Surrealism: the Unconscious in Cinema

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Where was surrealism born?

Surrealism was also an avant-garde movement for the development of the history of films. Like the cinema of the Lumiere brothers and most of the avant-gardes of the twentieth century was born in Paris. As the New York of the new world developed like Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis spaceship chasing the economic success of the American Dream, Paris, the city of lights, continued to be the world capital of art and the avant-garde movements that changed the history of the 20th century. The city of lights was the meeting place for surrealist artists identified to change the state of things, fighting against tradition and dominant thought. Crazy and visionary men looking to carry out radical cultural projects and battles. Surrealist art was one of their most powerful weapons.

André Breton and the legacy of Dadaism

The poet André Breton who sought to channel the creative but destructive energy of Dadaism was the main theorist and inspirer of surrealism. The Dadaist rebellion and transgression had become over time an end in itself and self-destructive. André Breton and the first exponents of surrealism understood that it was possible to take the best of it and channel it into a creative and positive energy. Surrealist art had to be something constructive and the surrealist artists did not want to give in to nihilism and rebellion as an end in itself.

The unconscious and the depths of the psyche


Surrealism was born in Paris in 1924, inspired by the books of Jung and Freud, such as The Interpretation of Dreams. His goal was to explore the unconscious and the depths of the human psyche. Abandoning rational forms of narration to descend into the irrationality and madness of the psyche. Surrealism and surrealist art uses the mysterious symbols and figures of the world of dreams, with their violent and inexplicable conflicts. Surrealist artists love monstrous and grotesque apparitions, nonsense, mysterious links of meaning between the objects of the narrative.

Automatic writing and free association


The main technique of surrealism is automatic writing and uncontrolled psychic automatism mechanisms. The surrealist works show the free associations of irrational thought of the unconscious, of the imagination in a sub-conscious state, apparently disconnected projects, figures and symbols. Surrealism rejects logical rationality to explore the mysterious connections of the dream world.

In some encounters, for example, the surrealist artists played a game. It started with a word or an image written on a sheet of paper that circulated among all the participants, without anyone being able to see what changes and additions the other made to the sheet. Each one added an image or a word according to their own association of ideas. The game often evolved in unpredictable ways, producing seemingly meaningless designs. For example, once upon a time, from the initial concept invented by one of the players of “corpse” followed that of exquisite, wine, drink. The following sentence came out, with a singular emotional suggestion: the exquisite corpse will drink good wine.

The works of the Surrealist artists revolved around the three fundamentals: love as the driving force of life, the dream as the liberation of the imagination and its power. The liberation of social conventions as an act of rebellion against social homologation. The third was the lifelong cinematic obsession of the greatest surrealist director, Spaniard Luis Bunuel.

Surrealism is the most widespread and most successful avant-garde art movement ever. Born in a period where the avant-garde movements followed one after the other with a short life. The surrealist artists have instead spread all over the world and are still many today, disciples of a vision of the world that will probably last a very long time.

It could be said, in a certain sense, that the seeds that gave birth to surrealism have existed for centuries. The reason for the success of surrealism is perhaps that the exploration of the unconscious and the unknown territories of the human psyche is always connected to the creative mechanisms of art and, more generally, to the growth of awareness of one’s inner world.

Surrealist artists

In addition to his spiritual guide, the poet André Breton, well-known exponents of surrealism were the painters Jean Mirò, René Magritte, Salvador Dalì, Max Ernst, and poets and writers such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Tristan Tzara. Some of them came from Dadaism. Some surrealists later married the anarchist and communist current. Others, such as Luis Bunuel, considered the Marquis de Sade a precursor and inspirer of the movement. In fact, Bunuel’s surrealist works are imbued with erotic perversions and sadomasochistic impulses.

Surrealist movies

Luis bunuel

In cinema we can mention three great surrealist directors, even if the real list, also counting the contaminations between reality and fantasy that occur in many films, would be gigantic. Luis Bunuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Federico Fellini. The purest and most militant surrealist director of the three, who personally attended the surrealist artists of Paris, is Luis Bunuel, who, together with his friend Salvador Dalì, initiated the path of the movement in cinema. Most of his filmography is composed of surrealist works. Surrealist movies inspired by movement cross the entire history of cinema, cinema is the art that works best to tell the irrational and the unconscious.


It could be said that surrealist movies is the apex of the evolution of Méliès’ fantastic cinema, as opposed to the realistic and “documentary” path of the Lumière brothers. Cinema and surrealism seem to have been born for each other. The list of surrealist films and their makers is very long, but most of them are only partially affected. We could mention for example David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Abel Ferrara, Tinto Brass, Alfred Hitchcock, but they are actually very many. The only 100% surrealist director recognized by film theorists is Luis Bunuel.

Surrealism continues to constantly inspire works even today and we find it in many modern works of art, in many films of the 2000s. But the official end indicated by historians and critics of the movement is the end of the world war. And subsequently the death of his spiritual leader, André Breton.

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