Home Magazine Everything you Need to Know about Surrealism

The surrealism art movement was a twentieth century group of artists that explored the inner workings of the mind, the uncanny, the dreamlike and the grotesque. Inspired by the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung. Surrealist artists used their canvases to visualise what happens when the conscious and unconscious realms unite.  The meaning of surrealism is to unleash the creative potential of the unconscious mind through art to depict unspoken desires.

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Starting as a literary movement, Surreal art developed across Europe and America spanning from 1924 to 1966. Most of us are probably aware of the most famous Surrealist paintings—the distorted figures, human forms, melting clocks, unsettling landscapes—with their strange dreamlike scenarios and uncanny imagery.

The first word which springs to mind when trying to understand this revolutionary movement is ‘dreams'. In fact, this art movement takes from Psychoanalytic theories which were trying to unravel the dream imagery and mechanisms of the unconscious mind. But the meaning of the surrealist movement has much more to it than the simple representation of dreams.

What does Surrealism mean?

We can define the world “surreal” as something strange and “Surrealism” as something that has the qualities of being beyond reality. In Surrealist art, the central meaning is to represent the what exists “beyond reality” in the unconscious mind.

Originally it was a political and aesthetic break with the past, but the magnitude of Surrealism became a cultural statement which affected many artists and movements by putting the individual's reality and experience on a pedestal.

What is the surrealist movement?

The Surrealism art movement created a very different art than the one which had characterised Art History until the end of the 1800s. But who were the minds behind the Surrealist movement?

Artists, poets, writers, painters… from all across Europe, but in less than ten years this artistic movement and political uprising even reached North and Latin America!

Surrealists included French poet André Breton, Belgian artist René Magritte, French painter and writer André Masson, Italian artist Giorgio De Chirico, German painter Max Ernst, Spanish painter Joan Mirò, French artist Jean Arp, France-based American visual artist Man Ray, and English artist Leonora Carrington. Even acclaimed Spanish artist Salvador Dalì joined the group for a brief period!

Extending to America the movement also had a significant influence on the work of Mexican artist Frida Khalo and American artist Dorothea Tanning.

These are the surrealist artists - or just some of the most well-known who fall under this label. 

The majority were Socialists, increasingly linked with Communism as the political tensions grew in the 1920s and 30s. With the first of many surrealist exhibitions in Paris in 1925, they broke with traditional rules attracting the attention and moral concern of the Academia. In fact, the works displayed did not at all conform to the political and aesthetic standards which dominated the Arts until then.

A fitting example of a surrealist painting is ‘The Lovers II' by Belgian artist René Magritte, one of the leading figures of Surrealism. The oil painting was made in 1928, and like many of Magritte's paintings, it presents a subtle yet startling image.

Against a simple background, two figures – one wearing a classic black suit and a white shirt, and the other in a red sleeveless top – are embraced, kissing passionately although separated by a veil covering each of their heads. These two figures could be anyone - their identity is hidden.

We identify with the lovers and their strong sexual desires, but the veil covering their heads is weirdly unsettling. The disturbing veil limits their intimacy by blocking their wishes. This makes it strange for us – even disturbing. 

This painting is not simply a view to admire – it is an image which plays with our impulses and desires. But why such a focus on unsettling images and scenes?

Joan Mirò, Carneval d’Arlequin (1924-1925), Courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery © Successió Miró S.L. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.


What defines and distinguishes Surrealist Art? 

The surrealism art movement saw the atrocities and devastation left behind by the war. Their experiences renewed and consolidated the necessity for a new truthful type of art.

They found this truth in Swiss Carl Jung and Austrian of Jewish descent Sigmund Freud’s work. In fact, taking from Psychoanalytical Writings which saw dreams as the place where true inner desires and impulses are manifest, the Surrealists saw individual dreams as absolute reality.

The aim of surrealist artists was to present the superior reality of dreams - the truth – in their works.

Art critic Ernst H. Gombrich clarifies this divide between the Surrealist Movement and Tradition in his renowned book ‘The Story of Art' (1950). As he explains, traditional art represented the collective dream of a perfect society and ordered reality. Orderly and created by rational minds, it showed the fictitious ideal according to which everything had to abide.

However, this collective dream was overthrown by the First World War. The atrocities, violence, poverty and deaths were the reality and the perfect aesthetic and moral concerns had nothing to do with this. For the artists who joined the Surrealist movement, the fake illusion of traditional art did not reflect reality. There is much more to existence than the idyllic imagery of the past.

What did this mean for the surrealists? The central idea was the rejection of the rational scenes which characterised all art until then. Indeed, they rejected nearly-fake imagery of the past by representing the unconscious through unmoderated – and often shocking – images.

However, behind surrealist paintings, films and poems there is always a structured idea, composition and plan. It is evident that these artists did not simply pour out their unconscious impulses onto blank canvases, pages or film.

What is the main idea of surrealism?

To understand the meaning of surrealism is to understand seemingly incomprehensible images. It is important to take a step back to understand the context, the main idea of the unconscious mind and the history of Surrealism.

So where did the surrealist art movement ideas come from?

Austrian neurologist of Jewish descent Sigmund Freud and Swiss Carl Jung published various works at the end of the 1800s, developing the Psychoanalytic Theory and the foundations of modern-day Human Psychology. Controversial, but increasingly popular, this theory affirmed that the subconscious part of the human mind has a great influence on people's actions and health. 

This was (literally) a mind opener for the surrealists. According to them, the subconscious mind had been greatly overlooked until that moment and only by trying to depict this, could the aesthetic and political standards of the past be broken.

What lay beneath the conscious, rational part of a person's mind, was the whole truth. In other words, absolute reality.

Sigmund Freud investigated this part of the Psyche, coming to the conclusion that this is where desires originate. A great part of Freud's work focused on infantile and sexual impulses, and how these are denied, displaced and repressed by the conscious mind – the rational part of the psyche. These desires would get moderated and filtered.

According to the neurologist, the impulses of the unknown territory of the terrifying and intriguing unconscious assume symbolic forms in dreams. And this reality of dreams, with their symbols and the impulses of the unconscious, is exactly what the surrealists aimed to represent in their work.

The very study of these symbols led to the publication of Freud’s book, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams' in 1899. And this particular publication was of great inspiration to the surrealists. Symbols were used by the surrealists to allude to sexual desires – especially in Dalì's work. One example is ‘The Accommodations of Desire' painted by Salvador Dalì in 1929.

Interestingly though, the father of Psychoanalysis was more of a fan of traditional art, as proved with his essays about Leonardo Da Vinci (1910). Indeed, Sigmund Freud mostly remained quite distant from these modern experimentations. But, nevertheless, many were the themes taken from his, at the time, controversial work.

What did the Surrealists paint?

Along with the theme of the unconscious, other themes covered by Sigmund Freud's writings were used by the surrealists. One of these was the uncanny, achieved by presenting unsettling landscapes, everyday objects out of their usual context or presenting figures multiple times - what Freud called the ‘doppelganger' (the double).

By presenting multiples of the same figure and transforming ordinary objects, the eeriness of the scenes increased. This produced a dreamlike experience, which still puzzles the viewer. The works made use of inner fears, desires and impulses, creating an imagery which would have a particularly strong impact on Art History and even Modern-day artists.

René Magritte, The Lovers II (1928), Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art © 2021 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Surreal Landscape Art

Some of the best-known surrealist art paintings use the landscape as a backdrop for their surreal dreams to take centre stage. For Slavador Dalì, this involved painting the landscape and imposing symbolic imagery upon the setting. In The Persistence of Memory,  

He depicts an uncanny landscape scene, drawn from his observations of the landscape near Port Lligat in Spain. The ocean drifts into the distance and the barren sand plays host to an array of strange and otherworldly objects, including the infamous melting clocks which Dalì likened to camembert. In the rocky foreground we see a stream of ants and a self-portrait of the artist lain upon a rock, dripping with ooze. 

The barren surrealist landscape adds to the overall effect of the painting, rendering the symbolic objects a melancholic feel. This landscape technique was adopted by the surreal art movement to heighten the strangeness of the scene. 

Automatic Techniques 

How exactly could the subconscious mind be transformed into an artwork? The surrealists used many different means and mediums to turn their unmoderated ‘thought' into an art form.

A particular method, ‘automatism', was of special importance for the surrealists. For the Psychoanalytic Theory it was an involuntary action; from an artistic perspective it is a spontaneous and unmoderated way of creating. 'Automatisms' would emulate, to a certain extent, the conditions of a dream as the artists would let themselves be guided by random accidental signs and free associations.

In poems, automatic writing was used – letting free associations guide the text. To achieve this with paintings and drawings, three really important techniques were frottage, grattage, and collage.

The first out of these three, frottage consists of rubbing a pencil or piece of chalk on a sheet of paper placed on an uneven surface. Grattage involves scratching off a layer of colour to reveal an underlying one. And collages are made by combining different segments of magazines, catalogues or adverts to create shapes that would then evoke an image for the artist.

To create automatic art pieces, Surrealists also used particular mediums - photography, for instance. Additionally, Surrealism was the first artistic movement whose members engaged with film. Both of these mediums could not be controlled entirely, and the artist could create peculiar effects by playing with cuts and exposure time.

One of the most well-known examples is ‘Un Chien Andalou', created by Spanish artists Salvador Dalì and Luis Buñuel in 1929. In writing the script Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali explained that they simply listed random ideas and dreams – like automatic writing which lets ideas flow through free association.

In the short film, the succession of scenes and special effects (however rudimental they may seem today) create a dreamlike storyline that seems to be convincing at first - just like in a real dream. But as the plot develops, one soon realises that there is no logic. Even the timeline is confusing. It leaves the viewers troubled and shocked.

Context of Surrealism 

Like many other experimental movements developing at the start of the 20th century, the Surrealists wanted to make a political, and artistic break with the past. Specifically, the origin of Surrealism can be found in Dada, the anti-war and anti-bourgeois movement which started right in the middle of World War I.  

A pilot figure of the surrealists, André Breton in 1924 published ‘The First Manifesto of Surrealism'. In this important milestone, the 'surreal' was described as 'absolute reality' and 'Surrealism' as ‘pure psychic automatism'.

Like dreams, the meaning of Surrealist Art was to be an unfiltered and unmoderated reality of desires, instincts, sexual drive and infantile impulses. Like the automatic association of images and symbols in dreams, the artists would mimic this in making their works.

The Surrealist Manifesto explained how this group of artists intended to represent ‘thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation'. In fact, while the Academia was concerned with standards and all works had to be both harmonious and honourable, the Surrealist painter was freed from this format. This led to the creation of an extraordinarily powerful aesthetic.

The central goal was to induce an automatic creation of images, without letting rationality guide the artist. In fact, the purpose of Surrealist paintings, drawings and collages (but even the work of surrealist poets and writers) was to present the truth without any limitations – like those of moral preoccupation or aesthetic principles.

American Surrealists 

With the rise of Nationalism in Europe in the 1930s, and with the Nazi Party becoming the strongest and largest political party in Germany, the tensions soon became inevitable.

Salvador Dalì, failing to take a stand against Fascism, was kicked out of the group, and many of the artists set off for America, where traditional art and political activists welcomed the newly arrived artists and activists. Here, the contact with Native American and Mexican art was focal for the European surrealists. Just as Cubism took from African art, these traditional art forms were of inspiration for surrealist artists.

Indeed, through Max Ernst the group of artists became familiar with sculptures and objects of American heritage in ethnographic art dealer Julius Carleback's shop in New York. And, even though the European artists knew very little of the traditions and background of the North-west Americans and Mexicans, their masks and sculptures fascinated them. Breton even described these artworks to be more surreal than the surrealists themselves.

In 1936, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised an exhibition entitled ‘Fantastic Art: Dada and Surrealism'. This publicly recognised the importance of this movement. Seeing the acclaimed surrealists' works, Dorothea Tanning and Frida Khalo became familiar with their central ideas. And soon these two artists became important and acclaimed figures in the history of American Surrealism.

Further affirming the magnitude of Surrealism, in 1940 one of the many International Surrealist Exhibitions was organised in Mexico City. On this occasion, André Breton wanted to include Frida Khalo's work.

The famous artist’s paintings were displayed alongside those by the European artists. This created a durable connection between her work, marked by the female perspective, the Mexican political situation and Mexican heritage, and Surrealism.

Since then, this has strongly influenced the way we see Frida Khalo’s work. Despite the fact that Frida Khalo always distinguished herself from Surrealism by saying she never depicted dreams, the fact her work was displayed alongside the works of the European surrealists does make it inevitable to draw a parallel between the styles.

As well as having a strong mark on local artists, Surrealism’s political core strengthened in the Americas. In fact, the artists, activists and revolutionaries all met in America.

The link between Surrealism and Communism became even more explicit when, in 1938, André Breton and Leon Trotsky published ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art' after meeting at Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo's Casa Azul – barely one year before the start of the Second World War.

Overall, Surrealism had an immense influence in Europe, on American Artists (influencing Abstract Expressionism) and even defined Mexican Artists. Still today this movement continues to have a profound effect on Contemporary artists.

Although the end of the surrealist movement is connected to the death of André Breton in 1966, the mark this movement left internationally was extraordinary – with many contemporary artists keeping the techniques and ideas alive in their work today.

Cover Image: Salvador Dalì, The Persistence of Memory (1931), Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art © 2021 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Written by: Kooness

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