Stemming from Dadaist activities, the surrealist movement began to emerge with André Breton, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault’s literary journal Littérature. While it was originally based on the written word, the doubt surrounding the merit of visual arts within the movement disappeared through the discovery of various techniques, like frottage and decalcomania. From then on in the surrealist movement, we see not only poetry and writing, but paintings, collages, and various other visual media.
While visual art did become prevalent, there were still rules upon what could be considered “surrealist art.” The surrealist canvas must not be a decorative element on the wall, but a trap for the gaze, an invitation to travel, and even, wrote Breton, an opening to an unknown world: “It is impossible for me to consider a painting as anything other than a window, for which my first care is to determine onto what it opens,” hoping always to discover in it some “excessive spectacle.” And yet, the painter who copies an exterior model offers nothing by the banal—his only hope of originality is in referring to a “purely interior model.” The entire difference of the new painting lies in this point: “It remains to be seen what is meant by interior model.” It is essentially about prospecting within the dream state, and giving rise to more or less astounding visions.
In addition to the non-decorative aspect of surrealist paintings, the works were also described to give off an odd and convulsive beauty, which Breton defined as follows in L’Amour fou (Mad Love). “Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, explosive-fixed, magic-circumstantial, or will not be.” Man Ray illustrated the idea of “erotic-veiled” in a photo of Meret Oppenheim nude behind the wheel of an engraving press, holding up a hand covered in black ink; “explosive-fixed” he depicted with a dancer frozen in a leap, her skirt whirling around her. To explain “magic-circumstantial,” Brassaï photographed a budding potato with sprouting tendrils wrapping it in vegetal lacework, as if indicating the moment when we capture reality red-handed in an eye-catching metamorphosis. When at the end of his life, Breton spoke of a magical art, he affirmed that it would necessarily contain “the spice of the bizarre,” and provide an initiatory shock. It was thus, in the end, a magician’s trick that gave birth to the surrealist painting, in order to materialize that magic with supreme powers over the failings of existence.