Surrealism: The Art Of The Unconscious Mind

Surrealism was an artistic movement that gained popularity between the First and Second World War. The Surrealists sought to harness the creativity of the unconscious mind.

Aug 23, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt, BA English Literature
surrealism art
Exquisite Corpse by André Breton and Yves Tanguy, 1938, via The National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh (left); with Autumnal Cannibalism by Salvador Dalí, 1936, via Tate, London (center); and Gala Éluard by Max Ernst, 1924, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (right)


Surrealism is an avant-garde art movement that developed in Europe during the 1920s. It focused on artistic expression through the exploration of the unconscious mind, drawing heavily on Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis. Surrealist artworks often featured dreamlike scenarios with abstract, sometimes disturbing imagery as a method of pure automatic expression. Below is an in-depth explanation of Surrealism and the influence of psychoanalysis on its art. 


Surrealism: The Portrayal Of Psychoanalysis


Originating in France, Surrealism was an experimental philosophy that found its most practical expression in art. The driving force behind its creativity owes much to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of Psychoanalysis. Freud worked to understand the human mind in all its peculiar functions, and in doing so he drew attention to the world of the unconscious mind.


Freud’s conception of the individual lay the ground for a wealth of paintings and methodical approaches to creation. It was felt that there were now new territories to explore in imagery and style. Artists such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Max Ernst, all worked to explore ways of viewing the world that considered the recent discoveries of Psychoanalysis.


Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalí, 1937, via Tate, London 


The Surrealists, however, were not purely aestheticians. The leader of the Surrealist circle, André Breton (1896-1966), believed that the exploration of the unconscious mind through art could free the individual from the constraints of modern society.   

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What now was on show were the more mysterious aspects of living. Freud had expounded on how the unconscious mind impacts the conscious experience of living. The human mind, and the reason for human actions, began to take on the complexity of internal conflict and desire. Surrealism explored the tensions that Psychoanalysis had demarcated and delivered them to the viewer. 


The Roots Of Surrealism

The Uncertainty of the Poet by Giorgio de Chirico, 1913, via Tate, London 


Surrealism is an embodiment of the Modernist period in art and culture. The Modernist art period defined itself by a rejection of past traditions in art. It explored new modes of creativity and new subject matters for painting. 


This breakdown in any artistic and creative standard gave birth to many art movements in the early 20th century. This created an artistic environment of competitive ideas, theories, and philosophies of art that offered a variety of stylistic methods for creation. The forerunner of Surrealism was an artistic movement called Dada.


According to the Laws of Chance by Jean (Hans) Arp, 1933, via Tate, London 


Dada, or Dadaism, was an absolute rejection of any standard in art. It was a reaction to the atrocity of the first mechanized war (WWI) and an attack on a society that had wrought such meaningless destruction on itself. 


Dadaism prided itself on the nonsensical and random nature of its art form. Dadaism questioned the grounds of culture and tried to couple the catastrophe of the modern world with their disillusioned practices.


However, Dadaism was inherently nihilistic. Anything it would create would then have to be destroyed to stay true to what it means to be ‘Dada.’ By the 1920s, André Breton, who had begun Dadaist practices in France, wanted a stable art form and yet could still question society and the individual.


In 1924, Breton wrote the first Surrealist manifesto and it was there he laid out a formulation of Surrealism as the actual functioning of thought in absence of any control exercised by reason.


In Praise Of Psychoanalysis

Gala Éluard by Max Ernst, 1924, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Breton had trained in medicine and therefore had a thorough understanding of contemporary psychology. The writings of French psychologists Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and Pierre Janet (1859-1947) offered the Surrealists a gateway to the mind in their methodology- the use of hypnosis, for example. 


However, it was from Psychoanalysis that the Surrealists found the theoretical stimulus for their movement. The writings of Freud coalesced with the mood and sentiment of Breton and the Surrealists. Breton had advocated for a revaluation of the works of certain imaginative painters, such as Moreau, Picasso, Rousseau, Chirico. It was the imagination given to a work of art that conveyed its power.


Surprised! by Henri Rousseau, 1891, via The National Gallery, London


Psychoanalysis not only revealed the hidden depths of the unconscious mind but circumscribed the mechanisms which the unconscious mind used to create and show the predominant meaning of an individual’s psychic life.


Freud laid a heavy emphasis on the importance of dreams. In 1905, his The Interpretations of Dreams was published and systematically called attention to the mechanisms behind dreamscapes. Freud postulated that dreams show the unconscious mind unfettered by conscious control and thereby give the dreamer a direct insight into the puzzle of his individuality.


The dreaming mind found creative ways to show the dreamer representation of their inner psychic lives through ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’. Condensation defied reason and attached a multiplicity of associations into one dream object; displacement, also defying logic, created metaphors for psychic issues.


Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Dorothea Tanning, 1943, via Tate, London


Freud’s hypothesis on the unconscious was that it harbored the primal human desires. This made the unconscious mind constantly at odds with society which needed to suppress these urges to carry on unimpeded by this anarchistic power. 


It was thought by the Surrealists that in the unconscious mind there lay the answer to creativity and society changing material. Art, unimpeded by rationality and moral control, was sought by the Surrealists as they aimed to reproduce the actual functioning thought of a living human.


If unimpeded, the individual would be free to create from, according to the Surrealists, a superior viewpoint. The Surrealist mission was to make reality accord with the anarchy of the unconscious mind, and in doing so the individual would be liberated to connect with this well-spring of creativity.


In 1924, the Bureau of Surrealist Research was set up by the members of the group to research methods of gaining access to the unconscious mind, and to produce practical results of their efforts. What they had gathered from Freud’s theories was that the unconscious comes into play only when there is no conscious effort, such as in dreams and free association language games. 


Tribal Play: Surrealistic Strategies Of Creation

The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1934, via Tate, London 


The Surrealists worked on several strategies to produce their artwork, yet it was not only to create artwork that they indulged in such strategies; Surrealism was a way of living. The Bureau of Surrealist Research saw itself on a mission on par with scientific research. 


The Surrealists were indulging themselves in activities that waived rational and conscious control. They were looking for a way to experience and record automatic psychic construction. The methods they used were hypnosis; automatic writing; dictating dream sequences, and intuitive walking.


Forest and Dove by Max Ernst, 1927, via Tate, London 


Many of these had Freudian influences; the automatism can be taken as a form of Freud’s psychoanalytic practices where he indulged the patient into free association of language and thought to let loose the grip of the conscious mind. 


Freud had also theorized on the role that objects can have in reflecting unconscious desires and conflicts. He used the term fetish to describe objects that had been endowed with individual meaning to signify fear and desire. In Surrealist art, we see the use of seemingly disparate objects which, for the artist, functions to mystify the viewer by evoking an uncontrollable response.


The Mind On Display

Autumnal Cannibalism by Salvador Dalí, 1936, via Tate, London 


The artwork produced by the Surrealist movement was shocking to the viewer. Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte opted for a style that was highly detailed and exact but ultimately confusing. The purpose behind this stylistic choice was to display, psychologically, the realism of the unconscious mind and, according to Surrealist thought, a superior creative reality. 


It is the blend of realistic detailed painting with an obscure overall image that makes Surrealism effective. It seems clear to the viewer that there is a message but one he cannot unravel. It is the same way we feel a dream to be relevant but cannot quite understand it. 


The Reckless Sleeper by René Magritte, 1928, via Tate, London


In René Magritte’s ‘The Reckless Sleeper’, we are invited to interpret an obscure image. A boxed sleeper on top of a monolithic structure with carvings of familiar objects. The Surrealists had freed themselves from imitating nature and instead turned to the psychoanalytic game of interpreting psychic meaning. 


Magritte’s image could be a representation of a ‘sleeping’ man, not awake to his unconscious drives, or it could represent a dreaming man seeing his unconscious drives in the form of these objects carved on the monolith. The title ‘reckless sleeper’ can be interpreted into both readings. However, we cannot conclude on a single truth of the image. 


Beyond Surrealism  

A Thousand Times by Yves Tanguy, 1938, via Tate, London 


The Surrealist movement began as a rejection of an over-rationalized, reductive, society. To live a Surrealistic lifestyle was to reject the commonplace notions and find a life of one’s own, embracing the depths of the unconscious mind. 


The Surrealists, as was so much of Modernist art, offered a representation of artists liberating themselves from the constraints of societal normativity. Surrealism had had political implications from its birth. André Breton had tried to make links with the communist party in the 1920s but ultimately failed.


Surrealism stood for individual expression, and although they were not so concerned with the therapeutic side of Psychoanalysis, they saw that it offered a source on which to create free from any rational, moral idea. Surrealism continued to be popular into the 20th century and still is to this day. This is because it offers individuals the freedom to express and create away from one’s discontentment of civilization, and thereby, to see the world anew.


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By Fraser HibbittBA English LiteratureI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.