Essential Books: 7 In-Depth Histories of Surrealism

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We live in a society that abjures shared reality for the chaos of social media. The situation might have pleased the Surrealists, and it certainly would have amused their leader, André Breton, who once hailed a self-destructive drug addict as the embodiment of Surrealism. Although Guillaume Apollinaire is believed to have coined the term, Breton claimed it as his own with his October 1924 manifesto in a sort of battle over IP with the poet Yvan Goll, a rival for control of the Surrealist brand who’d issued a similar decree two weeks earlier. Breton won out, and the rest, as they say, is art history. Born from Europe’s collective PTSD following World War I, Surrealism sought to make the realm of the unconscious visible to a conscious world distracted by the 20th century’s initial wave of mass production and reproduction. Its complexities were manifold, as borne out by our recommendations for the best books on Surrealism. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)

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1. Leslie Jones, Drawing Surrealism
Drawing is essential for working out ideas, but as a stand-alone expression it’s often considered secondary to painting or sculpture. However, the medium played a critical role in framing Surrealism’s tenets, and this richly illustrated catalog accompanying a 2012–2013 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) shows how. For the Surrealists, tapping the subconscious was fundamental, and drawing provided the key in the form of several unconventional techniques. Automatism, for example, transformed free association into concrete gesture and later became a cornerstone of Abstract Expressionism. The exquisite corpse exercise, a sort of game of telephone played through drawing, explored the felicitous results of random juxtapositions. Frottage, or rubbings, provided another means of decoupling intent from the creative act. This book contains texts and artworks from 100 contributors and goes outside the original Surrealist circle to include artists from Japan, Central Europe, and the Americas.
Purchase: Drawing Surrealism from $16.02 (used) on Amazon

2. André Breton, Surrealism and Painting
When André Breton’s manifesto launched Surrealism in 1924, the movement was meant to be literary rather than artistic, Indeed, while it still attracted the interests of painters and sculptors, there were some thinkers within Breton’s circle who contended that Surrealism could never be visually manifested. As a riposte, he published Surrealism and Painting four years later. Over time, the original treatise was combined into a book with other Breton writings published between 1928 and 1962, and this volume remains the primary source on the subject. In it, Breton states that Surrealism wasn’t an aesthetic so much as “a purely internal model” for exploring the “dark continent of consciousness.” Breton’s essays deal with a wide array of artists associated with Surrealism, along with ruminations on folk art traditions (Haitian painting, Oceanic sculpture) that he considered relevant to the movement. Published in 2002, this edition was the first translated into English.
Purchase: Surrealism and Painting $11.18 (new) on Amazon

3. Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale, Surrealism Beyond Borders
Among the isms of early 20th-century art, Surrealism was arguably the most suitable for dissemination around the world for a couple of reasons. First, it didn’t emphasize any particular style, instead welcoming abstraction, representation, or anything in between as long as it adhered to Surrealist precepts. Second, the group had in André Breton a tireless leader and promoter whose writings and travels spread Surrealist ideas well outside the confines of their origins in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum’s wide-ranging survey of this chapter in modern art history, which runs through January 30, 2022, is the first of its kind and is reprised in this sumptuously illustrated and deeply considered catalog—which, among other things, surfaces fascinating artists and artworks hitherto known mainly to specialists. Surrealism Beyond Borders lives up to its title, offering an eye-opening look at how the movement spread across the globe, from Central Europe and Latin America to Asia and the Middle East, over a period of years lasting into the 1970s.
Purchase: Surrealism Beyond Borders $57.99 (new) on Amazon

4. Oliver Shell and Oliver Tostmann, Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s
Just as Dada was a response to the catastrophe of 1914–1918, the Surrealists reflected the exhaustion and dread of the interwar years before the onset of a conflict that would prove even more devasting than its predecessor. Key figures of the movement such as André Breton, André Masson, and Max Ernst had served on the Western Front, so, it’s no surprise that they and other Surrealists (Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy among them) were especially alarmed as the prospects for war grew with the rise of fascism. This catalog for a 2018 exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum explores how Surrealism became galvanized by these developments, and how its imagery became more gruesome as a result. Moreover, the book’s authors contend that this period produced some of the movement’s greatest works, particularly Ernst’s Europe After the Rains II, reproduced here as a stunning gatefold. Monsters and Myths demonstrates how Surrealism grew out of one trauma only to confront another.
Purchase: Monsters and Myths $50.00 (new) on Amazon

5. Amy Dempsey, Surrealism
Published by Thames & Hudson as part of its Art Essentials series, Surrealism offers a digestible overview that will appeal both to readers with a dedicated interest in the subject and to those with a simple curiosity about it. It begins with André Breton and the programmatic structure he imposed on Surrealism to distinguish it from the anarchistic hijinks of Dada. Breton’s precepts are covered comprehensively and incisively, as is the work of key figures and lesser-known names. Abundantly illustrated with archival photos and full-color images that are often full-page reproductions or two-page spreads, Surrealism also contains a glossary of terms and a chronology of the movement’s exhibition history and other events linked to it. Handsomely printed and coffee table ready, the book is also an encyclopedic appreciation of one of the most significant chapters in 20th-century modernism, one whose mind-bending style continues to influence art to this day.
Purchase: Surrealism $16.95 (new) on Amazon

6. Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement
Surrealism was hardly female friendly: Many of the male artists involved were misogynistic, and so was much of their art. There were women who belonged to the movement, but they were expected to stand in the shadows of the men, serving as wives, mistresses, and muses. But many of them were artists in their own right whose work was as exceptional as the men’s. A couple of names—Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim—were mentioned in standard accounts of modernist art history, but the majority were ignored, and their rediscovery began in earnest only after the rise of feminism during the 1970s. Originally published 1985, this book was the first major study of its type, delving into the careers of women artists who, in addition to Tanning and Oppenheim, included Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo, and others. Based partially on interviews and correspondence with a number of the artists, the book is considered a classic.
Purchase: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement $29.95 (new) on Amazon

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7. Ruth Brandon, Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917–1945
Focusing more on personalities than on practices, Ruth Brandon’s Surreal Lives is a sort of group tell-all detailing the complicated relationships the Surrealists had with one another and with their leader, André Breton. The latter saw his role as that of gatekeeper and chief enforcer—a stance that often rubbed the artists the wrong way—and as such colored the love-hate dynamics of the movement. Salvador Dalí summed it up in his inimitable fashion: “The Surrealist group was a coterie of pederasts all in love with André Breton. They all adored him and he enjoyed exercising his implacable power over them.” Brandon gets into all of that and more, relating the assorted peccadilloes, jealousies, indiscretions, and sexual affairs (including incidents of wife swapping) that kept the pot boiling. In bringing these figures to life, though, Brandon’s aim isn’t salaciousness, but rather to define what it meant to be a Surrealist for an eccentric cast of art-historical icons.
Purchase: Surreal Lives $16.00 (new) on Amazon


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