Founded by Andre Breton in 1924, Surrealism swept the art world by storm. Surrealist artists aimed to channel the unconscious in order to unlock their creativity and imagination. Influenced by psychoanalysis, they believed that the rational mind suppressed the power of their expression. Spanning visual arts, surrealism photography, literature, and cinema, Surrealism proposed that artists should bypass reason and rationality. These techniques became known as automatism or automatic writing, encouraging chance and spontaneity in artistic practices. Guided by Freud’s emphasis on the importance of dreams and the unconscious, they employed a variety of motifs that rendered these notions. Each artist relied on their own symbols, but their imagery could be often described as outlandish, perplexing, and even uncanny, jolting the viewer out of their comforting assumptions. From Max Ernst‘s obsession with birds and Salvador Dali’s depiction of ants or eggs to Joan Miró’s vague biomorphic imagery, nature was the most frequent imagery.
Growing out of the Dada movement, Surrealism employed artistic influences that came from different sources. Surrealists were influenced by bizarre imagery and unsettling compositions of Giorgio de Chirico, but also the work of artists interested in primitivism and fantastical imagery such as Gustave Moreau, Arnold Bocklin, Odilon Redon, Henri Rousseau, and even Hieronymous Bosch. Beginning as a literary group strongly allied to Dada, the movement was articulated through Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. The group also began publishing the journal La Révolution surréaliste that included writings and art by de Chirico, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Man Ray. The same year, The Bureau for Surrealist Research or Centrale Surréaliste was established, the institution that collected dream imagery and material related to social life. Originating in the French art scene, strains of the movement could be identified in art throughout the world, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Eventually, Abstract Expressionism incorporated many Surrealist ideas, casting a shadow on their dominance with new techniques for representing the unconscious. Still, movement’s surprising imagery, deep symbolism, refined painting techniques, and disdain for convention influenced many generations of artists.
Scroll down for a list of Surrealist artists that have contributed to the glory of the movement the most.
Featured images: The Paris Surrealists, 1933, via Rusty’s Artists; Yves Tanguy – I Await You, 1934; Salvadro Dali – Sleep, via Bureau de Estilo Renata Abranchs; Rene Magritte – Every day, 1966.
Andre Breton - The Founder of Surrealism
An original member of the Dada group, André Breton founded and led the Surrealist movement in 1924. Introducing the notion of intuitive art and automatism in his Surrealist Manifesto, he defined the movement as “psychic automatism 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.” Breton believed in the future resolution of dream and reality into surreality, the reality he regarded as absolute. He worked in various media and innovated the ways in which the text and image were united through chance association. His methodology deeply affected origins of future movements such as Abstract Expressionism.
Featured images: Andre Breton, via The Impossible Cool; Andre Breton – Landscape, 1933, via triviumarthistory.com
Jean Arp - A Highly Versatile Artist
Regarded as one of the most versatile artists of the beginning of the 20th century, Jean Arp was associated with both Dada and Surrealism. He expressed himself in sculptures, paintings, drawings, collages and poems. He is best known for his sculptures characterized by wavy lines that he often referred to as the organic abstraction. Aiming to minimize the intervention of the conscious mind, he embraced a chance and spontaneity as integral components of the artistic process. Although his work was non-representational, it was firmly rooted in nature. As a co-founder of the Dada movement, his organically-inspired sculptures in the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925, played an integral role in linking the two movements, at the same time shaping the future of Surrealism.
Featured images: Jean Arp, via The Charnel-House; Jean Arp – Composition, via Bukowskis
Max Ernst - Painting From His Inner Psyche
A provocateur and a shocking and innovative artist, Max Ernst mined his unconscious for dreamlike imagery that mocked social conventions. Seeing the modern world as irrational, he made this idea the basis of his work. One of the first artists to apply Sigmund Freud’s dream theories, he painted freely from his inner psyche to find the source of his creativity and unleash his primal emotions. He also explored the universal unconscious with its common dream imagery. As a versatile and prolific artist, he explored mediums of painting, sculpture, and works-on-paper. His work with the unconscious, his social commentary, and broad experimentation in both subject and technique was highly influential for future generations of artists.
Featured images: Max Ernst, via Getty Images; Max Ernst – The Nymph Echo, via max-ernst.com
Yves Tanguy - Exploring Dreams and the Uncounscious
A quintessential Surrealist in many respects, Yves Tanguy was an eccentric artist best known for his misshapen rocks and molten surfaces that lent definition to the Surrealist aesthetics. He used a highly personal symbolism that reflected his interests in childhood memory, dreams, hallucinations and psychotic episodes. Due to his love of nature, Tanguy painted abstract landscapes populated by biomorphic shapes and painted in somber hues. Balancing between realism and fantasy, his landscapes are characterized by a certain hallucinatory effect. Preoccupied with dreams and the unconscious, he depicted the mind and its contents with the naturalistic precision, envisioning the unconscious as a place. Carl Gustave Jung used on of his canvases to illustrate his theory of the collective unconscious.
Featured images: Yves Tanguy by Man Ray, 1934; Yves Tanguy – Deux Fois Du Noir, via arthistorynews.com
Man Ray - The Pre-Surrealist
As a very versatile and prolific artist, Man Ray worked in various media such as photography, painting, sculpture, film, prints, and poetry and was influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism. Yet, he is most famous for his photographs of the inter-war years, especially the camera-less pictures he called “Rayographs”. Breton described him as a pre-Surrealist, referring to his natural affinity for the style and Surrealist undertones in his work before the movement was even founded. Operating in the gap between art and life, his photography relied on various techniques that blurred the line between the dream and reality. Trying to create a Surrealist vision of the female form, he utilized solarization, cropping, and over development to achieve a surreal effect in his photography.
Featured images: Man Ray, via Pinterest; Man Ray – Glass Tears, 1932
Andre Masson - The Artist Defying Classification
One of the early Surrealists, André Masson created art that defied classification due to its stylistic transitions. Exploring the automatic drawing and allowing his hand to move freely across the canvas without a conscious plan, he aimed to express the creative force of the unconscious. He would often work under strict conditions, for example, after long periods of time without food or sleep, or under the influence of drugs, believing this could force himself into a reduced state of consciousness free from rational control. He is also famous for his surreal portrayer of cruel confrontations and bizarre combats. His work has been cited as the bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Featured images: Andre Masson, via ina.fr; Andre Masson – From the cycle Dessin Érotique, 1896 – 1987, via Galerie Miro.
Rene Magritte - The Artist Evoking Mystery
A celebrated surrealist Belgian painter, Rene Magritte created works that are beautiful in their clarity and simplicity, but also provoke unsettling thoughts. Having an idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism, he avoided stylistic distractions of most modern painting, settling on a deadpan, illustrative technique that clearly articulated the content of the work. He described his works as visible images that conceal nothing, but evoke mystery. Featuring everyday objects placed in unusual contexts and juxtapositions, his art challenges the assumptions of human perception and force the viewer to reconsider things usually taken for granted. Often employing interactions of textual and visual signs, he created works that often share a certain mystery that characterizes much of his Surrealist work.
Featured images: Rene Magritte, via Pinterest; Rene Magritte – The Lovers 2, 1928
Luis Bunuel - A Pioneer of Surrealist Cinema
A pioneer of Surrealist cinema, Luis Buñuel managed to liberate the film from linear, logical narrative. With an urgent, shocking, and visceral quality to his films, he never aimed to produce work that is too artsy. Portraying the disjointed visual narratives of human dreams in action, he has managed to perfectly capture everything that characterizes the dreaming state. With an emphasis on provoking intellectual and emotional responses, his films often affect the viewer physically as well. Destroying comforting assumptions about existence and reality, he has managed to evoke their most basic and hidden fears. His films are known for successfully criticizing facile societal or religious solutions to the issues of human existence.
Featured images: Luis Bunuel on the set of This Strange Passion in 1952, via The Red List; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois, via The Metropolis Times
Salvador Dali - Rendering Dreams and Hallucinations
Renowned for his flamboyant personality and technical virtuosity, Salvador Dali is best known for his painterly output, but he also explored sculpture, printmaking, fashion, advertising, writing, and filmmaking in his collaborations with Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock. Despite being formally expelled from the Surrealist group in 1934 for his reactionary political views, he is today most often associated with this movement. Basing his works on Freudian theory, Dali aimed to create a formal and visual language in his studio that could render his dreams and hallucinations. The act of tapping into the unconscious he described as “critical paranoia”. Obsessed with themes of eroticism, death, and decay, he is famous for employing ready-interpreted symbolism encompassing fetishes, animal imagery, and religious symbols.
Featured images: Salvadro Dali, via Marc Riboud; Salvadro Dali – The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Leonora Carrington - The Artist of Remarkable Individuality
Leonora Carrington is regarded as a both a key figure in the Surrealist movement and the artist of remarkable individuality. Just like other Surrealists, she was interested in the unconscious mind and dream imagery. Her art is characterized by dreamlike and fantastical compositions of fantastical creatures. Creating otherworldly settings, she employed a highly personal symbolism that she preferred not to explain. Exploring the idea of sexual identity, she rejected the frequent Surrealist stereotypes that depicted women as objects od desire. Depicting fantastic beasts and having themes of metamorphosis, identity, and magic as recurring, she blends various cultural influences such as Celtic literature, Renaissance painting, Central American folk art, medieval alchemy, and Jungian psychology.