Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies

Surrealism and Sexuality

Building upon its reputation for innovative research, the Centre has been awarded new funding from the AHRC for a major three-year project on surrealism and non-normative sexualities.

At the core of surrealism was a claim to emancipate human desire. While the general topic of surrealist eroticism has been thoroughly studied, the issue of non-normative sexuality has not received comparable attention. Despite the notorious intolerance of Breton, a considerable number of gay and lesbian artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers were attracted to the surrealist movement. This was particularly the case in England, the USA, Spain, Australia, and other countries where surrealism took root in the 1930s. In these locations, surrealism was viewed as a sympathetic haven by the many new adherents whose sexuality did not conform to a heterosexual norm.

The project will draw upon concepts developed by queer theory. It will compare the situation of surrealism in France with case studies of surrealist reception in the US, the UK and Australia. Our expectation is that new perspectives on surrealism as a whole will emerge from the project. One consequence may well be to challenge a prevalent view that other countries produced only watered down imitations of a more radical French surrealism.

Activities and Outcomes

Two international conferences, one in the US and one in the UK, and three more focussed workshops will foster dialogue between art historians, literary specialists, queer theorists and historians of homosexuality. The integration of these different disciplinary perspectives is essential for a comprehensive grasp of this subject. The project will result in individual monographs and a joint edited volume. The Centre's online journal, Papers of Surrealism, will publish articles arising from our academic events.

It is hoped to mount an exhibition of the narcissus theme in surrealist art, photography and film. The narcissus myth provocatively links homoeroticism with core surrealist preoccupations with desire, identity and the image. The exhibition will bring together documents and preparatory studies relating to Dali's Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), one of the major works in Tate's collection. It will survey surrealism’s debt to fin-de-siècle symbolism and its legacies in post-war experimental film. Focussing on a theme that indexes the presence of dissident desires within surrealism, it will present a very different canon from other surveys of the movement in recent decades. The exhibition will deliberately - strategically - bring Cocteau in to the surrealist fold.

The exhibition and a festival of queer surrealist films at Tate will bring the work of the project to a broad audience. A web page will publish research updates and a compilation of archives and resources in the subject area. An edited volume on surrealism and same-sex sexuality will be both a summation of current research and an indispensable reference for future academic work in the field