Funny how history has thrown up so many variations of looking at the world. Human kind has never had a shortage of what to think or make of the world. The Surrealists of the early 20th century are a case in mind.
Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of madness and terror. After the Great War, the writings of an obscure psychologist in Vienna, Sigmund Freud suddenly seemed relevant. Soldiers had experienced what was called “shell shock” in the early twentieth century to a degree never experienced in the warfare of previous generations. The Great War produced such numbers of afflicted soldiers that no excuses of cowardice or treason, no amount of executions could make vanish the effects of war on the mind. The madness of war lingered and altered the rules of public engagement for so many individuals. It also set the tone for a movement that rejected outright the institutions of a society that allowed so many to die horrible deaths and with apparently little to show for but piles of dead bodies, rubble and wounded spirits. As a wartime nurse, André Breton had observed the power of the wounded mind over the helpless body and in 1921, he visited Freud to learn more of what the doctor called the “unconscious mind.”
For Freud, dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious,” meaning the mind was capable of communicating at various levels, and perhaps the least of which was the conscious level. The deeper buried layer of the mind “spoke” in codes, whether linguistic or visual, and these clues had to be decoded by the psychologist who could translate the obscured messages. What he learned from Freud gestated in the mind of Breton and so began a movement of artists from every discipline to shake the shackles off a hypocritical, uncaring and morally bankrupt society whose rigid conventions of social behaviours carved the road to so many senseless deaths. Contemporary society holds on to a delusion that this war and others that follow evoke noble and commendable acts of self -sacrifice which are still commemorated as some kind of testament to the courageous spirit of our species, but the Surrealists cut through this social facade and dismantled the propaganda of the Great Hoax and saw the power games of the rich which lured so many unsuspecting young men into illusory notions of King and Country to kill their fellow comrades across the vast trenches of Europe. The Surrealists rejected everything that society and civilisation deemed to be normal and scoffed at the hypocrisies of institutionalised society by looking into their subconscious and releasing a primordial instinct based on emotional relevance.
Salvadore Dali was one among many artists, including writers, sculptors, playwrights, poets who absorbed this new freedom to explore, express and to test the limits of the human imagination in direct defiance of social codes of conduct and attitudes and created some of the most wonderful Surrealist Paintings of this era. The Surrealist works of art remind us that the unconscious imagination is another window to another reality.
The Persistence of Memory (1931), Salvador Dalí
Dalí described his meticulously rendered works as “hand-painted dream photographs,” and certainly, the melted watches that make their appearance in this Surrealist masterpiece have become familiar symbols of that moment when reverie seems to uncannily invade the everyday. The coast of the artist’s native Catalonia serves as the backdrop for this landscape of time, in which infinity and decay are held in equipoise. As for the odd, rubbery creature in the center of the composition, it’s the artist himself, or rather his profile, stretched and flattened like Silly Putty