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The Scientific Aspect of Surrealism

G W Pailthorpe

Published originally in the London Bulletin, No 7, December 1938-January 1939



SURREALISM is one of the outcomes of a demand, on the part of those dissatisfied with the world, for the complete liberation of mankind from all fetters which prevent full expression. Humankind demands full expression. It is a biological necessity.

In 1934 André Breton, one of the founders of Surrealism and its present leader, defined Surrealism as: -
"Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally in writing or by other means, the real process of thoughts. Thought's dictation in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations."* (The italics are mine).

Psycho-analysis, although originally the outcome of a different aim, also strives to free the psychology of the individual from internal conflict so that she or he may function freely. Thus it can be assumed that the final goal of Surrealism and Psycho-analysis is the same-- the liberation of man-but that the approach to this end is by different paths.

During the process of a research, undertaken from the psycho-analytic point of view (by my colleague and myself), the results of certain experiments in painting and drawing led to Surrealism. A considerable amount of interesting material was collected and in it some of the real values of Surrealism became manifest. As a detailed description of the progress of this research is impossible in the limited space of this journal only a brief idea of some of the results, and the light these throw on the whole subject of art, will be practicable.

It is well-known that unconscious fantasy is at work in all Surrealist creations; but that the fantasy-story the unconscious is unfolding is intelligible is not such common knowledge. The telling of some of those stories is one of the purposes of this article. Although the method by which the interpretations of drawings and paintings were obtained is complicated, the results are crystal-clear. For instance it can be clearly demonstrated that one unconscious meaning of traditional art (art that has become established and accepted) is painting according to parental wishes, or to please the parent. Such creations may display excellent craftsmanship but very little, if any, of the creator's basic personality, and vitality is restricted.

Further, it is possible to show that painting freely, that is Surrealistically, may, in the unconscious mean either the making of a mess, a diarrhoea or a preference for making stools all over the place instead of into the chamber. On the other hand it may have quite opposite meanings as for example, the making of a child, or the search for something of interest in the stools. But whatever the act of painting may symbolise there is always an underlying reason for it. A fantasy is in progress and a story is being told, as the following example and interpretation illustrate.

 G W Pailthorpe          Pen drawing

This drawing of a man having his eye gouged out has in it the wish to get into the father to find a safe place from an unsafe external world. The reason for the need for flight is also stated in this picture. The man's tongue is torn by his own teeth, in disapproval of himself. The drawing is expressing fear of the man who would do such a thing to himself as punishment for his own misdoings, and 'If', it is argued, 'this is what he does to himself for his bad behaviour, what would he do to me if he caught me wanting to behave badly? I must find a good way to escape his anger.' And so a hole is bored into the man and a hideout is found in his body. The act portrayed by the infantile unconscious, about which this fear had arisen, was that of stealing milk from the mother.

In this research material there is evidence of the fact that early enforced restrictions on the infant's excretory functions inhibits fantasy life and, therefore, its imagination. A healthy or balanced imagination is of vital importance. The repression of this faculty, which lack of understanding has made widespread, leads to a condition which the New Testament describes as, 'a house divided against itself which cannot stand'. Thus today there is the slow disintegration of all civilizations because the units that constitute society are not psychologically (and, therefore, not biologically) integrated.

Art within the confines of any tradition is like an animal in a cage. An imprisoned creature will lose much of its inherent grandeur and vitality. A cramped freedom can only permit a mockery of life. There is little scope for fantasy within the cage of tradition-bound art. Art that is free from restriction becomes alive, colourful and vital.

When, however, such barriers to freedom are symbolically destroyed by an act of will and a Surrealist career begun, the discovery that movement is still difficult is soon made. So early endeavours in Surrealist art often are, to trained eyes, lacking in the essential qualities. This is due to the fact that firmly established inhibitions still maintain their hold no matter how much self-permission to be free is given. This is one reason why some give up their efforts, complaining that Surrealism leads nowhere. But Surrealism can lead to a greater understanding of the world around and within us, and it is a matter of time only before this will be recognised. It is impossible to create a well-organised external world unless at the same time the internal mental world is harmonised, since it is only through mental acquiescence on the part of the units that go to form the whole machinery of civilization that it can function smoothly. Further, the understanding of the world around us is reached by means of our sense organs and if these are not functioning freely we are not capable of getting an accurate focus upon the happenings that affect us.

With these preliminary remarks in mind we can now turn to the consideration of some selected paintings and drawings.

'Free translations' from the works of some of our prominent Surrealist painters, such as Dali, Miro or Tanguy, may be interesting but they would be unreliable. They would be entertaining but they would not fit into the purpose of this article. Concrete facts are more convincing and, for this reason, the examples given are taken from the research since, in this case, one can answer for the accuracy of the interpretations.

Before giving the interpretations of the following illustrations it is necessary to impress upon the mind that the infantile fantasies underlying the pictures are not in consciousness at the time of painting or drawing. The unconscious story is brought into consciousness by a special technique. Thus a hill or a house mean exactly what they are to the artist while working. All that is known at the time is that a house is appearing, a hill is appearing, and so on. To the degree that one is able to give oneself entirely up to the dictates of the unconscious, to that degree the perfect story will be told. Conscious interference in the painting can always be detected, since it invariably distorts the story in the fantasy-creation.


R Mednikoff         Come back soon

This fantasy picture is of the artist himself. He is depicted as having an animal head with a huge mouth. On top of his head is a cock's-comb; and under the lower jaw is a dark. beard-like arrangement of wavy lines. From his mouth proceed smudges and feather-like shapes. On his leg is an inverted flower-shape from which some drops are falling. Under this, lying in a wooden box, is the shape of a dead bird.

The underlying unconscious fantasy is that the artist has killed his mother and is now enjoying himself with playing with the mess the kill has provided for him. To do this he has first to decorate himself with a cock's-comb and the beard. By doing this he is putting himself into the position of those who are permitted to kill. In his childhood he has witnessed 'kosher-killing of poultry. Priests with beards become to his child-mind the people who may kill; therefore, in his fantasy, he first makes himself into a priest with a beard. To make doubly sure he is this kind of a priest and none other he puts the cock’s-comb on his head. Thus he is saying, 'I am a priest who kills chicken'. It may not be generally known that this form of killing birds and animals for the table is a religious rite and is only performed by those set aside for this purpose.

The dead bird represents the mother. The title which the artist gave to this drawing was 'Come back soon'. Death as an extinction of life does not exist in the realm of the unconscious. So although the play of the moment demands the death of the mother in order to play with the mess, he makes sure of its impermanence by his title.

The inverted flower represents the fowls he had seen hung up upside-down from which blood dripped.

It is not necessary to go into further details as to the fuller meaning of the picture. It suffices to demonstrate the importance of every detail of the picture. It will be noted that even the character of the lines is of importance. The smudgy quality of those lines symbolise the nature of his play while the drop-like character of that which in the flower are the stamens, are a further example of it.


G W Pailthorpe       Oil, April 1st 1938

Here the unconscious fantasy is simple. The artist is represented as a baby in a cot, asleep. The rest of the painting is what the baby is dreaming. It sends forth its hand--the little animal with five limbs (five fingers) on a journey. It first seeks the sun, a symbol of the breast, getting there by climbing stairs. This is the groping of the baby's hand towards the mother's breast while in her lap. The next scene, in the top right corner, is the baby-hand climbing into the mother-bed, the other place where it has experienced feeding. The third effort is to get milk from a glass of milk near-by, to the left of the cot. The picture is therefore saying, 'I wish to be fed. I must find that breast that feeds me'. The position of the cot, which is half in and half out of a room, is the position of a pram on a verandah and conveys the idea of a sleep in the daytime. The need of the moment in the artist's life brings up the wish-fantasy to be back in the infantile situation when sleep and feeding merged blissfully into one, and where wishes were quickly fulfilled.


R. Mednikoff               Oil, September 19 (1935)

This unconscious fantasy-picture depicts the artist as a child running behind a house. The house is a symbol of mother. He has stolen the ball, a breast symbol, and the father tree is after him to punish him for this theft. The branch projecting from the tree in the direction of the ball is the father's hand stretching forward to feel the breast-ball to see if he, the child, has damaged it. The steps behind the child are one way of escape. The hill is the mother's skirt. He can run round behind her and dodge father this way, a thing the artist frequently did as a child when trying to escape the father's wrath and punishment. But the child in the painting is running to get to the ladder and so on to the roof. The roof is the mother's head. In other words, a child is safe only when it is high up in the mother's arms, where it is level with the mother's head. There were further details in this painting but enough has been given in demonstration of the story being told.


G W Pailthorpe           Pencil Drawing (1938)

This again depicts a simple, direct unconscious wish-fantasy. The little figure standing on a jaw-bone represents the artist. It has a claw finger on each hand with which it can scratch. It is pointing to its ear and to its belly to indicate where it wants to scratch. The jaw it is standing on is the mother's face. The small figure climbing up behind the jaw is again the same little person and so too is the monkey on the ball shape above. This ball represents the mother's head and the back of the jaw the mother's shoulder. The picture is saying, 'I have two irritating places for which I can get no relief except in being held close to the mother's head, neck and shoulder'.

All these pictures came into being as a result of the experimental work of the research.

The details and interpretations of these pictures have necessarily been curtailed; but they serve to show the quantity of interest held within the bounds of each. Not a line or detail is out of place and everything has its symbolic meaning. This also applies to colour. Every mark, shape and colour is intended by the unconscious and has its meaning.

The unconscious is a master in its own form of art and its creations have qualities similar to those demanded of any form of art, whatever the media. It tells its story perfectly; with economy of language and with associations that convey the maximum effect. It gives only those details necessary for the complete understanding of its moods. It tells a perfect short story. Simplicity, directness and lucidity are its aims. It conforms to all that has vitality, perfection of rhythm and composition and it cannot be ignored because it is truth expressed with vitality.

Perhaps these statements seem an exaggeration, but to be aware of the complete story, which it has been impossible to give in this limited space, would be to dispel any doubts.

Every unconscious creation is not a work of art but where complete freedom has been possible the results are perfect in balance, design, colour, rhythm and possess a vitality that is not to be found anywhere else than in Surrealism. Because it is free from the limitations of traditionalism its movements have greater variation and infinitely greater daring.

Unfortunately such paintings and drawings create a feeling of fear or distaste on the part of the public; but if they can bring themselves to look again and again they begin to feel an inexplicable attraction towards these pictures. They are being drawn towards a freedom which they, too, would like to experience. Eventually they admit that, although they do not understand Surrealism, there is an indefinable attraction which excites them. And many artists, who still conform to the dictates of traditionalism, have admitted to being profoundly affected by the vitality of the colour, movement and design of Surrealist creations.

At present we are in the early stages of this form of art. The infantile unconscious can only become free gradually. Its stiffened limbs have to overcome the effects of previous binding. It has to overcome the fear of abandoning its cage, which is in large part of its own making in protection of itself from attacks from the external world. Until these bonds are broken and 'limbs' are fully stretched it will be impossible to get that perfection which is called 'creation'-the conglomeration of qualities that make a thing 'live', and by which it stands the test of time.

We are witnesses of the birth of a new form of art, of the transitional period during its progress from within to without. Surrealism is ushering into the world an art greater than has hitherto been known, for its potentialities are limitless. And this art of the future will arrive when completely freed fantasy evolves from uninhibited minds. It will be the dawn of a new art epoch.

As long as fantasy-life, or the imaginative life, is free it learns by experience. The fantasies produced are richer in quality and content as a result of experience. But fantasy or imagination bound by early infantile inhibitions and fears remains infantile in what it creates. In the process of becoming free Surrealist paintings, drawings and sculpture will necessarily be infantile in content. This does not preclude its right to be called art. The infantile fantasy, as it becomes freer and experiences more as a result of that freedom, will grow increasingly more adult in character and its creations will show it.

Imagination travels well in harness with reason. The infant human comes into the world with a remarkable power to reason. It reasons through its senses. Its mistakes are not through lack of power to reason but through lack of experience. Hitherto humanity has stressed the value of reason and has restricted imagination. Imagination and reason are biological twins. They must grow up together. What affects the one will affect the other. If their development is such that one grows apace and the other remains stunted the results are disastrous. The growth of our imagination and reason must, like our mental and physical development, be balanced. They are interdependent. The crippling of one or other has its immediate effect on the living organism. The inhibition of fantasy-life, from whatever cause (internal or external), must result in a crippled creation. Equally, any loss of freedom in the use of one's reason results in a similar distortion. According to the degree we suffer from such mishandling, to that degree we are narrow, hidebound, mentally unhappy and limited individuals and, at worst, are among the many unfortunates who end their days in asylums, workhouses or prisons.

Surrealism is a serious project. If followed wholeheartedly to its final goal it has the power to bring happiness to all humanity. But it is a discipline, and one that must be persistently pursued if anything of value is to be the outcome and if disaster is to be avoided. There are no half-way houses. There are many dangers in the achievement of this aim but these can be circumnavigated. The object of Surrealism is to know the self. All the sages of the past have advocated self-knowledge but they have not shown us how to reach that ideal.

Here is the opportunity.



*'What is Surrealism?' by Andre Breton p.59 (Faber and Faber)