In 2016, so many people researched a single word after the U.S. presidential election that it was named Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year.
But long before “surreal” became the go-to word for life’s strangest moments, it referred to a movement that shoved unsettling ideas at the establishment, begging people to tap their unconscious by rejecting society’s chains.
“People forget the weight, rigor and passion of the political movement behind surrealism,” says Samek Art Museum Director Richard Rinehart. “They tend to just pay attention to the image of a giant fork in a bedroom.”
Those politics are largely unknown today — surrealism is simply the eye candy of Salvador Dalí’s gravity-defying mustache and his liquid clocks.
This year’s Humanities Center theme, “Surrealism: Yesterday & Today,” exposes this often recognized but rarely understood movement and upends its reputation for being exclusionary, superficial and obsolete.
“The political ambition of the surrealists was to use art to revolutionize the world,” says Professor Roger Rothman, art & art history. “The artists and poets of the movement merged Freud’s ideas about the unconscious with Marx’s ideas about the economy, insisting that true freedom requires the liberation of our minds as well as our bodies.”
“Surrealism began in the 1920s and was the key to the historical avant-garde movement from 1900 until World War II,” Rothman says. Poets associated with French writer André Breton “began reading Freud and focusing on the unconscious,” Rothman adds. “They explored the irrational realm of dreams and the imagination.”
Early scholars underestimated surrealism’s influence, but later research showed its global reach.
“The original criticism was that it was Eurocentric, sexist and patriarchal, but that's been shown to be less true in more recent studies," Rothman says. “It was a source of inspiration and affirmation for people of color, people beyond Europe, for women, for queer people. There’s something very affirmative about surrealism today.”
Rinehart curated the Samek’s fall exhibit Mystic Detectives to highlight artists engaged with these issues. The show included works by a dozen contemporary artists whose styles and processes echo surrealism or reveal surrealism’s influence on other mediums, such as Back to Bed, an interactive game featuring surrealist landscapes.
“The political ambition of the surrealists was to use art to revolutionize the world.”
Samek Art Museum Director Richard Rinehart
For a classic look at surrealism, the Samek also exhibited works from Bucknell’s collection by surrealists Joan Miró, Dalí and others.
In another wink to the influential movement, in November Bucknell hosted more than 150 of the world’s leading scholars of surrealism at the inaugural conference of the newly formed International Society for the Study of Surrealism. Scholars from Japan, Latvia, New Zealand and elsewhere shared new approaches to surrealism’s global manifestations.
To complement the conference and Humanities Center events, Rothman asked Milton, Pa., gallery owner and artist Brice Brown to develop an exhibit at Milton Art Bank, on display until Feb. 24.
The museum-quality survey includes works by the world’s most influential surrealists, including rarely seen pieces loaned from private collections.
With students and scholars in mind, Brown put surrealism into historical context with films, music, letters and works by surrealist greats, including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Méret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning and, yes, Dalí.
“I wanted to recreate what these artists were looking at when they explored consciousness,” Brown says. “I hope people come for the Dalí but leave with someone new in mind.”
With that historical background, Humanities Center Director James Mark Shields says students can find surrealism’s meaning in today’s world.
“Surrealism has a lot of political elements — feminism and a political core — that are still important,” Shields says. “We want students to think about the roots of surrealism 100 years ago but also to think of it as a global phenomenon that’s ongoing and how it relates to the contemporary world.”
Finding that connection wasn’t easy for Humanities Center interns Julia Shapiro ’19 and Paige Braun ’20, who knew little about surrealism before Rothman briefed them.
“I knew Dalí’s name and that the art was super weird, but I never thought about surrealism in the academic sense,” Shapiro says. “There’s a lot about it that relates to modern society.”
Shapiro and Braun planned lectures to introduce surrealism, events examining visual arts and a dinner taken straight from Dalí’s whimsical cookbook — with modifications, because lamb’s brain is hard to find and fish served in a satin slipper didn’t seem appetizing.
“I used to think surrealism didn’t take any skill. I thought it was just a mishmash of whatever they wanted to paint,” Braun says. “Now I realize there was a lot of thought behind it — people were rejecting social norms for a reason.”
Rothman says Dalí is still the hook for students, but below the surface, they discover surrealism’s rich plan to change how we experience the world.
“Students are fascinated by Dalí’s work because it’s immediately engaging, but Dalí was trying to make a painting that would shake our senses from established thinking,” he says. “And that’s why we go to art — to experience the unexpected, to be challenged, to be shaken from our patterns and habits. Surrealism invites us to do that.”