting)
– How to make speeches
– How to write false novels
– How to catch the eye of a woman you pass in the street (wait, what)
– Against death
It seems there was a sense of humor to the entire thing which I genuinely appreciate. The chapter on “How to catch the eye of a woman you pass in the street” was particularly informative. See:
As for the meat and potatoes, in the manifesto, surrealism is stated as:
“Psychic automatism… by which one proposes to express… the actual functioning of thought… in the absence of any control exercised by reason.”
Lets try and break that down.
Automatism is when the artist makes art without conscious control of it. Allowing the unconscious mind to take over (the same mind that takes over when you’re dreaming)
Surrealists often use different games and exercises to access their unconscious/imagination. Many times, they used tools such as meditation, hypnosis, drugs, and alcohol to delve deeper into the unconscious so they don’t affect their findings with conscious thought.
To understand the unconscious mind, picture yourself dreaming.
- As soon as you start to wake up you stop dreaming.
- No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to go back to that dream state.
- This dream state can be compared to the unconscious and this is what surrealists strive to access.
The deeper the better, in my opinion.
Now onto some fun stuff:
Here are some surreal exercises and techniques to try. It’s important to let your unconscious mind takeover and not think too much about the end product. This can be very therapeutic in and of itself. Hey, maybe you’ve already done some of these without knowing what they were. I’ve been there.
30 Fun Surrealism Techniques
- Using spray paint and a 3-dimensional object, spray around the object as if it’s a stencil.
- Have you ever seen spray paint street artists? They’re all over Las Vegas. They use this technique quite a bit. It’s fascinating to watch.
- This is best explained as “stream-of-consciousness” drawing. Draw without thinking about what is coming out or what you’re drawing. You can try closing your eyes. Sometimes it can be aided by the use of drugs, alcohol, meditation, hypnosis.
- Splattering and shooting ink or paint at a piece of paper. This can be fun and messy. Later you can create images out of what you see. (Think ink-blot test, What do you see in the ink?)
- A text or poem in which the words or letters make up a shape, particularly a shape connected to the subject of the text or poem
- Take newspaper clippings, pieces of magazines, etc and cut them up and assemble them in a new way. Try to do this without thinking about how it will look. Let the unconscious mind take over.
- No, this is not the “cool” version of collage. Well, maybe 😉 Coulage is in fact, really cool. You take molten material like wax, crayons, chocolate, etc and pour it into cold water. You can also manipulate how it forms by poking it with sticks, stirring, shaking, etc.
- Fun fact- this is also used by seers and fortune tellers and it’s known as Ceromancy.
- A collage method where you cut an image into squares and then reassemble them.
- Cut-up technique
- Take some text that you’ve written or found and cut it up at random, then arrange the pieces together to form a new sentence, phrase, or poem. Kind of reminds me of those ransom notes in movies.
- This is one of Max Ernst’s favorite techniques. You take thick wet globs of paint (works with watercolor and acrylic. Oil might be messy) and then you take pieces of paper, cellophane, aluminum foil, sticks, found objects, etc and place them on the paint. The pattern it creates is used as a base for a painting.
- Dream résumé
- Write a resume but instead of writing a resume about your current life, write a resume about your dream life. The achievements in your dreams, dream skills, etc…
- Echo poem
- A poem where two or more people write on it. Usually the first person will write and then cover up the writing and the second person will write next to it. Then you unfold it to reveal the poem.
- Watercolor or oils are laid down and then either turpentine or water is splashed on the painting. Then with a napkin, it is dabbed up to reveal random patterning where paint was picked up.
- Entopic Graphomania
- Find flaws in a piece of white paper and put little dots on those flaws. Then begin to draw lines connecting the dots resulting in a geometric formation.
- Cutting away parts of an image to reveal a new image.
- Exquisite corpse
- A collection of words or images are assembled together. The easiest way to do this is by folding a piece of paper and drawing on one piece at a time.
- Making a rubbing over a textured surface, like the sidewalk for example.
- Making an impression on paper from the smoke of a candle
- Scraping wet paint off the surface of a painting
- Take a photographic negative and apply heat. When it is developed, it will result in an interesting image.
- Indecipherable writing
- This one is self explanatory. Basically you just write in tongues.
- Involuntary sculpture
- absent-mindedly manipulating something, such as bending a business card, fiddling with a paperclip.
- Latent news
- Take an article from a newspaper and cut it into words, then reassemble it quickly.
- Movement of liquid down a vertical surface
- I used to do this with watercolor paint quite a bit. Get a lot of water on your brush or even a spray bottle and spray your paper. Then watch it drip. You can manipulate the dripping by tilting the paper and even using a straw to blow it wherever you want it to go.
- Take a photograph and cut out the subject of the photograph.
- Paranoiac-critical method
- Ah, now we come to Dali’s method. Personally, I would use this with caution. The artist invokes a paranoid state (fear that the self is being manipulated, targeted or controlled by others). The result is a deconstruction of the psychological concept of identity. The paranoia makes it so you are viewing yourself from a different viewpoint. This is how Dali got some of the really cool optical illusions in his work.
- Scatter colored chalk dust on the surface of water then skim it off with a piece of paper
- Cut up and join together several photographs. I actually use this technique quite a bit to design my paintings, but I generally do it in Photoshop.
- Blowing on liquid paint to reveal an image.
- Taking automatism to an absurd level using objective, aplastic and nonartistic procedures. Basically not using traditional art supplies to create automatism. Cubomania is categorized under this. Some examples could be arranging a pile of rocks or sticks.
- Take a roll of film and expose it three times so there is no discernable image on it.
Well isn’t this fun. Creating surreal art is like a game.
You may find some of these techniques useful in your art process and exploration of self. There is some debate as to whether using surreal techniques is important or not. Some surrealists use these games as a source of inspiration and some use them as the starting point to a final art-piece. I don’t know why anyone needs to argue about it. I say, do whatever suites your self-exploration.
Well, that was fun…
And that brings me to
Surrealism evolved parallel with psychological advances.
Surrealism was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that because of society, our basic human instincts and desires are suppressed. In the 1920’s-30’s, society was very different. This can be seen in everything from vintage hairstyles to cars, homes, and to women’s role in society, such as voting (which came about in 1920.)
Freud used a variety of methods to bring to the forefront the unconscious mind of his patients. The surrealists adapted a lot of these same tools in the art making process. They thought that the unconscious part of their mind was the most genuine and authentic part of the person.
Automatism in psychology is automatic behavior that is spontaneous and occurs without conscious thought. So, if an artist using automatism in the art creating process they may be able to look back on their unconscious and finally see that part of themselves they never could before. Its like painting a picture of the unconscious things we didn’t know. This can help the artist understand themselves.
Basically, surrealists spend time doing activities to read the unconscious mind without the conscious mind interfering with it.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
~ Carl Jung
So, while Freud was at the forefront for understanding the unconscious, another psychologist took it a step further:
Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology.
You may have heard of him or the term “Jungian” psychology. You may have not. Either way, his philosophies are fascinating.
At the age of 38, Jung started noticing symptoms of psychosis/schizophrenia such as haunting visions and hearing voices in his head. The fascinating thing is that he was a psychologist that developed psychosis so he was able to look at the illness from the point of view of a patient, but with the training of a psychologist.
He kept meticulous detail of these psychotic experiences over a period of 16 years. The journal was called “The Red Book” and remained locked in a vault after he died until 2009 when it was released to the general public. It isn’t cheap, going at the price of 171.08 on amazon, but it’s worth every penny and I highly recommend you check it out.
“The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image and elaborating and shaping the image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”
~ Carl Jung
Jung painted his dreams and visions to better understand them.
He taught that symbols in dreams were archetypes of a collective unconscious of people all over the world that exist in the potential world outside of time, and we are able to detect them through observing synchronicities.
Here are the Jungian archetypes:
- The Innocent
Motto: Free to be you and me
- The Orphan/Regular Guy or Gal
Motto: All men and women are created equal
- The Hero
Motto: Where there’s a will, there’s a way
- The Caregiver
Motto: Love your neighbor as yourself
- The Explorer
Motto: Don’t fence me in
- The Rebel
Motto: Rules are made to be broken
- The Lover
Motto: You’re the only one
- The Creator
Motto: If you can imagine it, it can be done
- The Jester
Motto: You only live once
- The Sage
Motto: The truth will set you free
- The Magician
Motto: I make things happen.
- The Ruler
Motto: Power isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
Do you relate to some of these?
You may be familiar with the art therapy process. There are a lot of methods, and I’d recommend anyone to try them for themselves.
- Draw or paint your emotions
- Draw with your eyes closed
- Document a spiritual experience
- Create a past, present, and future self portrait
- Create ink-blot art
- Draw your dreams
…and so on
I’ve had a lot of conversations with artists of all kinds and their purpose for art is as deep as life itself.
They use art to:
- Overcome depression.
- Find purpose in life through art.
- Understand who they are.
- Overcome anxiety and stress.
- Change and heal the world.
By being able to express through art, we can express deeper than we can through words alone and get those inner most parts of ourselves out.
Looking at Freud’s processes and the similarities to art therapy and surreal art, it’s clear how the creation process of art is therapy.
Bringing outwardly the inner workings of the soul is an important tool in healing. Many philosophies new and old advise a method called purification.
Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer, coined the term “catharsis” which is a method of purifying the emotions, particularly pity and fear. Josef would put his patients under hypnosis and while in this state, they were able to recall traumatic events they did not remember, express the original emotions they had not expressed, and, in turn, clear the trauma.
Catharsis can be accessed in many ways: hypnosis, meditation, automatism methods (such as the list of 30 surreal art methods above), and basically any way that you can think of quieting the conscious mind to bring repressed emotions up to clear them.
After personal transformation comes the transformation of the society. Let’s talk about visionary art and it’s impact on the world.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow (a psychologist) created a theory of human motivation called the hierarchy of needs.
In order to move up in the pyramid of needs, a person has to satisfy the base needs first.
- Physiological- Food, Water, Shelter, Air, Warmth
- Security- Safety, Steady job, Insurance
- Social Needs- Belonging, Love, Family
- Esteem Needs- Self-Worth, Accomplishment
- Self-Actualizing Needs- Self-Aware, Personal Growth
In his later years, Abraham Maslow added “Transcendence” to the top of the pyramid.
“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos
Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York 1971, (p. 269).
He believed that self-actualization can’t be achieved without transcendence beyond the self, by giving oneself to a higher goal.
Visionary art aims for transcendence.
You might say that Surrealism is Freudian (because it accesses the unconscious mind of the individual) and Visionary art is Jungian (because it accesses the unconscious mind of the collective) a place beyond our current reality where time does not exist. A place full of symbols and archetypes.
Visionary art goes beyond the individual to a place of sacred truth, it is not just realized in the subconscious mind, but from the collective unconscious (some call the spiritual realm.) Visionary art is used to bring truths into the world that can benefit a culture.
These artist’s are more seers than they are just surrealists working out their inner demons, (although they definitely do that in the process.) Their ideas for creating art come from outside themselves and are fueled by a deeper purpose.
In “The War Of Art“, by Steven Pressfield, he says:
“When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight.. we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” talks about this effect in her book: “Big Magic“. She believes that these unconscious universal truths want to be expressed into the world and they find a person to create them by means of inspiring the art idea upon them. In the book she talks about a time that she wrote out a novel and never finished it only to find, years later, another author had written the same novel. The details of the book were nearly identical.
I’ve had this happen with my paintings as well, having inspiration for a painting and creating it just to find out the same art idea was already created. Check this out:
Let’s talk about Alex Grey He is most known for creating the “TOOL” album art.
He has a TED Talk called “Cosmic creativity — how art evolves consciousness” which I highly recommend.
A year ago, I met with him in New York and had a chance to experience his visionary art process. We went through several methods for accessing the visionary art realm. These included guided meditations, dream interpretation, etc… I found myself more awakened to an inner direction and an ability to visually see my thoughts and experiences laid out in my minds eye afterward. These exercises are wonderful for accessing the visual aspects of your emotions and feelings.
My favorite way to access the visionary realm is still the method of waiting for the muse to speak to me, whether it’s in a spark of a creative idea, a meditation, a dream. I then write or draw a rough sketch of the vision that needs to be painted and then create it into reality throughout the next couple months.
If you watched Alex Grey’s TED Talk, he explained the process of how art can change society.
Art ideas are realized in oneself and then created into art. At this point, the individual is forever changed, then the art gains popularity and is picked up by the society. At that point, the society is forever changed.
Every artist has a responsibility with their art because what they are creating will then be echoed through the world. Everything that you create creates a ripple.
Some of you may have heard of the butterfly effect (no not the movie 😉 )
This is a scientific discovery meteorologists made while observing weather patterns. Basically, they discovered that something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings could create a tornado weeks later. When we create art, our expression is entering into the world along with everyone’s expression and forever altering the world view.
The art creating process can be seen as a type of magic. When you create art, you put energy into the art piece. You may have heard the term manifestation. The basis of magic is manifestation. The more energy you put into manifesting, the stronger the likelihood of the thing you’re manifesting coming true.
Sigil’s are painted symbols believed to have magical powers. Basically, if you want an event to occur, you paint a made up symbol and you assign value to it. Then you give it energy every day, meditate on it, etc… This energy you put towards it makes it more likely to come true.
The same happens in every day life. If you really want something, you generally “work for it” and then you increase your likelihood of obtaining it. Work is energy.
This is why prayer is such a common practice for much of the world. When you pray, you state your desires and you put emotional energy behind it and send it off in a nice little package into the cosmic chaos.
Another way of looking at this is through a field of science called quantum physics. Physicists have noticed something they call: “the observer effect.” They found that observing quantum particles changed the way the particles reacted. If a particle was being observed, it would respond differently than if it was just being measured by a machine. Basically, the things that you choose to observe change the outcome of those things. Everything is made of energy with energy bonds holding it together. The world is made of energy and it you reacts to you.
So, when you make art, the energy you’re putting into the art makes it more likely that event will occur. This doesn’t necessarily have to deal with the subject of your painting, but the energy behind it (emotion and desire.)
Leave me a comment and let me know what you got out of this article. I always read your comments.