All You Need to Know About the Surrealist Movement

December 4, 2016

Perhaps it is unfair to compare the ideas of the entire Surrealist movement with the eccentricity of its one member such as Salvador Dalí, but what they do have in common is the absurdity, the outlandish perplexing ideas, the illogical and irrational look at the world. Think of Dalí’s famous appearance in a full deep-sea diving suit, which almost got him killed as his suffocating in it appeared to be a part of a Surrealist performance to everyone present, or his Rolls Royce full of cauliflowers, which reflected on his fascination with their shape. Of course, not all of Surrealist artists were as strange and bizarre as him, in person or their work, but they all looked to achieve subconscious creativity with photographic precision, following the ideologies of Surrealism as one of the most influential cultural, artistic and literary movements of the 20th century. Its long-lasting legacy and the impact on art, as well as multiple spheres of life such as philosophy, social theory, and political thought and practice, can still be widely felt today.

surrealism was influenced by dada and it influenced abstract tendencies
Artists in Exile group photo of Surrealists, New York, 1942. Left to right, first row: Stanley William Hayter, Leonora Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann; second row: Max Ernst, Amédée Ozenfant, André Breton, Fernand Léger, Berenice Abbott; third row: Jimmy Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian. Image via

What is Surrealism ? Origins and History

Conceived between two world wars by writer André Breton, the Surrealist movement draws its name from the phrase Drama surrealiste, the subtitle of a 1917 play by art critic Guillaume Apollinaire. It was influenced by a number of factors which shaped its becoming of the phenomenon as we know it today: Breton introduced his ideas of a former member of Dada and a dedicated Marxist, while the Surrealists themselves culled their inspiration from the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly his book The Interpretation of Dreams from 1899, and the disagreement with the Enlightenment, a 17th and 18th century intellectual movement which promoted reason in art[1]. Another important and immediate influence was Giorgio de Chirico and his pittura metafisica, which proposed bizarre imagery with unsettling juxtapositions, as well as the fantastical art of Giuseppe Archimboldo and Hieronymous Bosch, which defied the aesthetics of the Renaissance era. If Dadaism was overtly political, Surrealism focused on a more positive philosophy, giving power to the unconscious mind and dreams, rather than reality as the mainstream art channels proposed it.

surrealists were influenced by dada and have subsequently influenced abstract art
André Breton, by Ida Kar, 1960. National Portrait Gallery

Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism

The Surrealist movement was one of the last to be linked to the École de Paris, from which it officially spread after André Breton’s first Surrealism manifesto in 1924 - the Manifeste du Surrealisme. From then on, he was referred to as “the Pope of Surrealism”, and his movement was considered a revolutionary one. In fact, Breton aimed to change the way people think, to liberate them from the imposed rational order. The unconscious was to be liberated and dominant, taking over logic and reason that have, in Breton’s opinion, done nothing good for the society. Alongside the manifesto, Breton also founded the Bureau of Surrealist research, as well as the infamous journal called La Révolution Surréaliste, which was published until 1929. While the Bureau conducted interviews at Parisian cafés and gathered information related to the expression of the unconscious activity of the mind, the manifesto proposed ”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. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”[2]

The Surrealist Manifesto of André Breton, 1924 - Audiobook

A Worldwide Influence

Although Surrealism started off in Paris, as the center of avant-garde art of the last century, it was quickly accepted and practiced across the continent. During the 1930s, major Surrealist shows were opening in Brussels, Copenhagen, London and New York, resulting in the creation of local, individual scenes. Apart from becoming popular in countries like Czechoslovakia, Egypt, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania and Hungary, for instance, it was perhaps most notable in Britain and the Americas. On the island, Surrealism was embraced by sculptor Henry Moore and painters like Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Paul Nash and Conroy Maddox. Prior to World War II, the movement was transferred across the ocean, particularly to the United States and Mexico. In the US, the automatic practices left a mark on Jackson Pollock, who began practicing Action Painting, while in Mexico, Frida Kahlo adopted the approach for her highly personal, painful art.

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one of the most famous surrealists was dalí who also lived in paris
André Masson - Battle of Fishes, 1926. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Surrealist Techniques in Visual Art

Over the years, two main stylistic trends emerged within the Surrealist movement. One of them was abstract: it was the imagery based on shapes and forms that didn’t refer to nature and that were generated by the unconscious mind, perhaps even completely randomly. The other was representational: with a strong tie to figuration, these artworks were created with impressive precision and depicted realistic objects that were dislocated, transposed, mutated, juxtaposed to evoke a dream-like quality[3]. In Surrealist paintings, as one of the most represented techniques within Surrealism, the distinction between these two trends is perhaps the most notable, if we compare Dali paintings to the ones of Tanguy, for instance. Color was also important and it was almost always emphasized by saturation. Some of the works were also on the border between Hyperrealism and Automatism, or even combined the two for optimal results.

Another great field within Surrealism was the Surrealism photography, with Man Ray as the leading artist. It allowed the production of uncanny imagery through darkroom techniques such as double exposure, combination printing, montage and solarization, eventually leading to the creation of photographs which excluded the use of the camera entirely. Because the movement had a big impact on all visual arts, today we can talk about numerous Surrealist objects and sculptures too, which were “defamiliarized”, modified in context, combined with each other to create unexpected scenarios. Surrealism also brought the mediums of frottage, decalcomania and grattage, all invented by Max Ernst, as well as great contributions to collage and fumage[4].

like dada, surrealism artist also worked in paris
Left: Yves Tanguy - Mama, Papa is Wounded!, 1927. Museum of Modern Art, New York / Right: Man Ray - Mannequin, 1938. National Gallery of Australia

The Prominent Artists of the Surrealist Movement

Because nothing was more popular than Surrealism during the 1920s and 1930s, almost all famous painters of the time produced surrealist works. Naturally, many Dadaist artists were also there, such as Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, even Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara. The group around founder André Breton grew constantly since its inception, including many writers and literary figures, film and video makers, and others like painters Joan Mirò and Yves Tanguy, and sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Meret Oppenheim. The group was hard to enter, as Breton was rigorous about his admittance of new members; some members were even kicked out at some point, for not sharing his visions anymore. Of course, figures like René Magritte, Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dalí were influential on an international scale, being the strongest representatives of the movement even today. In that carefully selected group, we can also count a number of female Surrealists like Dorothea Tanning, Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois.

one of the most famous surrealists was artist dali, whose works can be seen in paris
Left: Dorothea Tanning - Birthday, 1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art / Right: Frida Kahlo - Self Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, Mexico City

The Influence and Legacy

As one of the most important movements of the 20th century art, Surrealism was highly influential on a number of avant-gardes and a variety of modern and contemporary techniques, styles and artists. Its official end came with the death of André Breton in 1966, but its practice went on to be found in Abstract Expressionism, Pop art and Conceptualism, most notably. The idea of chance in art was adopted by Performance art and the Happenings of the 1950s and 60s, reaching even Computer art based on randomization. Later on, its elements could be found in Situationism, the Feminist movement, the hyperrealistic sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, the Chinese Cynical Realism, punk projects and the work of the Young British Artists… Indeed, the Surrealist intent to liberate expressive form, to release the world of the subconscious, of dreams and nightmares, paranoia, suppressed eroticism, and the dark side of the mind, continues to fascinate the world almost a century after it was born, creating an enduring and ever-lasting legacy.

 dada surrealists surrealism artist Editors’ Tip: History of the Surrealist Movement

From Dada to the Automatists, and from Max Ernst to André Breton, Gérard Durozoi here provides the most comprehensive history of the Surrealist movement. Tracing the movement from its origins in the 1920s to its decline in the 1950s and 1960s, Durozoi tells the history of Surrealism through its activities, publications, and reviews, demonstrating its close ties to some of the most explosive political, as well as creative, debates of the twentieth century. Drawing on a staggering amount of documentary and visual evidence - including 1,000 photos - Durozoi illuminates all the intellectual and artistic facets of the movement, from literature and philosophy to painting, photography, and film, thus making History of the Surrealist Movement its definitive encyclopedia.


  1. Caws, M. A., Surrealism, Phaidon Press 2010
  2. Breton, A., Manifestoes of Surrealism, University of Michigan Press 1969
  3. Bataille, G., The Absence of Mutu: Writings on Surrealism, Verso 2006
  4. Ades, D., Richardson, M., Fijalkowski, K., The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology of Ideas, University of Chicago Press 2016


Featured images in slider: René Magritte - This is not a pipe (The Treachery of Images), 1928–29. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Alberto Giacometti - Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932 (cast 1949). Museum of Modern Art, New York; Joan Miró - Harlequin's Carnival, 1924. Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Max Ernst - L'Ange du Foyer, 1937. Private collection; Salvador Dalí - Lobster Telephone, 1936. Fundació Gala- Dali; The Accommodations of Desire, 1929. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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