Surrealism, born of the political ideology of Karl Marx and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, is one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century. The term was first coined in 1917 by the art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and in 1924 it was used by André Breton to describe a politically radical movement that aimed to change perceptions of the world. In exploring dreams and the irrational, the Surrealists used 'automatic' techniques to draw images from the realm of the unconscious.
During the 1930s Surrealism escaped the bounds of a radical avant-garde art movement and transformed the wider worlds of theatre, design, fashion and advertising. For some, Surrealism's assimilation into the commercial world was to be celebrated and embraced, while for others it went against the political principles of the movement.
The journey from art movement to commercial phenomenon was not merely a matter of artists and designers outside the movement borrowing Surrealist imagery and techniques. It was also precipitated from within. Surrealism's thematic preoccupations and visual strategies often lent themselves to commercial appropriation, while Surrealist artists themselves frequently worked as designers.
Surrealism influenced the worlds of fashion, design, theatre, interiors, film, architecture and advertising. The Surrealists explored unique ways of interpreting the world, turning to dreams and the unconscious as inspiration for a new vision. Their innovative thinking challenged convention, changing perceptions of the world in which they lived and transforming the language of art and design. Surrealist imagery and ideas inspired designers. They were absorbed into the worlds of fashion, commercial design, graphics and film and many Surrealist artists were actively engaged with these activities throughout their careers.
Surrealism and the ballet
The patronage of the Ballets Russes provided an opportunity for many avant-garde artists to engage with the world of design. It presented exciting new possibilities for the realisation of an illusory world and, unsurprisingly, attracted some of the leading artists of the early phase of Surrealism - Max Ernst, Jean Miró and André Masson.
The ballet was also one of the first spheres to reveal the wider influence of Surrealism. In 1926 Serge Diaghilev, the artistic director of the Ballets Russes, commissioned Ernst and Miró to design sets for 'Romeo and Juliet'.
The event crystallised debates on the morality of artistic engagement with the commercial world. The Paris premiére was disrupted by a gang blowing whistles, shouting and distributing leaflets. Orchestrated by André Breton and Louis Aragon, who were perhaps goaded into action by Pablo Picasso's suggestion that these artists had sold out, the leaflet or 'Protestation' stated, 'It is inadmissable that ideas should be at the behest of money.'
Surrealism and the object
Surrealist practise during the 1920s was largely focused on the exploration of automatic processes in writing, drawing, collage and painting. The early 1930s saw the emergence of new debates and a new type of practice - the Surrealist object.
The shift away from text and image towards the constructed object was driven by the need to engage directly with the material world - the world of objects and commerce. The Surrealist object could, it was felt, represent the complexities and contradictions of modern life.
At the instigation of Salvador Dali, several artists began to create Surrealist objects. A basic opposition lay in the creation of integrated sculptural works versus new objects constructed out of pre-existing and often outmoded commodities. These constructions forced new meanings through bizarre juxtapositions that alluded to subjective dreams or desires.
Though intended as a critique of consumer culture, the advent of the Surrealist object allowed for the wider assimilation of Surrealist ideas. The use of commodities pointed to the commercial possibilities of using a Surrealist language for applied and decorative arts, while the juxtaposition of diverse elements opened up new formal solutions in design.
Surrealism and the interior
The domestic interior became a staple theme of Surrealism. In Freudian dream analysis, the home no longer signified domesticity and security, but carried a range of disturbing and sexualised meanings that preoccupied the Surrealists. It provided a series of interconnected structures - from cellar and stair to door and attic - symbolic of both psychic and physical scenarios.
For instance, in dream analysis climbing the stair was interpreted as copulation. Refuting rationalist and technologically driven visions of the home, the Surrealists explored a variety of subjective approaches. They celebrated its capacity to convey the historical trace of previous events, contents and inhabitants, and invested old objects with new meanings. By combining the antique, the new and the bizarre, they created a multi-referential environment that offered a stark contrast to the prevailing views in modern design.
Surrealism and the body
The representation of the body, and particularly the female body, provides a common thread through the public displays, exhibitions and commercial activities of the Surrealists.
The body became the subject of intense scrutiny - dismembered, fragmented, desecrated, eroticised and eulogised in the pursuit of a range of psychological, sociological and sexual concerns.
The body was a universal. It united the spheres of the physical and psychological, and allowed for an exploration of sexuality as an aspect of modernity. Importantly, the body also proved the primary agent in the commercialisation of Surrealism.
Surrealism and nature
Nature, as one of the key themes of Surrealism, offered a rich store of forms and motifs that were quickly adapted for use in design.
The Surrealists borrowed from disparate sources, including 19th-century natural science, Art Nouveau and new technologies such as microphotography and film. They invested nature with a range of psychological and subjective associations. In particular, nature represented the Surrealist concept of the 'Marvellous' and became a metaphor for the unconscious.
This new symbolism, coupled with the development of biomorphism as an aesthetic strand within Surrealism, led to the adoption of an organic form language by many artists and designers in the 1930s.
In America, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, biomorphism appeared in all fields of design and garnered a whole range of new meanings. 'Free-form', as it became known, clearly carried associations of the subjective, but also came to symbolise reassurance and nurture in the nuclear age.
In 1940 Dali summed up his desire to make objects: 'I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like in a dream. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilisation is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real, and then it is more real than that which actually exists.'
In rejecting the rational, mechanical world and celebrating dream and the fantastic, Dali reiterated a fundamental objective of Surrealism. But in making the 'fantastic real', Dali also acknowledged the necessity of a direct engagement with the material world and the world of materialism-the world of Surreal things.
This article was originally published as part of the exhibition Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design, on display at the V&A South Kensington 29 March – 22 July 2007.