Surrealism in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1940s
Surrealism was born in France in the 1920s, initially as a movement in poetry, yet soon attracting numerous creators in different fields, thus joining the top of the artistic avant-garde. The main theoretician of the current and author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto was the poet and philosopher André Breton and the most important representatives of inter-war Surrealism included Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalì. The co-creator of Dadaism Marcel Duchamp was also linked to the Surrealists. In its objectives, the movement championed opposition against rigid social norms and rationalism. It also pursued total liberation of the individual as well as a focus on his/her experiences, dreams and visions, hence the Surrealists drew inspiration from any source and bravely experimented with form. Surrealism, also known as Suprarealism, was a way to experience anew reality or what was called supra-reality, another dimension that had little in common with the world around them.
Although the popularity of Surrealism peaked in the 1930s, the current also survived the Second World War to be given a new face a decade later. One of its most emblematic and convincing examples is Max Ernst’s work entitled Europe after the Rain II painted in 1940-42, during his stay in New York, yet an important commentary related to the situation on the Old Continent. Ernst, a German artist first linked to Dadaism (which landed him in trouble with the Nazi authorities) and then Surrealism, was forced to leave Germany and ultimately Europe for political reasons. His Europe after the Rain II is thus a melancholy and anxiety-driven refection on the state of a war-torn continent. The longitudinal canvas shows an imagined devastated landscape where everything seems to be losing its shape – forms disintegrate as if corroded by acid. In the centre of that original apocalypse, two solitary characters are stuck – isolated and as bizarre as their surroundings. Here, Surrealism became a means of expressing the artist’s feelings towards the dramatic events which changed the face of Europe.
A particularly interesting arena for that art in the second half of the 1940s was Central and Eastern Europe, where Surrealist creations acquired a status of something much more significant than an artistic method of imaginative liberation(1). This was an attempt at starting a reflection on what post-war Europe and its culture should look like. The events of 1945 and the Yalta Conference established a new division of powers. Under the agreement concluded there, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe found themselves in the circle of the political influence of the USSR. Soon, as subconsciously sensed by the artists, the Soviet authorities would impose their own vision of art. Surrealism seemed to them a chance to retain links with the West from which it had come and a means of continuing artistic output in the modern spirit.
In October 1945, the European School was established in Hungary, an artistic group originating in avant-garde milieus championing the construction of a ‘common Europe.’ Creative artists active at European School – such as Margit Anna and Dezső Korniss – drew inspiration from the western artistic tradition, mainly French, that is Fauvism and Cubism, but were also referring to Surrealism increasingly openly. As an art liberated from rules, it was to counterbalance the incipient notion of Socialist Realism that sought to break with the artistic bonds between the East and Western Europe.
Out of all countries of the region, however, the greatest Surrealist tradition was present in Czechoslovakia, and more precisely its Czech part. Already before the war, Prague had in a way been selected by the French Surrealists to be the centre of the movement in that part of Europe. André Breton’s lecture delivered there in 1935 only confirmed the important role of Prague for the international development of the current. In the 1940s, somewhat naturally, such groupings began to appear as Group 42, of artists already linked to Surrealism earlier, or a younger Group RA. Incidentally, the artists from both groups lived to see an exhibition of their works in Paris during two shows staged in 1946 and 1947 (the organisers of the latter were Breton and Duchamp). Indeed, Surrealism had a special place in Czechoslovakia and was a natural method of reacting to Nazi and later communist experiences.
In Poland, the tradition of Surrealism was virtually non-existent, yet just like in Hungary, Polish artists after the Second World War saw in it and broadly understood avant-garde art as an alternative for incipient Socialist Realism. Although Surrealist references and motifs were discreet – most visible in works by Kazimier Mikulski and Alfred Lenica – the style also found a relatively fertile ground in Poland, which could be noticed at the exhibition of late 1948 entitled The First Exhibition of Modern Art. Presented in Cracow by the versatile artist Tadeusz Kantor and the theoretician of art Mieczysław Porębski, the show offered a comprehensive presentation of Polish modern art and Surrealism itself was the general reference point. The authors of the exhibition hoped to convince the authorities to tolerate modern art wishing to present it as a comrade of progress and the best form of promotion of innovative ideas. Ultimately, that attempt failed and the exhibition was closed down after a month, which sealed the death of Surrealism in Poland. The late 1940s also marked the final phase of the development of the movement in other European countries.
(1) Piotr Piotrowski, Awangarda w cieniu Jałty. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej w latach 1945-1989, Rebis, Poznań 2005, p. 37–64.