When ever hear someone say something like: “street art is over” I think about the end of Surrealism, if Surrealism really is over. I am sceptical of claims that a particular art movement is over, especially when artists make the claim as they have a clear financial motivation for an end limiting the supply of authentic x art. I’ve heard that graffiti art was over before, back in the 1990s after the death of Keith Haring and Michael Basquiat.
In Cold War both sides took critical shots at the Surrealists. Surrealism was dismissed as a spent force or even a curious sideline to the mainstream of art history. The historic end of Surrealism is important to a number of concerned parties, including the Surrealists, the Soviets, the Americans and a few European countries. Both the Soviets and the Americans wanted Surrealism out of the way at the end of World War II in order to further their own art histories. Maurice Nadeau claimed in his 1945 Histoire du surrealisme that Surrealism ended with WWII. And Surrealism was the obvious hole in Clement Greenberg’s attempt to rewrite a progressive modern art history for Cold War propaganda purposes.
The Surrealists themselves, along with a few countries, like Belgium and Czechoslovakia, want a continuing history of Surrealism to establish the pedigree of contemporary Surrealist artists. “Surrealism in Belgium” was at an exhibition tracing Belgium Surrealism from 1924-2000. Also advancing the history of Surrealism is Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros 1938-1968, (Thames & Hudson, 2005). Mahon argues that the Surrealists, especially in post-WWII, used the unconscious to focus on an exploration of Eros. As a history of the little discussed post-war French surrealist movement Mahon’s book is a fascinating read and clarifies the confused time line of French Surrealism. Mahon points out that as a result of the post-colonialism advocated by Surrealism meant that many of the following generation of Surrealist artists were not from Europe and their activities have been largely ignored in US/European art history.
Further confusing the history of Surrealism are the schism and scissions of the Surrealist movement itself. These are movements as diverse as the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism and CoBrA. And the Paris Surrealists under Andre Breton expelled many of its own members, most notably Salvador Dali. The internal politics of such art movements are often of little concern to many editors and curators although the participating artists vigorously defend the differences. For example, Wolfgang Hutter and Rudolf Hausner from the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism are both included in Alfred Schmeller Surrealism (Methuen, 1956) although neither considered themselves surrealists.
It would be better to say that a particular phase of an art movement is over, “the heroic phase of x is over”. Even better to use more specific terms like “old school x is over.” And it is worth waiting for a couple of generations and getting a complete autopsy report before believing a claim that a style is over. Until then I’ll remain sceptical.