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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Psychoanalytic Feminism and the Depiction of Women in Surrealist Photography


Surrealism, an art movement of the early twentieth century, was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis.The psychoanalytic theories that influenced Surrealism were based primarily on the research ofSigmund Freud. Freud’s research began with case studies on patients with hysteria, a predominantlyfemale diagnosed mental disorder. From his clinical observations of hysteria, Freud developedhis theories on unconscious drives and psychosexual development. André Breton, the leader ofthe Surrealist movement, first became acquainted with Freud’s ideas during the First World War.After his return to France from the war, Breton’s interest in avant-garde art and distaste for Europe’shigh culture led him to start the Surrealist movement. Breton declared psychoanalysis the basis ofSurrealism in the First Manifesto of Surrealism, believing that Freud’s ideas had the potential torevolutionize culture. For the Surrealists, adopting psychoanalysis as a doctrine of change resultedin a reinforcement of sexist stereotypes and discrimination against women that was rooted inFreud’s theories. While the Surrealist movement became notorious for being male dominated andmisogynistic, their idealization of Freud provided justification for their prejudiced beliefs. In thispaper, Salvador Dalí’s photo collage, The Phenomenon of Ecstasy, is analyzed to exemplify thetranslation of psychoanalytic ideas into sexualized and fantasy-like depictions of women in Surrealistartwork. The conducted research provides insight to the repercussions that Freud and psychoanalysishad on women in the Surrealist art community.

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