How Un Chien Andalou exemplifies surrealism?

Throughout history, the evolution of art has been constantly influenced by cultural, political, and ideological factors affecting societies. During the first half of the 20th century, revolutionary art dominated this field due to the wars and conflicts in Europe. Several unique and strikingly different art movements of modern expressions appeared all around Europe, such as surrealism art. In France, Surrealism was established by the poet Andre Breton who gathered a number of artists and created an allegiance in support of the movement in all its artistic manifestation. Un Chien Andalou/ An Andalusian Dog (Luis Bunuel, 1929) is the most famous surrealist film that exemplifies the movement in its form and content regarding the narrative form, treated themes, video editing technique, cinematography, and the mise-en-scene. The film was widely accepted and successful in the field of filmmaking. It was a significant addition to the surrealism movement, which continued to be incorporated in art throughout centuries after its inception.

Pablo Picasso, 1910, Girl with a Mandolin

Europe was moving into a new revolutionary stage during the first half of the 20th century, and technological industries were improving accordingly. This was a product of the various wars which were transcending in Europe. Literature and art were also influenced by such developments that artists and writers started to project themes of protest, critique, utopian social experiments and revolutionary propaganda (Bradley and Esche, 2007:7). For example, Romanticism and the British Victorian art form no longer seemed satisfactory at the time of the upheavals due to the mass destruction of lands, deaths, and culture. New revolutionary experiments overtook the artistic tasks by creating new styles such as Cubism in 1907 by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque that became one of the most influential visual art styles. They brought different views of subjects together in the same picture, resulting in fragmented and abstract paintings. It expressed political and geographical revolution and influenced other art movements such as Dada which originated in Switzerland in 1915, during the First World War, which surfaced in Paris, Berlin, Cologne, and New York (Merjian, 2014). Dada was recognized as an avant-garde art movement, which was an experimental, innovative, and challenging artistic norm of the day. It was the first to embody a cultural resistance and reject the artmaking of those times. It was a neutral wartime refuge and home to an expatriate community of artists and writers (MacPhee and Reuland, 2007:273). 

The Avantgarde Nature of Surrealist Manifesto | Widewalls

Later in the 1920s, the Surrealist movement grew out of Dada and flourished to provide a radical alternative to Cubism’s formal and rational qualities. It was created by the French poet Andre Breton in the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) (Clarke, 2010:240), who was influenced by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Historically, it was difficult for artists to create art unconsciously, but Freud provided them with the framework to understand it. The first art movement that accredits Freud for his discoveries was Surrealism (Freud Museum, 2017). Breton defined surrealism as a psychic automatist expression in its pure state of the actual functioning of thought. It can be expressed verbally, through literature, or in any other form showing the absence of any aesthetic or moral control (Morreall, 2011:103-104). Some artists such as Max Ernst and Andre Masson favoured automatism in which conscious control is suppressed, and the subconscious is allowed to take over. Others such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte pursued a sense of super-reality in which scenes were depicted, making no real sense (Clarke, 2010:240).

René Magritte – The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929
René Magritte – The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929

Surrealist Cinema developed out of experiments in surrealist literature, paintings, and sculpture. One of the first and most famous surrealist films is Un Chien Andalou (1929). It is a French silent short film written by Bunuel and Salvador Dali, edited and directed by Bunuel. Both were Spanish and influenced by the frequent exchanges between surrealist groups in Paris and the Spanish avant-garde during the 1920s. Additionally, he was also influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), a Soviet silent film that tributes to the early Russian revolutionaries and widely regarded as a masterpiece of international cinema. By 1929, Bunuel was a film critic, programmer, and assistant director. Simultaneously, Dali had just started as an artist and was writing articles on photography and film. He initially resisted the surrealist exploration of the unconscious, but later, he aligned himself totally with Surrealism as L’Amic de les Arts published in March 1929. Both men studied in Madrid and travelled to Paris looking for inspiration, and it was in Paris where they met, shared their dreams, and decided to produce Un Chien Andalou (Adamowicz, 2009:6-7). This film requires analytical skills for interpretation as it does not present a direct story or clear characters. Instead, they approach the medium as an aesthetic, philosophical, and political means of expression. Additionally, they isolate elements of film art, including cinematography and editing, and subject them to intense critical observation (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2015:291-292). 

Bunuel repeatedly acknowledged Un Chien Andalou as it would not exist if surrealism did not exist (Adamowicz, 2009:9). Consciously, Bunuel and Dali adopted a surrealist technique to produce an automatist screenplay by brainstorming a series of images that were not rationally connected to each other. This process led the film not to be read as symbolic and can only be interpreted through the lens of psychoanalysis (Cateridge, 2015:155). This technique strongly mocks the classic continuum of narrative form. Their sequences are not coherent, and they cannot be understood by using cause-and-effect logic. For example, it offers Intertitles as phrases seemingly designed to give viewers a sense of a timeline, but they give misleading and counterintuitive information. Some of them announce that the action moves forward, or backward, by hours or years, but the events seem continuous (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2015:293). The film continually presents unforgettably strong, poignant surrealist images. For example, it begins with a shot of the moon, followed by a man opening a woman’s eye with a razor. Additionally, along with the film, a male hand is repeatedly portrayed in many ways, whether injured or ants are crawling on it. The film also presents a strange relationship between a man and a woman who attack and love each other in equal measure. The man attempts to seduce the woman whilst she resists, and he picks up two ropes and drags two pianos topped by rotting donkeys and two priests in chains.

Following the Russian Revolution (1917), Lev Kuleshov, a Soviet filmmaker, invented a new way to organize film material through montage, shock, and create illusions of emotion. He joined a shot of a man’s face showing no recognizable emotion with other shots of different objects, such as food, a young girl, or a woman. Then audiences believed that the actor’s emotion was expressed each time differently, while each shot of the actor was identical. (Gomery and Overduin, 2011:116-117). The experiment primarily reveals the power of montage in the creation of meaning in cinema and illustrates the link between screen acting and identification. The Russian director Sergei Eisenstein suggested that what is counted in cinematic art is the movement from shot to shot, following a model of a German philosopher, Georg Hegel. The model is often expressed as a three-stage process, thesis (first image), challenged by an antithesis (second image), and synthesis (the meaning in the spectator’s mind) (Bray, 2007). Un Chien Andalou has a scene of a man’s hand with a razor that duplicates an intervening shot of clouds slicing a full moon by opening a woman’s eye. The scene has been distinguished to become an emblem of surrealism in film. It shows a man, a pair of hands, a razor, a young woman, an eye, the moon, clouds, and another graphical eye. If this sequence were to be logically converted into a narrative, it would be understood as ‘the man sharpens the razor and then cuts the woman’s eye’ (Levenson, 2011:274). However, the images in this film are not connected by a conventional narrative structure. This moment in the spirit of surrealism was designed to have a particular effect on the audience, to be an active subject when faced with such works of art (Pavlovic et al, 2009:28). 

The severed hand (1927)

Disembodied hands constitute an important part of the artist’s vocabulary. The hand motif was well established as an indicator of human presence (Bohn, 2012:189). It is a dominant motif in many of Dali’s paintings, such as Apparatus and Hand (1927), Little Ashes (1928), The severed Hand (1928), and The Lugubrious Game (1929) (Edwards, 2005:61). Regularly, Dali’s hand motif was related to masturbation and an image of sexual guilt and a sense of religious shame. In Un Chien Andalou, a scene shows a woman poking a severed hand with a stick lying in the street, effectively controlling or stimulating the hand rather than the opposite (Perry, 2006:127). Then there is a close-up camera shot revealing ants crawling out of a hole from a hand. Regarding this scene, a critic sees the hand as a symbol of fetish, while hands have the ability to generate pleasure and pain. Additionally, all severed and wounded hands in the film are male, injured, or exuding ants. The first appearance of the hole and ants emphasizes the fear that women have experienced castration. The suffering of this same hand caught in a door emphasizes more pain of being subjected to dismemberment (Stent, 2014). Another critic finds the shot disgracing some Christian beliefs because Bunuel and Dali were raised in a country where body parts of saints are valued as powerful holy and historical objects. For example, there is an altar art piece in Barcelona where St. Thekla bears her own severed hand (Perry, 2006:127). However, ‘the isolated, mutilated, severed, and gloved hand signals surrealism’. It receives a full entry in the Dictionnaire du Surréalisme (Andrew and Ungar, 2008:429).

At the core of Un Chien Andalou is a bizarre relationship between a man and a woman that apparently are filled with emotions toward each other yet exist with no clear explanation or motivation. At the beginning of the film, the woman is shown waiting for him and imagining herself kissing him intimately. Later, the man appears in her room with a strong desire to seduce her, touch her body, and imagine her undressed (Cateridge, 2015:151-152). This scene is described as a mise-en-scene of desire. It reflects the relationship between surrealism and the representation of women and its aesthetic expression (Pavlovic et al., 2009:29). After the seducing scene, the film moves to an eccentric scene. Unexpectedly, the man picks two ropes to pull two pianos topped by rotting donkeys and two chained priests. The scene embodies a psychological image of carrying elements of life. It includes religion (the priests), culture or bourgeoisie (the pianos), and fear of death (the donkeys) (Cateridge, 2015:152). It also brings together many surrealist elements. Firstly, there is incongruence, surprising, and disruptive narrative. Secondly, the way of defining logical thread and treating the concept as a dream is breaking all spatial and temporal borders. Also, in formal terms, the editing, camera movement and angles follow surrealist principles (Pavlovic et al., 2009:29). Finally, the relationship between the man and the woman has an inexplicable happy ending, when a single cut takes the woman illogically from an urban apartment location to the beach in conclusion (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2015:293).

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

In the first screening of Un Chien Andalou in 1929, Bunuel said he kept some rocks in his pocket, anticipating a violent reaction from the audience after watching the film. Still, the audience took to it and had a positive and successful response. Even after the first screening, Andre Breton approached Dali with an offer to be a member of the surrealist group (McCloskey, 2005:161). Additionally, the French bourgeoisie class also liked the film, in contrast to what Bunuel and Dali were expecting. So much so that a wealthy art collector, Charles de Noailles, produced L’Age d’Or/ Age of Gold (Bunuel, 1930) as a gift for his wife. The film was written by Bunuel and Dali, similar to Un Chien Andalou, as another iconic film presenting the surrealist movement (King, 2010:37). Scholar Ken Dancyger also commented that Bunuel and Dali were the creators of the first non-linear film, featuring a fragmented technique, taking the spectator toward fantasy. The montage should shock the viewer to the point where they are no longer in a state of homeostasis. Its lack of coherent sequence allowed them to present their dreams criticizing the church, bourgeoisie, art, and society, leaving the film open for all types of interpretation. (Dancyger and Rush, 2012:154). Lastly, With the outbreak of the second world war, the central location of surrealists moved from Paris to New York. By the end of the war, the movement had lost the ability to form a unified whole. Similar to previous art movements, surrealism had a strong influence on art afterwards in the aspect of abstract expressionism and various other artistic manifestations during the second half of the 20th century (Clarke, 2010:240).

In conclusion, during the first half of the 20th century, Wars caused humanitarian tragedies that covered all parts of Europe. This affected art and established artistic movements with new expression methods, refusing and protesting against violence and distractions. During the 1920s, the surrealism art form was established as a psychological art movement expressing its ideas irrationally, automatically, and unconsciously. It was established by the poet Andre Breton who surrounded himself with other artists under a manifesto. In cinema, the most famous surrealist example is Un Chien Andalou which Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali wrote and edited and directed by Bunuel. It became inherently surrealist due to the various processes in all its line of production. First, the narrative is not coherent, rather a collection of the creators’ dreams, and does not follow a linear sequence. Second, it presents many unforgettable images, such as the scene slicing an eyeball designed specifically to shock the spectator using a Russian technique of montage. Third, one of the main surrealist signs and discoveries is the hand used to signify human presence and control. It is continually shown in the film as severed, isolated, injured, or exuding ants. Forth, the relationship between surrealism and women is presented through a strange relationship between a man and a woman. The scene is followed by another surrealist unforgettable image of a man pulling two pianos, showing a sign of culture topped by rotting donkeys as signifying death and two chained priests as religion. The film was well received with positive reactions and was successful in all cinematic aspects playing a strong role with the surrealist movement and influencing art up to the present time.

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