As the Maine Arts Journal pursues its commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Surrealism, we chose for this issue to focus on what is perhaps the most important notion for the movement, that of the unconscious. As we know, Sigmund Freud first articulated the idea in his book published in 1900, Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams), which for many represents the beginning of psychoanalysis. Freud envisioned the structure of the psyche in a remarkably spatial manner, often summarized as an iceberg, with the conscious mind as the proverbial tip and the unconscious below, much larger but hidden from sight. That concealed and mysterious mass holds what is repressed: what we don’t want to face or have been forced to bury deep inside us. Freud considered dreams as “the royal way” to access the unconscious, which is remarkably dynamic and constantly at work. (For an excellent summary of Freud’s theories of how dreams are formed, see this section of the Freud Museum website). Dreams were central to the Surrealists, who were great readers of Freud. The fundamental importance of dream to the Surrealist ethos is affirmed right away in the movement’s foundational text, the First Manifesto of Surrealism, when its author, André Breton, begins the second sentence with: “Man, that inveterate dreamer” (3). Likewise, the first issue of the Surrealist journal La Révolution Surréaliste (1 December 1924) explains that although “this first issue . . . doesn’t offer any definitive revelation,” it does provide “results obtained through automatic writing and dream accounts” (framed text on the cover page’s verso).

In my last Musings (“Playing with the Marvelous,” MAJ, Winter 2024), I reproduced the cover of this first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste. I recapped the moment’s beginnings and sketched some of the Manifesto’s main ideas, noting in particular the role of dreams. Breton goes as far as to ask: “can’t the dream . . . be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?” (12). He declares: “Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream” (10). The centrality of Freudian thought for the Surrealists, is stated in no unclear terms in the Second Manifesto (1930): “Surrealism believes Freudian criticism to be the first and only one with a really solid basis.” I should note that although Freud’s Traumdeutung was not translated into French until 1926, Breton, who had served in a psychiatric unit during World War I, had read the book in its original version. After the war, Breton corresponded with Freud in 1919 and travelled to Vienna to visit him in 1921 (the meeting did not go too well, but that’s another story!).

Plesch 2Dark Dreams RS #1 top of p 1 copy

Top of page 1 of the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste. The preface by Jacques-André Boiffard, Paul Éluard, and Roger Vitrac frames a detail of Man Ray’s L’Énigme d’Isidore Ducasse, 1920 (photo: / Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The preface to La Révolution Surréaliste’s first issue, penned by photographer Jacques-André Boiffard and poets Paul Éluard and Roger Vitrac starts with the declaration:

Le procès de la connaissance n’étant plus à faire, l’intelligence n’entrant plus en ligne de compte, le rêve seul laisse à l’homme tous ses droits à la liberté. Grâce au rêve, la mort n’a plus de sens obscur et le sens de la vie devient indifférent.


The trial of knowledge being already well established, intelligence no longer being taken into account, dream alone grants man all his rights to freedom. Thanks to the dream, death no longer has a dark meaning and the life’s meaning becomes indifferent.

In the thirty-one pages that follow, dreams feature prominently. For instance, we find a section titled “Rêves” with dream accounts by Giorgio de Chirico, André Breton, and Renée Gauthier (3–6). Pierre Reverdy has a text titled “Le Rêveur parmi les murailles” (The Dreamer among the City Walls, 19–20) in which he ponders poetic creation, words and images, verisimilitude and reality, poetic and human destiny. Reverdy affirms that he understands dream as “the state where consciousness is brought to its highest degree of perception” with imagination “free of any restrictive control” (19).

In the preface’s first page the text frames a detail of a work by Man Ray. The American-born artist had arrived in Paris in the summer of 1921 and had become acquainted with the Parisian Dadaists (many of whom would become the Surrealists). L’Énigme d’Isidore Ducasse consists of an object wrapped in a blanket, tightly secured by string. The presence in the work’s title of “Isidore Ducasse,” the birth name of the Comte de Lautréamont, provides a clue on what is concealed. Born in 1846 in Montevideo, Uruguay, of French parents, Ducasse/Lautréamont died in 1871 at the age of twenty-four, having published a book of poetry and, most importantly Les Chants de Maldoror (written and published between 1868 and 1869). Considered a forefather to the Surrealists (he is cited several times in the manifestos), Lautréamont famously wrote about the beauty of “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” This sentence, which became a true watchword for the Surrealists, reveals the hidden object’s identity—but does that really resolve Ducasse’s enigma? As I noted in my last Musings, for the Surrealists, Lautréamont’s cryptic declaration became emblematic of the revelatory power of chance encounters as a means to access the unconscious, itself an enigma that speaks in riddles.

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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx, oil on canvas, 74.4 x 56.6 in. (189 x 144 cm), 1808, Musée du Louvre, Paris (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

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Installation view of the exhibition Freud’s Antiquity: Object, Idea, Desire, Freud Museum London (25 February–16 July 2023). From left to right: Greek red-figure hydria, ceramic, 23 x 15 x 13 cm; Corinthian alabastron with figure of Sphinx, ceramic, 8.65 x diameter 4.2 cm; Greek Corinthian lekythos with black-figure Sphinx and Elders, ceramic, 16.2 x diameter 5.1 cm, 5th c. BCE; Egyptian female Sphinx amulet, faience, 3.6 x 3.1 x 1.3 cm, Late Period; Southern Italian figure of Sphinx, terracotta, 18.5 x 8 x 24 cm, late 5th to early 4th century BCE (photo: Véronique Plesch).

When it comes to speaking in riddles, one cannot avoid thinking about the Sphinx. Not surpisingly Freud displayed in his consulting room a reproduction of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx. He also owned several ancient works depicting the mythological figure, as can be seen in this photo that I took last year at a small exhibit on Freud’s Antiquity: Object, Idea, Desire at the Freud Museum in London. (A search in the online museum’s collections with the keyword “sphinx” reveals over a dozen objects). In his painting in the Louvre, Ingres, who returned several times to the theme (this is the version that Freud owned in reproduction), shows the sphinx at the entrance of a dark cave, her face shrouded in shadows while her breasts are illuminated and project toward Oedipus, who stands in full light and confidently leans towards her, unphased by the human remains in the lower left corner. As the French title makes clear, Oedipus is in the act of explaining the riddle: Oedipe explique l’énigme du sphinx. One could say that he is able to solve this “enigma” because he is willing to look into the dark cave and to engage in a conversation with its monstrous dweller: not only do the two figures lock eyes, but they exchange gestures. Oedipus’s bravery is made clear by the presence of a man seen fleeing in the background.

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Francisco de Goya, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters), from Los Caprichos, etching, aquatint, drypoint, and burin, 7.44 x 5.87 in., c. 1799 (photo: Wikimedia Commons).


Just like Freud acknowledged his debt to earlier cultures and to their art, so did the Surrealists. In the First Manifesto and in other texts, Breton pays homage to writers and visual artists he considers forerunners. Sarane Alexandrian, a writer who joined the Surrealist movement in the 1940s and became one of its main theoreticians, mentions in his book on Surrealist Art two of the artists we chose for our theme description. About Francisco de Goya, Alexandrian declares that “he is surrealist” in “works where his merciless grip inflicts violent twists on reality, forcing it to bring forth monstrous truths” (15)—a declaration that fits to a T many of the Spaniard’s works, for instance Los Caprichos (The Caprices), a set of eighty prints that unflinchingly denounce and mock human foibles. The one we reproduced contains a warning: “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos” (The sleep of reason produces monsters). The text appears on the side of a desk upon which a man hunches over, asleep. A menagerie of scary nocturnal animals surround him: owls, bats, and a giant cat. The preparatory drawing for this plate bears an explanatory text : “The artist dreaming. His only purpose is to banish harmful, vulgar beliefs and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth.” (See the page on the Prado website.) Interestingly, this print was originally destined to be the frontispiece of the series, then titled Sueños—Dreams. It is not surprising that this image became the most famous of the Caprichos—and perhaps of Goya’s entire graphic work—for it affirms the artist’s purpose and his allegiance to Enlightenment ideas.

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Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 126.7 cm, 1781, Detroit Institute of Arts (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Another work we used for our theme description is Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare, which is also reproduced by Alexandrian among his selection of Surrealism’s precursors. The Nightmare, which was created just a few years prior to Goya’s Caprichos, held a special meaning for the Swiss-born artist who settled in England: he painted no less than four versions. In a dim environment that sets the scene at night, a woman is sprawled on a bed, her chest thrown back in an ecstatic pose, one arm dangling towards the floor. A demonic figure crouches on her body, quizzically looking at the viewer while a horse emerges on the left. This detail has been interpreted as a possible pun on the word “nightmare”—a female horse of the night. A more scholarly interpretation would link the painting to the figure of Mara, a spirit in northern mythology who brought torment to sleepers. Regardless of the exact meaning of these figures, Fuseli, just like Goya, offers a simple and impactful message about the unsettling forces that are unleashed during sleep. We can also say that both artists’ exploration of the depths of human’s psyche is grounded in a desire to face what happens when one lets go, falls asleep, and surrenders to the dominion of the unconscious.

Alexandrian explains that “left to themselves, these precursors, illustrious or obscure, would not have been enough to impose a new scale of values. The realization that the lessons which they offered could be of value to modern art had to wait for the appearance of the surrealists, a group of creators who sought allies from the past to support their bid for the recognition of the absolute rights of the dream.” (26) Indeed, the exploration of the unconscious had a serious purpose. In my previous Musings, I conclude with the thought that Surrealism was first and foremost “a philosophy, a way of life—and a revolution.” Just like for Freud for whom dreams were the “royal way” to understanding the unconscious, for the surrealists they were a linchpin of their revolutionary project. Simply put, dreams are about possibilities. As Breton writes in the First Manifesto, in dreams: “The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent” (13). But then, isn’t that the purpose of artistic creation itself? This is at least the meaning of an anecdote Breton recounts about the symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux, who was known “to have a notice posted on the door of his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, which read: THE POET IS WORKING” (14).

Plesch 7Dark Dreams Ernst copy

Max Ernst, The Massacre of the Innocents, black-and-white photograph with hand-coloring in watercolor, gouache, and black ink, laid down on tan wove wood-pulp paper, primary support: 8 1/2 x 11 7/16 in. (21.5 x 28.9 cm); secondary support 11 5/8 x 15 in. (29.5 x 38 cm), 1920, The Art Institute of Chicago. CC0 Public Domain Designation.

The Courage to Dream

Just like these precursors, the Surrealists were daring to face the disquieting darkness that dreams reveal. Take Max Ernst, a German Dadaist from Cologne, who became a major figure in Surrealism and played a critical role in bridging the two movements. Just like Breton (and later, Salvador Dalí), Ernst was well-versed in Freudian psychology. His Massacre of the Innocents of 1920 possesses a potent oneiric quality that recalls nightmares of endless falling. At the top left, a winged figure, angel or Icarus, appears to be tumbling down while the silhouettes of three figures seem to be running away from a chaotic collage of elements, evocative of railway tracks or ladders. Ernst used an aerial photograph of a city, identified by Matthew Gale as Soissons, which the artist witnessed being destroyed during World War I. The image as a whole evokes nightmares of the type experienced by victims of what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. The profound and lasting effects of the “Great War” are recognized as the impetus for Dadaism. A remarkable convergence is that in 1916, the same year Dada officially came to be (with the creation in February 1916 of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich by Hugo Ball), Freud discussed in a lecture what he referred to as “traumatic neurosis,” whose reevaluation was the result of the return of shell-shocked soldiers. In the eighteenth of a series of twenty-eight lectures, Freud explained that “traumatic neuroses give a clear indication that a fixation to the moment of the traumatic accident lies at their root. These patients regularly repeat the traumatic situation in their dreams . . .. It is as though these patients had not finished with the traumatic situation, as though they were still faced by it as the immediate task which has not been dealt with” (274–75).

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Title page of Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung. Leipzig and Vienna: Franz Deuticke, 1900.

The title page of the first edition of Freud’s Traumdeutung bears a Latin quote from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.” Towards the end of his book, Freud mentions it again and translates it: “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal Regions” (vol. 5, p. 608, note 1). The Virgilian epigraph is preceded by the explanation that “during the night, . . . the suppressed material finds methods and means of forcing its way into consciousness in dreams.” It is thus as psychologist David Bakan put it, a rebellion against the superego, the part of the psyche that is formed through internalized societal values and rules and that makes repression happen. But there is more: for Bakan, “to strip the dream of its disguise is an even more rebellious act. It is a conscious rebellion against the superego” (211; Bakan’s emphasis). In the second corrected and enlarged edition that appeared in 1909, immediately after citing Virgil, Freud made a momentous addition, which consists in the famous statement that “[t]he interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” Noting how the inclusion follows the book’s epigraph and directly refers to the book’s very title, Jean Starobinski notes: “We have come to the culminating point, from which all ground already covered is contemplated in retrospect as a triumphal march toward knowledge” (396). Indeed: knowledge involves courage, especially when facing the recesses of our unconscious that are revealed in dark dreams.



Alexandrian, Sarane. L’Art Surréaliste. Paris: Fernand Hazan, 1969. English: Surrealist Art. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985 (“Chapter 1: Precursors.” 9–26).

Bakan, David. “The ‘Flectere…’ of the Interpretation of Dreams.” In David Bakan, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition [1958]. London: Free Association, 1990. 209–13

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. The University of Michigan Press, 1969. (Pdf accessible HERE).

—–. Le Surréalisme et la peinture (1928). English: Surrealism and Painting. Trans. Simon Watson Taylor, introd. Mark Polizzotti. Boston: MFA Publications, 2002.

Freud, Sigmund. Die Traumdeutung. Leipzig and Vienna: Franz Deuticke, 1900; 1914. French: La Science des rêves. Trans. Ignace Meyerson. Paris: Félix Alcan, 1926. English: The Interpretation of Dreams. Vols. 4 and 5 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955.

—–. “Lecture XVIII. Fixation to Traumas—The Unconscious.” Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part III. Vol. 16 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1963. 273–85.

Gale, Matthew. Dada & Surrealism. London: Phaidon, 1997.

La Révolution surréaliste. The entire run from 1924 through 1929, can be found on the site of the Bibliothèque Nationale’s digital library, Gallica; available here.

Starobinski, Jean. “Acheronta Movebo.” Trans. Françoise Meltzer. Critical Inquiry 13.2 (1987): 394–407.


A note on translations: Unless otherwise noted, translations are mine.


Image at top: Verso of the cover page of the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste 1 December 2024 (photo: / Bibliothèque nationale de France).