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Giorgio De Chirico was one of the few artists recognised by André Breton as a precursor to the surrealists. Initially schooled in Greece, he enrolled at the Munich Academy of Arts in 1906. He was particularly inspired by the symbolic paintings of Arnold Böcklin, as well as Greek legends and myths. Often implying curious scenarios taking place in empty piazzas, De Chirico’s paintings combine urban and classical architecture, long shadows and distorted perspectives creating menacing atmospheres.
By the early 1920s, the Paris–based surrealists were familiar with De Chirico’s paintings, which they thought evoked Freud’s theories of dreams. André Breton saw De Chirico’s works of 1912 to 1916 as premonitions of the devastation of World War One. The figures and eerie urban landscapes of De Chirico’s paintings seemed to anticipate the dehumanised, mechanised world of wartime Europe. A number of surrealists, including Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst, acknowledged him as an inspiration for their own development as artists.
After around 1925 De Chirico moved away from his ‘metaphysical’ imagery to study classical and Renaissance art, which prompted Breton and the surrealists to reject his work.
1919–1924 FROM DADA TO SURREALISM
"‘Transform the world’, said Marx, ‘change life’, said Rimbaud; these two orders are for us one in the same."
André Breton, 1935
Surrealism emerged from the political and social upheaval that engulfed Europe during and immediately after World War One (1914–18). The brutality of war prompted the radical questioning of social conventions and political responsibility. With the Russian Revolution in 1917, communist ideology attracted middle-class intellectuals, who perceived Europe’s ruling classes as guilty of sanctioning the mass destruction and the fatalities of the ‘Great War’.
One reaction to the times was ‘Dada’ – a nonsensical, infantile word that embodied the ambition to undermine prevailing values. Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, Dada’s figurehead, described it as ‘a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action’. Before long, however, certain critics rejected Dada’s anarchic approach to politics and its fundamental nihilism.
Surrealism emerged as an alternative intellectual and artistic movement with particular intentions in relation to social and political change and individual transformation. André Breton, the French poet and intellectual who authored the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, contributed most to the ideological formation of Surrealism, but the movement’s greatly varied visual character was developed by a number of artists who found themselves aligned to Breton at different times.
Surrealism's formation as an ‘official’ movement played out in political pamphlets and journals, including Littérature, first published in 1919, and Breton’s and Philippe Soupault’s experimentation with ‘automatic’ writing in Les Champs magnétiques(Magnetic Fields) 1920.
In the early 1920s, important figures in Surrealism’s development congregated in Paris, and many of the first surrealist events and exhibitions took place in the city’s bookshops; in 1921, Ernst exhibited collages at Au Sans Pareil, and Man Ray’s first Paris exhibition was at Librairie Six.