Surrealism Art Movement: A Window into the Mind

Dreamscapes, symbolism and the unconscious mind; Surrealism art changed modernism by encouraging artists to delve into their imaginations.

May 19, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
The Son of Man by René Magritte, 1946, Surrealism art
The Son of Man by René Magritte, 1946, Quora


Surrealism art emerged in Europe in the 1920s as a form of artistic and cultural rebellion. It rejected aesthetic expectations instead of using artistic expression as a way to reach greater self-understanding. This created a monumental shift for society and how it interacts with art. Today, Surrealism art remains one of the most recognizable styles in modern art history. This article outlines the history and ideology of Surrealist artists and their famous works of the period. 


Surrealism Art: Dada Roots

Surrealism was born out of the Dada art movement which developed after World War I in Zurich, New York and Paris. Dadaism was a divergence from any precedent art forms or ideologies. It challenged traditional aesthetics, ‘high art,’ and beauty.


L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp, 1919, Surrealism art
L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp, 1919, Staatliches Museum Schwerin


Dadaists utilized a variety of mediums and techniques in their art. They span from sounds to writing, sculpture, painting and collage. Their work expressed disaffection with bourgeois culture, nationalism and war, which aligned them with the radical political far-left. They sought to elucidate the dark underbelly of capitalism through its dissolution of logic and rationale and the use of satire. 


Surrealism, which originated in the 1920s in Paris, branched from the same school of thought as Dadaism. Some Dadaists also took part in the Surrealist movement as both were based on the rejection of Western values, reason and societal norms. However, Surrealism art was more focused than Dadaism. It was steeped in the psychoanalytic works of Sigmund Freud and centered on understanding the unconscious. 


Freud and Psychoanalysis

Le Double Secret by René Magritte, 1927, Surrealist artist
Le Double Secret by René Magritte, 1927, Sotheby’s

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Surrealism derived significant inspiration from psychoanalysis, developed by Sigmund Freud to treat mental disorders. The set of theories and techniques were established to delve into the unconscious mind. It aimed to illuminate the causes of abnormal and unhealthy mental habits. According to psychoanalysis, the mind is separated into the conscious and unconscious. Psychoanalytic treatment aimed to bring the repressed desires and fears of the unconscious mind to the surface.


André Breton was introduced to Freudian psychoanalysis in 1916 while serving as a medical aid in a psychiatric center during World War I. He was intrigued by the delusional states of the patients who had come from the war front. When they returned, he tried to apply psychoanalytic theory to understand their conditions. He developed automatic writing during this time, which would later expand into one of the founding disciplines of Surrealism art. 


Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalí, 1937, Surrealism art
Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalí, 1937, Tate


Breton met Freud for the first time in 1921 and became the founder of Surrealism in 1924. In his first Surrealist Manifesto, Breton cited psychoanalysis as a gateway to restoring one’s artistic identity, liberated from conformity and social normality. He asserted that the application of psychoanalytic thought and automatism in art would make someone a true Surrealist artist.


Surrealism Art: The Surrealist Manifestos

Andre Breton wrote The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. With clear allusions to the Dadaism movement, of which Breton was also a member, the manifesto laid out the origins and purpose of Surrealism. It also summarizes a variety of applications of Surrealism in different artistic mediums.


Cover of The Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton for Surrealist artists
Cover of The Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton, 1924


The manifesto asserted Surrealism as not only an artistic and literary movement but also a cultural epiphany that could be applied to many different aspects of life. At its forefront was the exploration of the imagination and how it uncovered the desires of the unconscious mind. Breton also emphasized the importance of dreams and how they provided valuable insight into the unconscious. He became an important source of inspiration for Surrealist artists. The book finishes by reaffirming that the movement was based in nonconformism and straying from convention.


Automatism and the Unconscious

Automatic Drawing by André Masson, 1924
Automatic Drawing by André Masson, 1924, MoMA


Breton describes Surrealism as a form of automatism, which “in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason and exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” This method utilized free association in art and writing. It encourages the artist to suppress their conscious mind and rather let the unconscious mind guide them. This improvisational technique was notably practiced by artists such as André Masson, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. Despite the movement’s significant expansion into different mediums and styles, Surrealism was firmly rooted in automatism.


The Parisian Group

Paris Surrealist Artists, from left; Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, Jean Arp, René Crevel and Man Ray
Paris Surrealists artists (from left: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, Jean Arp, René Crevel and Man Ray), via Widewalls


While Surrealism spread throughout Europe and into Latin America, the most well-known collusion of artists formed in Paris during the 1920s. This collaborative group formed through a network of modernists who met in cafes and experimented with hypnotism and unconscious creativity. The Paris Surrealist group included André Breton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, André Masson and René Magritte among others. 


Surrealism Art: Painting

Painting was perhaps the most recognizable medium from the Surrealism art movement. Unrestricted by the bounds of reality, Surrealist painters were able to create a plethora of images in settings ranging from intense dreamscapes to mundane everyday life. Paintings often featured disjointed elements or iconography in an attempt to diverge from the realm of reality. Artists also played with perspective, color and depth to create a disorienting effect.


The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931, Surrealism art
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931, MoMA


Two distinct painting styles defined the period, although they were sometimes used in conjunction. One of these utilized a hyper-realistic, three-dimensional style with bizarre and contradictory imagery, portraying often fantastical landscapes in vivid detail. Artists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte famously used this style, creating several infamous motifs including the melting clocks, a tobacco pipe and obscured faces.


The Birth of the World by Joan Miró, 1925
The Birth of the World by Joan Miró, 1925, MoMA


The other technique that characterized Surrealist painting was more abstract. This style focused on automatism and featured nonsensical, often unrecognizable imagery. It also sometimes included elements from other mediums including drawing and collage. Artists including Max Ernst and Joan Miró produced work using this technique, often including doodling or external elements in their pieces.


Surrealist Artists in Sculpture

Surrealist sculpture notably abandoned traditional sculptural figures. Sculptors removed objects or forms from their original context and added unexpected or juxtaposing elements to them. They also often used nontraditional artistic materials, challenging previous notions of what ‘sculpture’ meant. 


Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest by Jean Arp, 1932
Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest by Jean Arp, 1932, Tate


There were two main types of Surrealist sculpture: biomorphic and objet trouvéBiomorphic sculpture consisted of simplistic abstract forms. While not literal representations, biomorphic sculptures resembled recognizable shapes. This technique was considered a form of automatism because it featured a replication of organic forms in an abstracted context. Artists including Joan Miró, Henry Moore and Jean Arp were known for their use of biomorphic sculpture.


Lobster Telephone by Salvador Dalí, 1936, Surrealism art
Lobster Telephone by Salvador Dalí, 1936, Tate


Objet trouvé, meaning ‘found object’, focused on the combination of unexpected or even seemingly random objects. This technique was also a form of automatism as it consisted of unconscious object association without a decisive strategy. There was often a satirical element to objet trouvé sculptures, as the objects used were considered ‘low brow’. Artists including Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and others pioneered this style of sculpture during the Dada and Surrealism movements.


Surrealist Photography

The ability to evoke dream-like scenarios in photography became central to Surrealism. Photo effects such as double exposure, blurring and distortion helped create images that were evocative, hallucinatory, and sometimes upsetting. The purpose of these effects was to create an image alienated from reality as if it was a window into another dimension.


Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’ Violin) by Man Ray, 1924, Surrealism art
Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’ Violin) by Man Ray, 1924 


Surrealist photography also included the capturing of unusual or shocking subject matter. This type of photography often included portraits with exaggerated features, bizarre landscapes, or contradictory still lifes. All of these were connected by disjointed or out-of-place elements. Man Ray, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun and other Surrealist photographers all utilized both photo effects and unusual subject matter to create jarring images. 


Surrealist Artists in Film

Surrealist films, unlike their cinematic predecessors, did not rely on linear or traditional storytelling. Rather, they focused more on mental exploration, featuring abrupt and often disorienting narrative shifts and setting changes as if part of a stream of consciousness. They also featured shocking imagery in an attempt to cause a visceral audience reaction. 


Clip from Le Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel, 1929, Surrealism art
Clip from Le Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel, 1929, BFI


Films were also often motivated by sexual longing and instinctive inclinations to elucidate the desires of the unconscious mind. Breton called this amour fou, or ‘insane love’. The element of amour fou demanded that the viewers use film as a vehicle to confront their own underlying desires. Prominent Surrealist filmmakers included Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel and Germaine Dulac.


Legacy of Surrealism Art

Surrealism has had a monumental impact on modern and postmodern culture and remains present in art, film and literature. The Pop-Surrealism or ‘lowbrow’ movement developed in the 1970s, combining surrealist artist elements with images from popular culture to create satirical, often shocking and sometimes disturbing imagery. 


The Creatrix by Mark Ryden, 2005, Surrealism art
The Creatrix by Mark Ryden, 2005


While there is some debate about the end of the Surrealist period, there are numerous references to Surrealist art and in modern television, film and literature. Easily recognizable motifs seen in work by artists such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Frida Kahlo permeate modern media. 


Cinema and photography also continue to utilize Surrealist elements and techniques. Advancing photo manipulation technology allows for the creation of the disconcerting imagery characteristic of Surrealist photography. Filmmakers such as Tim Burton have also created entire bodies of work centered on dreamlike, fantastical scenarios that recall Surrealist film making.

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By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.