A Surrealist discourse on the Origins of Artistic Inspiration

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

Following the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition, Sir Herbert Read collected a series of essays from select French and British contributors, publishing them in a book aptly titled Surrealism. Recalling the successes of the Exhibition, this book hoped to act as a new manifesto of sorts, one that homogenized the emerging Surrealism in Britain with the well-established French Surrealism. In the introduction chapter, Read claims that these collected texts present ‘English evidence’ of the Surrealist project in order to ‘unite it with the general theory of Surrealism, and to reaffirm on this wider basis the truths which other writers, above all Andre Breton, have already declared.’[1] However, instead of communicating a unified vision and purpose of Surrealism, practised harmoniously on either side of the Channel, in many ways Surrealism serves to accentuate their differences.

Months later, British Surrealist Humphrey Jennings wrote a review of Surrealism in the journal Contemporary Poetry and Prose where he expresses his concern with the British trajectory of the Surrealist movement, claiming that the combination of articles ‘corroborates really grave doubts already existent about the use of Surrealism in this country.’[2] One of the doubts Jennings refers to is the fixation of the British Surrealists, namely Read and Hugh Sykes Davies, with the intellectual and artistic tradition of Romanticism. In Surrealism, Read proposes that Surrealism is the ‘Romantic principle in art’[3], corroborated by Sykes Davies, who writes ‘Romanticism- the movement of which we are not a limp offshoot, but a vigorous continuation.’[4] It is in these concrete terms that Read and Sykes Davies situate Surrealism in Britain within the Romantic tradition.

In his contribution to Surrealism, Sykes Davies writes ‘Surrealism is the natural and inevitable product of historical forces; it is not inspired, it is caused.’[5] This understanding of Surrealism, and artistic activity more broadly, as a dialectically-developed phenomenon, embedded within historical context, is consistent throughout the British presence in the Surrealism publication.

It is these moments of preoccupation with the past that Jennings expresses concern with. This is because it demonstrates one of the fundamental tensions between the French and British contributions to Surrealism: The origins and nature of artistic inspiration. In his review, Jennings, borrowing terminology from André Breton, writes ‘Surrealism has replaced the “coincidence” for the “apparition.”’[6] The Surrealist vision, as Breton and Jennings conceive it, originates in the ‘coincidence’; in the infinite possibilities each moment presents. Jennings adds that coincidences contain the ‘freedom of appearing anywhere, anytime, to anyone.’[7] Here, Breton and Jennings describe the boundlessness of the coincidence as the genesis of inspiration, which in its nature must yield the most fruitful and uninhibited artistic expression.

In contrast, Jennings is concerned that the Surrealism of his English peers is too affected by what Breton calls the ‘apparition.’[8] The apparition refers to the situating of poetic potential within retrospective aesthetic activity. It is this search for imaginative motivation in images of antiquity that Jennings interprets as futile in the creative process.  Jennings suggests that, to find inspiration in visions and ideas of the past, is to ‘look for ghosts only on battlements, and on battlements only for ghosts.’[9] This activity – this search for ‘ghosts’ – disassociates the potential artist from the ‘battlement’ – from what the immediate moment and space provides: the coincidence.[10] This suggests that to situate artistic stimuli in the ‘apparition’ is essentially to deny oneself access to the genuine source of imaginative activity.

In his contribution to Surrealism, Breton describes the Surrealists’ responsibility to the coincidence, announcing that they must allow themselves ‘to be guided towards the unknown by this newest promise.[11] Jennings maintains this commitment to the promise, being the freedom of expression that the coincidence affords. He supplements Breton’s quote by applying it to the development and use of Surrealism in Britain, declaring that ‘to settle Surrealism down as Romanticism only is to deny that promise.’[12]

Towards the end of his short review, Jennings dispiritedly awaits ‘for the English to awaken from their sleep of selectivity.’[13] He hopes that, just as their continental counterparts do, the English Surrealists will begin to forget all notions of belief and truth ‘preceding the picture’ as this only denies ‘the promise of the unknown.’ [14] Jennings ascribes the success of the European avant-garde to ‘their unquestioning acceptance of all the conditions of the moment.’[15]

This indicates a broader tendency of the European avant-garde. The ambition to remain radical, dynamic, revolutionary, entails for them a rejection of retrospection. This is the continental perspective: one that feels it necessary to sever its ties to the past to allow for the development of the future.

Lastly, Jennings writes:  ‘And to already be a “writer”, an “artist”, a “surrealist”, what a handicap.’[16] Here, Jennings adopts this continental avant-garde mentality.  He suggests that, in situating Surrealism in aesthetic traditions of the past, by conceiving it in terms of historic cultural continuity, the movement threatens to be prepackaged. Jennings proposes, based on the beliefs of the French Surrealists, that in order to be a future-facing, even, as they hoped, a world-changing event, one cannot simply be a Surrealist.  Instead, a Surrealist is something one is continually becoming; and Surrealism, a thing constantly generated.


[1] Herbert Read, ‘Introduction.’ Surrealism (1936), p. 21.

[2] Humphrey Jennings, ‘Surrealism: Reviewed by Humphrey Jennings’. Contemporary Poetry and Prose 8 (1936), p. 167.

[3] Herbert Read, ‘Introduction.’ Surrealism Catalogue, Contemporary Poetry and Prose (1936), p. 12.

[4] Hugh Sykes Davies, ‘Surrealism at This Time and Place.’ Surrealism (1936), p. 124.

[5] Ibid, p. 120.

[6] Humphrey Jennings, ‘Surrealism: Reviewed by Humphrey Jennings’, Contemporary Poetry and Prose 8 (1936), p. 168.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Andre Breton, ‘Limits not Frontiers of Surrealism’ Surrealism (1936), p. 113.

[12] Humphrey Jennings, ‘Surrealism: Reviewed by Humphrey Jennings’, Contemporary Poetry and Prose 8 (1936), p. 168.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Humphrey Jennings, ‘Surrealism: Reviewed by Humphrey Jennings’, Contemporary Poetry and Prose 8 (1936), p. 168.

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