The origins of the radical art movement and how it permeated popular culture.
ESSENTIALLY: A philosophical and artistic movement that centered on the unconscious mind.
FIRST INTRODUCED: 1917
EXAMPLE: Landscape With Girl Skipping Rope, Salvador Dalí, 1936
The term surreal gets used a lot. But it's usually in a different context than what the word was originally invented to describe. Most often, it functions as a kind of synonym for strange, a characteristic or element that is just a bit *off* and maybe even a little otherworldly. It's become such an everyday phrase that it can be easy to forget its roots. Originally coined in the preface to a 1917 play by Guillaume Apollinaire, Surrealism came to be defined by a group of Parisian intellectuals in 1924 as "pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought . . . in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation."
Though its use originated in literature, the movement may be best remembered for its impact on visual art. Some of the 20th century's most noted artists – Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico – spent much of their career working in a surrealist style. These artists (and others like them) were collectively fascinated by the subconscious and how depicting realistic things in an unrealistic setting, or vice versa, could have an unsettling effect that questioned the fabric of the world around us – and our own minds.
Dalí's Landscape With Girl Skipping Rope typifies this particular tension. Though the dessert setting, architecture and skyline are rendered with a great deal of realism, the strange proportions and sense of distance along with the overly long shadows of the lonely figures (some of which appear skeletal) come together in a haunting manner.
Surrealism began to fade as a driving force in the art world by the mid-1940s, but its influence in pop culture only grew. The subjects it grappled with – psychology, the importance of early childhood influences, the potential of other dimensions – have all seen themselves become mainstream references and touchpoints for contemporary culture. And even though it no longer remains active as a standalone art movement, it continues to inspire new generations of contemporary artists, such as Yifan Jiang.