To Dream, to Collect


Surrealism, the artistic movement spanning from 1924 to 1966, developed across Europe and America. Taking from Psychoanalytic theories, the central idea of representing the unconscious mind has much more to it than the simple representation of dreams. Originally a political and aesthetic break with the past, the magnitude of Surrealism becomes a cultural statement which affects many artists and movements by putting the individual’s reality, and experience on a pedestal.

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Most of us are probably aware of the strange scenarios typical of early twentieth-century Surrealism. Distorted figures, melting clocks, unsettling landscapes… In surrealist artworks, organic forms seem to transform in front of our eyes as our attention moves from one detail to another. The first word which springs to mind when trying to describe Surrealism is ‘dreamlike’. But there is much more to this literary, artistic and cultural movement, than this simple word.

To understand what lies behind these seemingly incomprehensible images, it’s important to take a step back to understand the context, the origins, the main idea of the unconscious mind, and the history of Surrealism. Proposing a very different art than that which characterised art history until the end of the 1800s, the minds behind Surrealism were from all across Europe - and in less than ten years this artistic movement even reached North and Latin America. Surrealists included French poet André Breton, Belgian artist René Magritte, 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 - to mention some of the most well-known artists which fall under this label. Even acclaimed Spanish artist Salvador Dalì joined the group for a brief period. Later extending to America the movement also had a significant influence on the work of Mexican artist Frida Khalo and American artist Dorothea Tanning.


Max Ernst, Forest and Dove (1927), Courtesy of the Tate ©ADAGP, Paris / DACS, London 2021.


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.


These surrealist artists, whose first exhibition took place in Paris in 1925, did not at all conform to the political and aesthetic standards defined by academia. Traditional art represented the collective dream of a perfect society and ordered reality, discarded with the events of the First World War. For surrealists, this was not only inadequate - but also insufficient. They argued that there is much more to reality than the idyllic imagery of the past - and dreams are where reality is absolute. In fact, their aim was to redefine representation by presenting the superior reality of dreams - the truth. Opposed to the standards of the past, the confusing scenes do just this, presenting an individual dream – as Ernst H. Gombrich explains in his renowned book ‘The Story of Art’ (1950).

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 although separated by a veil covering each of their heads.

The figures in this painting could be anyone - their identity is hidden. This makes it easier for any of us to identify with one of the lovers. This painting is not a view we are admiring, but an image we can relate to, which plays with our desires. We can identify with the two lovers and be frustrated by the veils which stand between them. The disturbing veil limits their intimacy by blocking their impulses and desires (ah… love during COVID-times!). But why such a focus on unsettling images and disturbing scenes?


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


Context and origin of Surrealism

Not unlike other experimental movements developing at the start of the 20th century; the surrealists wanted to make a political, and artistic break with the past. Originating from Dada, the anti-war and anti-bourgeois movement which started right in the middle of World War I; the surrealists saw the atrocities and devastation left behind by the war. Their experiences renewed and consolidated this need for a new truthful type of art.

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

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


But where does this idea come from?

Austrian neurologist of Jewish descent, Sigmund Freud between 1890s and 1950s published various works developing the Psychoanalytic Theory. Controversial, but increasingly popular, this theory affirmed that the subconscious part of the human mind had a great influence on people’s actions and health. This was (literally) a mind opener for the surrealists. According to them, what lay beneath the conscious, rational part of a person’s mind, was the whole truth. In other words, absolute reality. But 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 truly be broken.

Sigmund Freud investigated this part of the psyche through his case studies, coming to the conclusion that this is where desires originate. These desires would then get moderated and filtered by the rational conscious part of an individual’s mind. A great part of Freud’s work focused on infantile and sexual impulses, and how these are denied, displaced and repressed by the conscious rational part of the psyche.

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.

According to the neurologist, the impulses of the unknown territory of the terrifying and intriguing unconscious were thought to 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 his 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.


Salvador Dalì, The Accommodations of Desire (1929), Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


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, where figures appear to be multiple things at the same time. By presenting multiples of the same figure the eeriness of the scenes increased, making use of what Freud called the ‘doppelganger’, or the double. Freud’s work helped the surrealists understand how to recreate a dreamlike experience, which puzzles the viewer.

Overall, Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory is difficult to grasp because of its intangibility. As in the images created by the surrealists - even in dreams, the unconscious is volatile and nearly impossible to pin down precisely. But without a doubt, anyone who is familiar with this artistic movement cannot deny that the surrealist paintings, sculptures, photographs, poems and films are particularly successful in resembling impenetrable dreams. But the question of how remains.


Automatic Techniques

How exactly could the subconscious mind, and the symbolic forms assumed in dreams, be transformed into an artwork? The surrealists used many different means and mediums to turn their unmoderated ‘thought’ into an art form. Their central goal was to induce an automatic creation of images, without letting rationality guide the artist.

A particular method, ‘automatism’, was of special importance for the surrealists. For the Psychoanalytic Theory, it was an involuntary action, from an artistic perspective, a spontaneous and unmoderated way of creating. In fact, '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. To create automatic art pieces, they would use innovative techniques. Particular mediums were also of interest because of their manipulability. Especially film and photography, which could not be controlled entirely and through playing with cuts and exposure they could create interesting dreamlike effects.

Three really important techniques (and not cheeses!) were frottage, grattage, and collage. The first, frottage, is a rubbing that lets a material texture guide the initial marks made on a piece of paper with chalk or pencil. Grattage, on the other hand, consists of scratching off a layer of colour to reveal an underlying one. And lastly, collage would involve the random combination of different segments of magazines, catalogues or adverts to create shapes that would then evoke an image for the artist.


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.


Surrealism was the first artistic movement whose members engaged with film. Along with others, one of the most well-known works is ‘Un Chien Andalou’. This film was created by Spanish artists Salvador Dalì and Luis Buñuel in 1929. In this short film, the automatic, dreamlike world at the centre of the surrealists’ work is even more vivid than in the other artworks produced by the surrealists. The succession of scenes, and special effects (however rudimental they may seem today), create a storyline that seems to be convincing at first. But as the plot develops, one soon realises that it does not follow any logical order. The viewers are left confused and unsettled by what they have seen in these 15 minutes.

Closer to the automatic writing techniques used in surrealist poetry - in writing the script Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali explained that they simply listed random ideas and dreams. But like with the complex compositions we see in surrealist paintings, it is evident that these artists did not simply pour out their unconscious impulses onto blank canvases, pages or film. However, the effect of a dream is achieved in the most admirable of ways. Everyone can identify with the unsettling feeling created. They are most definitely surreal, but never too subjective.


Salvador Dalì & Luis Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou (1929), Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art © 2021 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


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 surrealists.

Focal for the European surrealists was their contact with Native American and Mexican art. Just as Cubism took from African art, these traditional art forms were of inspiration for surrealist artists. Indeed, as explained on Artsy and on the British Museum’s website, 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. Although 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. These two artists soon became important and acclaimed figures in the history of American Surrealism.


Dorothea Tanning, Voltage (1942), Courtesy of ©2013 The Dorothea Tanning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.


Further affirming the magnitude of Surrealism, in 1940 the ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ was organised in Mexico City. On this occasion, André Breton wanted to include Frida Khalo’s work. Her paintings were displayed alongside the work of the European artists. This created a durable connection with her female perspective, the Mexican political situation and Mexican heritage – which has always influenced the way we see this artist'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. Having seen the disastrous effects of the Mexican Revolution, she depicts a reality that is full of symbols, but it has a much more subjective mark than the anonymous dreams which characterised European Surrealism. Her paintings present her trauma. For example, she presents her experience of a miscarriage, in a very vivid and powerful way in ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ (1932). She shows herself as vulnerable, exposed and forever connected to the things which she has lived and the pain she has been through. We can state that more than driven by automatic painting of unconscious desires, her work was driven by her very much conscious individual experiences as a woman.


Frida Khalo, Henry Ford Hospital (1932), Courtesy of


The artists, activists and revolutionaries all met in America and this strengthened the political core of Surrealism. The link between Surrealism and Communism became even more explicit when, in 1938, André Breton and Leon Trotsky publish ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’ after meeting at Frida Khalo’s Casa Azul – barely one year before the start of the Second World War.


Looking back at the origin, ideas and history of Surrealism, we can recognise the immense popularity of surrealists, both in Europe and in America. And the influence it has had on many artistic movements – notably Abstract Expressionism. In fact, even though 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 images: Salvador Dalì & Luis Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou (1929), Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art © 2021 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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