During the 1936 International Surrealist Exposition, held in London, guest speaker Salvador Dalí addressed his audience costumed head-to-toe in an old-fashioned scuba suit, with two dogs on leashes in one hand and a billiard cue in the other. Mid-lecture, constrained by the scuba mask, the Spanish artist began to suffocate and flailed his arms for help. The audience, unfazed, assumed his gesticulations were all part of the performance. As art legend has it, the Surrealist poet David Gascoyne eventually rescued Dalí, who upon recovery remarked, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind.” Dalí then finished his speech—and his accompanying slides, to no one’s surprise, were all presented upside down.
This anecdote underscores the most absurdist, even clownish, elements of the Surrealist movement, epitomized by Dalí—who was considered something of a joke figure by the early 20th-century art establishment. But the art movement was actually far more diverse than is widely known, spanning various disciplines, styles, and geographies from 1924 until its end in 1966.
What Is Surrealism?