Like much of art history, Surrealism was born in a string of Parisian cafés, all of which can still be found on the Boulevard du Montparnasse or any Ernest Hemingway novel: La Rotonde, Le Dôme, La Closerie de Lilas, Le Select. In these café-bars, writers and artists would discuss the state of the arts and play games such as ‘cadavre exquis’ (‘exquisite corpse' in English). Surrealism, which owes its fundaments to the Dadaist movement, privileged the human unconscious in art and sought to draw it out through automatic writing and the exchange of dreams. It was in many ways, a lurch towards a new aesthetic, one that was more loyal to the human psyche than ever before. Artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel and Max Ernst all sprung from this liberating movement.
And like many things that are born, Surrealism was also purported to have died. César Vallejo said this of the movement: ‘surrealism is a corpse, it was like all schools, an imposter of life’. Time was fatal to its vitality. The power of Surrealism came from its novelty. It was a force that found its power in relativity, perhaps not inherently striking but certainly striking in comparison to its figurative predecessors. As the years went by it underwent the same malady as all movements: the dissolution of reference. As the works of Surrealism progressed further and further from its origins in the café-bars of Montparnasse and the shock of war, its power waned too.
But before Surrealism the Movement could die, its reverberations had already weaselled their way into human discourse. In turn, it could be liberated from its sociopolitical context. Surrealism was a reaction against rational thought and bourgeois values which the Surrealists believed to be responsible for the conflicts in Europe at the time, namely the first and second World Wars. As the scar of war on Europe slowly faded, so too this resonance. Surrealism became synonymous with the bizarre, the unorthodox and the self-reflexive. As art was liberated from the restraints of academies and abstract, non-figurative art rose to the fore, Surrealism had lost its revolutionary edge: it became strange for the sake of strangeness.
But this dissolution of reference also liberated Surrealism and today the spirit of Surrealism exists in a freeform state. Although over 100 years have passed since the end of the First World War — if there is anything one can be sure of its death, taxes and human conflict. For as long as the human spirit is detained, as long as oppression has hold over any group, Surrealism can and will survive. This is why we have artists such as Cheyenne Julien, Jonathan Meese and Inka Essenhigh who keep Surrealism’s essence alive through their works.
Cheyenne Julien is an artist who grew up in The Bronx. Her works feature unreal black subjects with large, glassy eyes — both theatrically emotional while also eerily harking back to the Golliwog dolls of preceding centuries. This idea of minstrelsy is also explored in her works, for example in paintings such as Night Session, Studio Visit and Back Ache. Each painting contains a black subject with alien white hands modifying the subject. Surrealism has proven to be fertile ground for Julien to explore the ravages of racism in modern American life, in her aesthetic world, environmental racism is physicalised to a poignant end: now that it has a physical form it can now brutalise. She says this of her interrogations of environmental racism: 'Being pushed into a particular space does not allow us to see what is outside of us. Within this, black people can re-imagine and re-shape their environment.’ For Julien, Surrealism is a tool for finding utopia, it liberates black people in America from their painful realities and offers a peephole into what life could be. For Julien, Surrealism is hope.
Jonathan Meese comes from a wildly different background, born in Tokyo in 1970, he trained as an artist at the Academy of Art in Hamburg. He works across a plethora of mediums, from painting to opera and theatre direction and the primary concern in his work is any structure of power. Like the original Surrealists, Meese seeks to obliterate perhaps the most powerful force of all: reality. He says: ‘To fight against reality is one of the most needed tasks and issues of art. Art destroys all politics. Surrealism is the land of total power.’ Permission to act within the dreamscape is the ultimate freedom, when we are not constrained by rationale, by what is and what is not possible, we can transcend. We can imagine the worlds we want to live in. Meese harks back to the description of Surrealism as a revolution by disturbing the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable.
Inka Essenhigh is a New York-based artist. Her works are drenched in glossy, highly saturated colour and chronicle a universe in which everything is not as it seems. Her landscapes are diffused with the mysticism of twilight and sprout with anthropomorphic flora. She describes her works as being ‘imbued with a sense of collective consciousness’ and it is precisely within this atmosphere she creates that her practice of liberation can take place. Her scenes tap into the collective consciousness where the unspoken and taboo live, in this way she frees her spectator from the clutches of received wisdom and invites them into worlds that are both foreign yet all too familiar.
Jonathan Meese HEY, DAS DICKE ENDE DER “SCHNIERZNS” KOMMT NOCH BEI ELCHUS-MAXIMUS-DON BRUNFTOZ NEBENBEI VORBEI, GARANTIERT DEIN BRUMMBÄRLI, 2014
In all these artists’ works, we see the tense dichotomy between the enslaved body and the free mind. The negotiation between human being as a social animal and human being as an agent of free will. These dreamscapes in which anything can happen, where subjects are perpetually on the precipice of meaning and sense, are a triumphant reprisal of the human spirit. All stunning declarations of innate human freedom, of the power of the human mind to transcend its constraints, to dream.
And in a world in which we are quickly becoming disillusioned with the power structures, we have always trusted. Contemporary Surrealism is giving us a way out. The alternative realities which spring from dreams, from free and unconstrained thought become our utopias. Surrealism is no longer, and perhaps never was, the genre of the unnecessarily and gratuitously strange. Rather it is the movement of liberation. And, in a more fundamental way, of the human spirit. Surrealism begs us not to forget the freedom of our imaginations. It reminds us that we are always closer to revolution than we thought, that reality is not a shared experience but rather the most personal thing a human being can have. This age of daily tragedy, be it from disease, famine, the environment or oppression needs the spirit of Surrealism. It needs the permission to dream and the bravery to declare that We Are Making A New World.