Surrealism and Psychoanalysis

June 24, 2019
On the one hand, Surrealism seeks to influence the thinking of the human mind. It does so by evoking the feelings of the unconscious mind using visual arts as a tool. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, attempts to explain how human behavior is influenced by past events that remain stored in our unconscious mind.

Surrealism is a widely-known but poorly understood cultural movement. It led to an art revolution during its peak from the 20s to the 30s. It officially began with Dadaist writer André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto. However, the actual movement was already around in 1917 with the vision-inducing paintings of streets by Giorgio de Chirico. However, the best-known expressions of this movement are the works of painters such as Salvador Dalí.

Surrealism is sort of an illogical art, without apparent sense and full of fantastic motives. Obviously, the consequence of its Dadaist predecessor. Surrealist art intends to capture the world of dreams and the unconscious. And this is why we also know it as dream art.

This is the aesthetic movement that was most interested in representing the human psyche and the unconscious. Surrealist artistic expressions aim to confront the individual with their most complex thoughts. It’s a lot more than visual beauty as it aims to free humans from understanding everything rationally and takes us instead into the fantastic worlds, full of symbols and meanings that connect us with our inner selves.

Another surrealist piece by Dalí.

“I categorically refused to consider the surrealists as just another literary and artistic group. I believed they were capable of liberating man from the tyranny of the ‘practical, rational world’.”

-Salvador Dalí-

A Salvador Dalí Painting that Represents the Relationship between Surrealism and Psychoanalysis

Dalí was a remarkable man of keen intelligence and original perspective. He was deeply admired for his work and highly criticized for his eccentric and narcissistic nature. He was also visionary and mystic. It’s hard to know where the talent ended and the madman started. He wasn’t exactly psychotic but did have paranoid tendencies.

Note that projection is one of the most common defense mechanisms of this type of disorder. That is, fears and thoughts are unconsciously attributed to someone or something. This brilliant painter had the ability to externalize his inner reality.

In the 1920s, Dalí read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. This book impressed him and led him to enter a new artistic stage. This is the stage where he invented what he called the paranoiac-critical method through which he intended to shape the information of his subconscious. The technique consists of invoking a paranoid state. A fear that one’s either being manipulated or targeted or controlled by external forces.

Common Techniques of Surrealism and Psychoanalysis

The most-used visual technique within surrealism was automatism. Most likely inspired by the psychoanalytic theory of free association. The surrealists used automatism as the mirror of the interior, the reflection of the unconscious. Many argue that automatism wasn’t a technique in and of itself, but rather an artistic movement.

“Surrealism is pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought.”

-André Breton-

Two Subjective Realities: Surrealism and Psychoanalysis

Inside the inner world of Dalí, full of symbols, the fetishes proliferate. There are objects, that although common, are for the most part impossible. He liked to place them in there, like a hole within his works. As usual, their interpretation has never reached a consensus among experts.

Surrealism has figures such as a lobster, which was one of Dali’s obsessions throughout his life and which seemed to be represented as a source of phobias. The drawers are a symbol of the secrets of one’s inner self that only psychoanalysis could open. Then, there are skulls. These are interpreted as a symbol of the fragility of life.

Furthermore, butterflies are a symbol of metamorphosis and transformation. Then, there are the flies, which seem to represent fear. And how about the crutch? For Dalí, it represented authority, magic, and mystery. Then, the mysticalness of the eyes, which made reference to the observer of his paintings. Oh, and the melted clocks, one of Dali’s best-known symbols. It represents the passage of time and its irrelevance.

"The passage of time" by Salvador Dalí

An Expression Far from the Rational

Dalí often invented his own terms to define concepts of psychoanalysis as the complex of the Dioscuri in a visual manner, which he called Phoenixology, which is about dying and rising in perpetual motion. That’s a symbolic process by which one of the brothers must die so that the other one becomes immortal. He tried to symbolize the oedipal desire or the power of the father here.

Salvador Dalí’s surrealism sought an explanation of the obsessions that followed him throughout his life through psychoanalysis. He didn’t only find a way to analyze his own conflicts through his art in the manner of psychoanalysis. He also invented a whole catalog of visual representations in order to reflect it all through his work.