Nadia Choucha

The Surrealist Imagination

André Breton described the Surrealist imagination with the language of alchemy and poetry: “…the philosopher’s stone is nothing more or less than that which was to enable man’s imagination to take a stunning revenge on all things… to the attempt to liberate once and for all the imagination by the ‘long, immense, reasoned derangement of the senses’.” [1] These words encapsulate the revolutionary magic at the heart of Surrealism, with its rejection of the mundane in favour of dreams, desire and delirium. The Surrealist imaginary fused Marx’s dynamic, political rhetoric with the mysticism of medieval magicians, Freud’s analytical researches into the unconscious with the visionary symbolism of Symbolist poets to create a subversive agenda for artists and writers to free themselves from the chains of Western civilisation and thus transform the world.

The Surrealist imagination produced art which both dazzled and confounded the spectator. “The only difference between me and a madman is that I’m not mad,” declared Salvador Dalí, revealing the paradoxicality and polymorphous perversity of his creative imagination, an alchemical alembic of Heraclitean flux, drift and entropy, where bodies and objects dissolve and coagulate, externalising an interior world beyond the laws of science and rationalism. Max Ernst’s shaman persona enabled him to enter the magical worldview of prehistory to reveal uncanny vistas of nature consuming civilisation, the fusion of plants, animals and minerals, the place of mythical origins where life and death intermingle.

The Surrealist imagination – veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial – aims to subvert the limits of objective reality, time and space to reveal a visionary prospect for the reenchantment of the world and the liberation of the human spirit.

[1] André Breton, ‘Second Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1930), in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), pp. 174-175.

Nadia Choucha is a writer and lecturer on art and magic with a master’s degree in art history from Edinburgh University. Her book, Surrealism & the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Birth of an Artistic Movement, which has been in print since it was first published in 1991, is an accessible survey of the impact of occult and magical ideas upon the art and poetic theory of the Surrealist movement and reveals how it inspired the creativity of significant artists such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington. Her article, ‘Scottish Fairylore, Occult Duality and Donald Cammell’s Performance’ will be published in Strange Attractor, Journal 5 (September, 2022).

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