Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros20ArticlesSurrealism and Imagery


Surrealism and Imagery

Alexandre Castant
Traduction de Simon Pleasance
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le Surréalisme et l’image
Référence(s) :

Breton, André. Le Surréalisme et la peinture, Paris : Gallimard, 2002, (Folio essais)

Durozoi, Gérard. Le Surréalisme, Paris : Hazan, 2002, (L’Atelier du monde)

Egger, Anne. Le Surréalisme : la révolution du regard, Paris : Scala, 2002, (Tableaux choisis)

Ottinger, Didier. Surréalisme et mythologie moderne : les voies du labyrinthe d’Ariane à Fantômas, Paris : Gallimard, 2002, (Art et artistes)

Passeron, René. Le Surréalisme, Paris : Pierre Terrail, 2001

Rispail, Jean-Luc. Les Surréalistes : une génération entre le rêve et l’action, Paris : Gallimard, 2002, (Découvertes littératures)

“Il y aura une fois”, une anthologie du Surréalisme, Paris : Gallimard, 2002, (Folio)

Explosante-fixe : photographie & surréalisme, Paris : Hazan, 2002

La Révolution surréaliste, Paris : Ed. du Centre Pompidou, 2002

Texte intégral

1Among the various ideas that Surrealism revamps, and which Werner Spies sweepingly overviews in his introduction to the catalogue for the La Révolution surréaliste exhibition (Georges Pompidou Centre, 2002), one in particular is as obvious as it is unresolved : the image. The poets and artists in the group would actually endlessly deal and experiment with, and mix together, the varied range of accepted senses which make up the very word : image, juggling deliberately with its semantic shakiness. Thus for André Breton in the 1924 Manifesto, the poetic image served to explore the subconscious and the product of dreams, especially by fuelling the automatic writing revealing them. To borrow Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron’s words in her 1984 book Le Surréalisme : “Whether the “stupefied” consciousness produces visual images, or whether language (in particular automatic writing) produces, through the abundance of its figures, an irrational mental representation marked by eclipses, the two movements are alternately, and at times jointly, explored by Surrealism. For these productions, be they fantastical or rhetorical, seem to it to provide the models for worlds “to come”.” The upset of the real, the disorientation which Surrealism practised as if with a life project, and the revolution of this latter, all issue from a dynamic that is invariably being informed by iconicness : mental images, dreams and hallucinations ; rhetorical figures and linguistic interplay ; visual arts (painting, photography, film)... The surrealist image contravened itself on principle in order to invent a visuality where images mingled, ill-defined, floating and immaterial.

2So there is such a thing as the contemporaneousness of the surrealist image, and the publications accompanying the La Révolution surréaliste exhibition often express as much by at times helping to push things forward in these links between Surrealism and the visual arts, where, as René Passeron notes in Le Surréalisme, in a fine essay which accurately encompasses the movement within the catastrophe of the First World War, “the painting of Max Ernst is Surrealism itself”. The importance of this art in André Breton’s eyes is well demonstrated by a new edition of Le Surréalisme et la peinture. The radical aesthetics informing this collection of writings, and the heuristic function that it finds for painting (both being underscored by a famous opening gambit : “The eye exists in the wild state (l’Œil existe à l’état sauvage”), also unveil the extraordinary alliance that bonds poet and artists. So how is it possible not to read the analysis of Mir—’s Constellations as an invitation that painting issues to language ? For the relation between text and image is still the crux of the Surrealist experiment and experience. In Nadja, for example, the problematic relationship between Breton and the (detailed) description makes him replace this genre with photographs. And the experimenting encouraged by the shaky definition of the Surrealist image, like the emancipation of the image-text link-up ushered in by the magazine La Révolution surréaliste, suggests an enthusing field of research. Werner Spies neatly emphasizes this : “At once autonomous and complementary, narrative and imagery produce the Surrealist “supertext”, and this form of completely novel expression, imbued with a new afflatus, gave shape to Breton’s aesthetic concept : “convulsive beauty”. Something inchoate and immediate comes to us : the word seeks its transgression in the image, and the image in the word”. It is also in this light that he presents his “Il y aura une fois” argument, the anthology of Surrealist writings that Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron has compiled : “Today”, writes Spies in his preface to this book, “this relationship between writers and painters seems to us to have no equivalent–there is no other 20th century movement that has so closely connected texts and images, images and texts”. The meaning, its thrust, openness and denial, is the challenge of this set of problems also noted by topical works such as Le Surréalisme by Gérard Durozoi and Le Surréalisme, la révolution du regard by Anne Egger, who devotes one of her chapters to words and images (Mir—, Magritte, Breton).

3This subject matter also permeates the work by Rosalind Krauss, Jane Livingston and Dawn Ades, Explosante-fixe, writings about the Surrealists and photography, with Lászl— Moholy-Nagy, in the article Surréalisme et photographie, studying photographic experiments like a “new form of creation by light”. The importance of Surrealism in photography for Rosalind Krauss’s Photographique analyses is well-known, and the two texts in this 1985 book have fuelled them. For this author, actually, the importance of vision/seeing in André Breton, and the differing phases of the photographic manufacture, taken as the mirror of the process of automatic writing, together construct the new arrangement of the Surrealist language. So taking a fragment of the real from randomness and unusualness, as dream element, and approaching the unsuspected zones of the unconscious turn this art into one of André Breton’s visionary approaches. With regard to Man Ray in Le Surréalisme et la peinture, Breton talked about photography as an “object of exchange” (with writing and the world). Lastly, there is a tribute to Man Ray, photographer, in Les Surréalistes, une génération entre le rêve et l’action, a work more akin to Surrealism from the angle of the history of political and literary ideas, and the discussion thereupon.

4What of the contemporaneousness of Surrealism ? Didier Ottinger deals with this in Surréalisme et mythologie moderne, les voies du labyrinthe d’Ariane à Fantômas, where myth appears as a poetics and a form of symbolism, or even a poiesis of movement. Whatever the case may be, the contemporaneousness of the image as understood by Surrealism is unconditional. As open spaces and times which cross a variety of visual arts (painting, photography, film, as well as drawing and collage), the image forms an autonomous system of meaning, the short-circuit possibly develops a sequence of signs playing with the factors of the readable, and creates gaps in the imaginary : the image smithereens and then passes over appearances.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Alexandre Castant, « Surrealism and Imagery », Critique d’art [En ligne], 20 | Automne 2002, mis en ligne le 29 février 2012, consulté le 04 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Alexandre Castant

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Archives de la critique d’art

Haut de page
  • Logo Les Archives de la critique d’art
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search