Buñuel and Dalí Champion Surrealism in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Surrealist film An Andalusian Dog launched the directing career of Luis Buñuel and gave him a vehicle for expressing his deeply felt indignation at the moral failures of church and society.

Summary of Event

The intellectual movement that dominated the careers of both Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí and that drove them to produce Un Chien andalou (1928; An Andalusian Dog) was Surrealism. Along with Dadaism and expressionism, Surrealism Art movements;Surrealism was a revolt against representational art. Led by founder André Breton, the Surrealist movement had its first exhibition in Paris in 1925. Surrealists believed that the contents of the unconscious mind are as real as the concrete world; therefore, artistic rules that govern merely the physical world, such as those of perspective, are not sufficient as an expression of reality. Surrealist art attempted to depict objects in incongruous juxtapositions, as they might occur in a dream. [kw]Buñuel and Dalí Champion Surrealism in An Andalusian Dog (1928) [kw]Dalí Champion Surrealism in An Andalusian Dog, Buñuel and (1928) [kw]Surrealism in An Andalusian Dog, Buñuel and Dalí Champion (1928) [kw]Andalusian Dog, Buñuel and Dalí Champion Surrealism in An (1928) Andalusian Dog, An (film) Motion pictures;An Andalusian Dog[Andalusian Dog] Surrealism;motion pictures [g]France;1928: Buñuel and Dalí Champion Surrealism in An Andalusian Dog[06950] [c]Motion pictures;1928: Buñuel and Dalí Champion Surrealism in An Andalusian Dog[06950] Buñuel, Luis Dalí, Salvador Breton, André

Salvador Dalí.

(Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection)

Dalí and Buñuel met in 1920 at the University of Madrid. Dalí called his friends there a “strident and revolutionary group.” The first one-man exhibition of Dalí’s paintings came in 1925 in Barcelona. Dalí held Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David, realist painters from the nineteenth century, in high esteem. In arguing for tradition and classical form, Dalí shocked his Spanish contemporaries, most of whom were absorbed in the post-Impressionist rejection of academic rules and traditions. Dalí’s Surrealism would permit him his realism, but with unrelated objects depicted in dreamlike, infinitely receding landscapes. In 1927, he dedicated to Buñuel an essay suggesting that film could promote a new way of seeing.

After an apprenticeship from 1925 to 1928 at Jean Epstein’s Académie du Cinéma in Paris, Buñuel joined Dalí in making a Surrealist film. The script was written in three days, and filming was completed in less than two weeks. The resulting short film, An Andalusian Dog, was shown to Breton and other Paris Surrealists, who enthusiastically received it and accepted the pair into their ranks.

Dalí described the aim of the film as jolting viewers. He and Buñuel wanted to make a film that “would carry . . . the audience back to the secret depths of adolescence, to the sources of dreams, destiny, and the secret of life and death, a work that would scratch away at all received ideas.” Buñuel wrote that in working out the plot, every idea of a rational, aesthetic, or other preoccupation with technical matters was rejected as irrelevant. He described the aim of the film as producing instinctive reactions of attraction and repulsion. Despite the fact that both artists insisted that nothing in the film symbolizes anything, others have interpreted the film as having various meanings.

Analysts agree that the opening sequence of the twenty-minute film, in which a razor slices a human eye, was intended as a typical, if horrifying, Surrealist attack on the viewer’s (and the world’s) complacency in the midst of worldwide atrocities. What follows is a series of intentionally unrelated scenes that has been called “a catalog of Freudian metaphors.”

A male bicyclist, dressed as a nurse and thus sexually ambiguous, arrives at a woman’s apartment. To recordings of Argentine tangos alternating with Richard Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the script calls for a close-up of a hand full of crawling ants. This dissolves into a close-up of the hairy armpit of a woman who is sunbathing and then to a close-up of the spines of a sea urchin.

From a window, the man and woman observe a girl being run over in the street. This sexually excites the cyclist. The woman allows his fondling but then becomes frigid. Protecting herself with a tennis racket, she too manifests a certain androgyny. Desperately trying to reach her, the man must drag two grand pianos, on which are dead and putrefying donkeys, and two priests. This grotesque comic relief may symbolize, as one critic has suggested, “the dead weight of a decaying society chaining the free expression of man’s desire.”

A more assertive man, the alter ego of the bicyclist, enters. The bicyclist shoots him dead, possibly symbolizing the murder of the man he might have been. Later, the woman is walking on a beach with another man, possibly another alter ego. He appears mature and confident but still unhappy. At the end, they are seen buried up to their chests in sand and being eaten alive by swarms of insects. The scene is enigmatically titled “In the Spring.”

Buñuel and Dalí’s collaboration ended during work on the 1930 Surrealist masterpiece L’Âge d’or (The Golden Age), Golden Age, The (film) Buñuel’s first feature-length film at sixty-three minutes. Dalí called that film a caricature of his ideas. Perhaps Buñuel was too strident in his assault on religion and conventional morality as constraints on human freedom. This frontal attack, first signaled in An Andalusian Dog and powerfully extended in this film, caused The Golden Age to be banned widely. In the film, a documentary-like prologue shows two scorpions killing a rat. Scenes follow in Surrealist juxtaposition. Prosperous colonists arrive on an island. They recall Spain’s voyages of discovery and Christianization. In a famous sequence, four lavishly attired bishops turn into skeletons. Next, a couple making love in public are arrested by scandalized society. The colonists then dedicate a stone to their new colony. A small pile of soft cement on the stone looks like excrement.

Polite socialites at a party barely notice an oxcart filled with drunken peasants crossing the hall, a kitchen fire, and a murder, but they are horrified at an insult and a slap in their midst. Later, at a concert, they seem oblivious to the passionate groping of the reunited lovers and unmoved by the surging crescendos of the Liebestod. Finally, in a sadistic orgy in a medieval castle, a duke is depicted as Christ and a cross is decorated with the heads of religiously exploited women. Buñuel’s message appears to be that respectability requires society to repress its sexuality and spontaneity. A culture that does this is not alive but a fossil (the bishop/skeletons). Not only does institutional religion not serve, but it is also harmful and degrading. Such attitudes were a harbinger of the anticlerical spirit of the Spanish Civil War, which produced considerable persecution of clergy.


Buñuel’s next silent film had to be funded privately, but his 1932 documentary Las Hurdes Hurdes, Las (film) ranks among the best ever made. Miserable in a Spanish region hostile to life in any form, the people of Las Hurdes eat only potatoes and beans, and they incestuously produce retarded children. In school, barefoot, ragged children are taught bourgeois values. Here documentary becomes editorial, indicting a morality that ignores human degradation, surrealistically juxtaposing peasant hovels and ornate churches and surveying the people’s animal existence against the inspiring strains of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

From 1932 to 1959, Buñuel learned to moderate his fervor, making sound films in the United States, France, Spain, and Mexico. His seventeen Mexican films, at first dismissed as commercial, were later recognized to be rich in veiled satire on the hypocrisy of conventional morality. The period saw his 1950 masterpiece, Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned). Young and the Damned, The (film) Pedro, refused love by his prostitute mother, is taught to steal by Jaibo. In a Surrealist dream sequence, Pedro appeals for love, and his mother responds erotically. Jaibo comes out from under the bed. Reality and dreams are skillfully and inextricably confused. Pedro is murdered by Jaibo and, ironically, the mother becomes the lover of her son’s killer.

Buñuel’s pessimism was even more pronounced in Nazarin (1959) Nazarin (film) and Viridiana (1961). Viridiana (film) Both won prizes at the Cannes film festival; both are criticisms of the church, whose most sincere ministers do more harm than good in the world. The priest Nazarin symbolizes Christ’s return being rejected in the modern world. Viridiana, Buñuel’s first film shot in Spain in thirty years, was banned for its criticism of Francisco Franco. A religious novice, Viridiana unintentionally destroys those who helped her and is nearly raped by blind and poor beggars she has helped. Values are reversed as the ungrateful poor destroy her house and eat everything, in a parody of the Last Supper. She renounces her vocation.

In 1962, Buñuel produced El Angel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), Exterminating Angel, The (film) a Surrealist masterpiece. The elegant guests at a dinner party find that, unaccountably, they cannot leave the dining room. Somehow they must adapt to their curious situation. An older man dies and frustrated lovers commit suicide. The bodies are stuffed in one closet while another closet serves as a bathroom. The prisoners engage in a variety of superstitious rituals and vices. Finally extricated, on Sunday they appear at church. Again they find themselves unable to leave.

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) Diary of a Chambermaid (film) was a commentary on the social changes in France after World War I. The chambermaid Celestine openly despises her Royalist employers. Their neighbor is an insulting republican who pitches his garbage into their yard. Their gamekeeper is a fascist triumphantly demonstrating in the streets of Paris for the moral rebirth of France, but he brutally rapes and murders a child and gets away with it. Celestine marries the old republican but cruelly turns him into her servant. Buñuel again provides a coldly dispassionate, even documentary, view of decadent class privilege, gross injustice, the failure of idealism, and the reversal of values.

In 1965 came Simon of the Desert. Simon of the Desert (film) A fifth century hermit, Simon Stylites, spent his life atop a sixty-foot column. Buñuel shows him preaching, healing, and overcoming sometimes bizarre temptations. Later, conveyed to twentieth century New York City, he learns that for all of his virtue and self-negation, people have remained morally unchanged. In his own time he was significant, but in the modern age he has no lasting impact.

In Belle de Jour (1967), Belle de Jour (film) Buñuel so smoothly moves between fantasy or dreams and actuality that the audience often cannot tell them apart. His Surrealist message is that both realms are equally real. In The Milky Way (1969), Milky Way, The (film) Buñuel again assaulted the church. The title refers to the pilgrimage to the Spanish shrine of Santiago Campostella. The film is an allegorical journey through church history. Along the way, ordinary people discuss important theological mysteries. Nearing the shrine, two vagrant pilgrims are diverted from their quest by a prostitute. Here, as in Simon of the Desert, the imposing doctrines of the church appear sterile and irrelevant.

Buñuel’s Surrealism overturns conventional values. Evil triumphs over good and often results from the good intentions of the innocent, who themselves become compromised. Opposites, even good and evil, do not exist but are fictions of the conscious mind. Physical beauty is no better than ugliness. Buñuel’s camera sees “objects and men without blinking at deformity and without winking at a superior viewer.” Poor and deformed people do not generate pity, as he depicts them as vicious and greedy.

Buñuel’s audiences, conditioned to seeing morality triumph, are left bothered by the apparent moral ambiguity of a filmmaker who has been called one of the great moralists of the twentieth century. Henry Miller, who considered Buñuel a genius, wrote in 1932 that Buñuel portrays “the lunacy of civilization, the record of man’s achievement after ten thousand years of refinement.” In achieving this goal, however, Buñuel falsified the Surrealist denial of intentionality. After he reached the age of seventy, he produced a series of films—Tristana (1970), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and Cet obscur objet du desir (1977)—that are among the greatest masterpieces of Surrealism in any medium. Buñuel’s influence probably has been less over the films of other directors than over audiences and film critics, who gradually have come to better understand his art, insights, and bite. Andalusian Dog, An (film) Motion pictures;An Andalusian Dog[Andalusian Dog] Surrealism;motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ades, Dawn. Dalí and Surrealism. New York: Harper and Row, 1982. Fine biography with special reference to Dalí’s attachment to the Surrealist movement and chapters on his role in Surrealist cinema.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durgnat, Raymond. Luis Buñuel. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Excellent filmography examines individual films from a moderate Marxist point of view. Copiously illustrated with stills of key scenes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higginbotham, Virginia. Luis Buñuel. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Excellent introductory biography and filmography of Buñuel. Modestly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Concise introduction to these art movements discusses their international nature and the range of media employed. Also addresses the debates surrounding them, including issues of quality and attitudes toward women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nadeau, Maurice. The History of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Howard. 1965. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1989. Extremely detailed history of Surrealism in literature, art, and film. Contains translations of André Breton’s three Surrealist manifestos and other documents of the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Read, Herbert. “Introduction.” In Surrealism. 1936. Reprint. New York: Praeger, 1971. Offers a sophisticated and clearly written definition of every nuance of Surrealism, using historical, artistic, and Freudian points of departure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. Oxford, England: Berg, 2006. Presents an introduction to surrealist film as well as an examination of the works of Luis Buñuel and other surrealist filmmakers from the 1920’s to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schillaci, Peter P. “Luis Buñuel and the Death of God.” In Three European Directors, edited by James M. Wall. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973. Interpretation of Buñuel is rich in insights into the director’s mind and vivid descriptions of his major films. Highly recommended.

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