In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Surrealism and Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • James Clifford
  • Surrealism and Anthropology: The Early Years, in Paris
  • Dissident Surrealism and Ethnography
  • Michel Leiris
  • Lévi-Strauss and Surrealism
  • Surrealism and Anthropology in North and South America
  • Surrealism and Ethnography in the Caribbean
  • Surrealism and Anthropology in the United Kingdom
  • Surrealism, Ethnography, and Photography
  • Surrealism, Ethnography, and Film
  • An Early-21st-Century Surrealist Anthropology

Anthropology Surrealism and Anthropology
Jeremy MacClancy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0140


Surrealism was a failed revolution, which changed our world. It was less a programmatic ideology than an evolving set of activities, a jumble of emancipatory practices. In their desire to smash the shackles of an authoritarian rationality, the surrealists sought to liberate minds by using any method they could imagine to dislocate conventional reason: automatic writing, highlighting overlooked moments when the unconscious erupted into the apparently quotidian, lauding the logic of dreams, and producing poems, texts, pictures, and other artistic items, in any medium, which furthered their aims. Though it was derided by the more hidebound, surrealism was from the beginning as popular as it was contested. Sections of the public, it seemed, were entertained by the surrealist bid to legitimate interest in the apparently chaotic, the nonsensical, and the previously taboo. This new movement, which arose in the early 1920s, appeared plausible for many with still-fresh memories of the idiocies, year upon year, of mass slaughter in the trenches. The early surrealists, protagonists of a revolution as political as it was individual, gravitated toward the Communist Party, but its party ideology proved too restrictive for these promoters of a profound liberty. By the 1930s, leading surrealists shifted away from a particular political stance, instead lauding personal and cultural emancipation, with only a general leaning toward the Left. The encounters between surrealism and anthropology are multiple and diverse. The early surrealists revalued certain types of non-Western art and deployed that knowledge in various ways. Other surrealists disseminated ethnographic information and adapted ethnographic methods for their own ends. To them, ethnography was a documentary mode of social investigation, used to explore defamiliarized cultural settings. Some surrealist artists did fieldwork among peoples famed for their art production. Some became professional anthropologists. The nature of the encounter between surrealism and anthropology differed in France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, since each had its own distinct version of the discipline at the time. This meeting has had more effect in certain subfields; for example, visual anthropology, ethnographic theory, ethnographic filmmaking, and museum anthropology. It has also tended to focus on certain topics, such as spirit possession rituals, notions of the self and identity, and plural modes of representation. Further, the cross-cutting links between surrealism and ethnography were particularly evident in cross-cultural settings (i.e., non-European centers of surrealist activity. Since the importation, in the mid-1980s, of postmodernism to their discipline, anthropologists have become more aware of this experimental period in their 20th-century history; some have chosen to reengage. In a complementary manner, some modern artists, who have taken “the fieldwork turn,” have also tried to reconnect surrealism and anthropology, in novel ways.


Among the different periodicals produced by surrealists and ethnographers in the interwar decades, the short-lived Documents (Hollier 1991), edited by Georges Bataille (also see Dissident Surrealism and Ethnography), is the most relevant. The later, sumptuous magazine Minotaure (1933–1939), edited by André Breton, explored the animalistic within humans, among other themes; Minotaure included contributions by Bataille and Michel Leiris (see Michel Leiris) and brought surrealist concerns to a broader audience. During the war, Wolfgang Paalen produced Dyn in Mexico (Kloyber 2000), which mixed work by artists, anthropologists, and other scholars on topics of surrealist concern (also see Surrealism and Anthropology in North and South America). Today, most articles on productive interactions between surrealism and anthropology appear spasmodically in the relevant journals on anthropology or history of art. The only journals that regularly include articles on these interactions are the two dedicated to the study of surrealism: Journal of Surrealism and the Americas focuses on Western intellectuals’ fascination with the New World, from the Inuit to South America. Papers of Surrealism covers a greater range of disciplines, of which anthropology is only one among several.

  • Hollier, Denis, ed. 1991. Documents. 2 vols. Les Cahiers de Gradhiva 19. Paris: Jean-Michel Place.

    A complete reprint of the fifteen issues of Documents, edited by Bataille and published between 1929 and 1930.

  • Journal of Surrealism and the Americas.

    An annual online journal, its contributions broach the diverse ways surrealists perceived and creatively responded to the indigenous cultures, geography, and politics of the continent, as well as native artists’ reactions to and appropriations of surrealism.

  • Kloyber, Christian, ed. 2000. Wolfgang Paalen’s DYN: The complete reprint. Vienna: Springer.

    A complete reprint of the six issues of Dyn, edited by Paalen and published between 1942 and 1944.

  • Papers of Surrealism.

    An online, biannual, interdisciplinary journal produced by the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and Its Legacies, based at the University of Manchester; its remit includes articles on the various relations between surrealism and ethnography.

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