The Politics of Surrealism

Joan Miró. Still Life with Old Shoe. Paris, January 24-May 29, 1937

By Alexandra A Jopp

Art had an important role in Communist revolutionary activity in Europe between the wars through the method of “socialist realism,” in which the French Communist Party tried to “dictate form as well as content to those artists who were Party members.” (Lewis 61) The approach was formulated in 1932 by Stalinist apparatchiks in the Soviet Union and covered all spheres of artistic activity – literature, drama, cinema, painting, sculpture, music and architecture.

Helena Lewis affirms the main principles of socialist realism: “it was to be a historically truthful and concrete depiction of reality with a thematic emphasis on the coming of the revolution.” It was also important, according to the method, for artists to make their works consistent with the themes of socialist ideological reforms and the education of workers in the socialist spirit. As British art critic Herbert Read said, “Socialist realism is nothing but an attempt to stuff intellectual or dogmatic objectives into art.”

Surrealists claimed the revolutionary mantle and asserted that their principles were compatible with the ideas of Marx and Engels. Lenin was different, though, since he “rejected the possibility of any kind of liberation” (Short 21) and was, thus, a danger to art, especially literature. He insisted that, “Today literature, even that published ‘legally,’ can be nine-tenths party literature. It must become party literature.” The repression that began with Lenin grew even worse under Stalin, with writers and artists being persecuted and killed.

Lenin said that art should stand next to the proletariat since, “Art belongs to the people. It must with its widest stretching roots go out into the very thick of the broadest masses. It must combine the feelings, thoughts and will of the masses and uplift them.” This statement illustrates the idea that art and culture are synonymous, and that it is impossible to separate them from the people. Given this, a government that seeks to control its people – as the Soviet regime certainly did – would, obviously, consider controlling the production of art to be crucial.

This, ultimately, is why the alliance between Surrealists and Communists failed. Surrealism focused on new experiments, new ideas and unbarred freedom, things that were clearly antithetical to everything the Soviets were doing.

1. Breton “Political Position of Surrealism (extracts)” pp. 205-278.

2. Greeley, Robin. “Nationalism, Civil War, and Painting: Joan Miró
and Political Agency in the Pictorial Realm” in Surrealism
and the Spanish Civil War (Yale University Press, 2006) pp. 13-49.

3. Lewis, Helena, “Surrealists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists:
Theories of Art and Revolution in France between the Wars”
Art Journal, Vol. 52, No. 1, Political Journals and Art,
1910-40 (Spring, 1993), pp. 61-68. JSTOR.

4. Short, Robert S. “The Politics of Surrealism, 1920-36,”
Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 1, No. 2,
Left-Wing Intellectuals between the Wars (1966), pp. 3-25. JSTOR