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The History of Social Surrealism

GuyJames--100 Years Pass.jpg

James Guy, 100 Years Pass (1936)  View Full-Size Image

“Man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all at the mercy of his memory, and the memory normally delights in feebly retracing the circumstance of the dream for him, depriving it of all actual consequence and obliterating the only determinant from the point at which he thinks he abandoned this constant hope, this anxiety, a few hours earlier.  He has the illusion of continuing something worthwhile." -André Breton, The First Surrealist Manifesto

New Deal artist James Guy, whose work 100 Years Pass is held in the New Deal Gallery, was born in Middletown, Connecticut and trained at the Hartford Art School.  In 1931, Guy was among the first Americans to witness — and become influenced by — European surrealism at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s show “Newer Super-Realism.” Surrealism began as a European artistic movement in response to Sigmund Freud’s studies on the subconscious mind.  In the early twentieth century, Freud developed a model of the mind which he compared to an iceberg.   The tip of the iceberg represents the conscious mind, or the thoughts that are the current focus of attention. The exposed surface of the iceberg represents the preconscious, or anything that can be retrieved from memory.  Freud’s third, and most significant, section of the iceberg is located below the surface of the water and extends far below; this section represents the unconscious mind.  Freud theorized that this latter section dictated the processes that cause much of human behavior, as many people repress thoughts into their unconscious mind, leaving them unaware that these thoughts even exist. Through his theory, Freud hoped to bring the unconscious mind to light, thus, allowing the unconscious to become conscious.  Artists such as Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, and Meret Oppenheim were enormously influenced by Freud’s theory; through their work, they further influenced artists such as the New Deal’s James Guy, who became known as one of the principal exponents of Social Surrealism, along with O. Louis Guglielmi and Walter Quirt.

Surrealistically, icebergs are beginning to  melt more rapidly, much like Salvador Dali’s famous melting clocks.  In the First Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton explains that humans often dismiss concepts that could be regarded as superstition or myth from their minds as they are often seeking truth.  However, given how our subconscious and and imagination influence our perception of the world, Breton and the Surrealists question just what the truth is and where it can be found.  The Social Surrealist movement pushes the truth to the forefront of the viewer’s mind by showing showing aspects of climate or technology that may seem out of place or dream-like, such as the airplane in the upper-left corner of Guy’s 1936 painting 100 Years Pass.

Surrealism arrived to the United States just as the solidity of American life began to melt in the 1930s amidst the stock market crash, the Great Depression, and the ecological chaos of the Dust Bowl.  Much of the art in the United States was inspired by the landscape and the concept of the sublime in relation to unexplored land or the immensity of nature. Land can often be viewed as unknown or part of a dream-like state because of its vastness. In 1930s New Deal Art, many of the paintings explore land in a socially surreal way. Many of the paintings incorporate the changing land in terms of climate or adaptations to new technology.  With constant changes in technology and nature, viewers can see the way individuals began to bring awareness to these aspects through their socially surreal art in the 1930s.

Works Consulted

—Breton, Andre. First Surrealist Manifesto. 1924, Web version available here.

—Dell’Aversano, C.  “Beyond Dream and Reality: Surrealism a Reconstruction.” Journal of Constructive Psychology.  Vol. 21 Issue 4, p328-342. 15p. Retrieved from EBSCOhost Database.

—Editors, “Surrealism History.”, A&E Television Networks, 13 Sept. 2017, Web version available here.

—Mcleod, S. “Sigmund Freud.” Simply Psychology, 2013, Retrieved April 08, 2018, Web version available here.

—Surrealism USA. “Surrealism USA.” The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, 8 May 2005, Web version available here.