Surrealism, artistic and literary movement that explored and celebrated the realm of dreams and the unconscious mind through the creation of visual art, poetry, and motion pictures. Surrealism was officially launched in Paris, France, in 1924, when French writer André Breton wrote the first surrealist manifesto, outlining the ambitions of the new movement. (Breton published two more surrealist manifestoes, in 1930 and 1942.) The movement soon spread to other parts of Europe and to North and South America. Among surrealism's most important contributions was the invention of new artistic techniques that tapped into the artist's unconscious mind.


Surrealism, in many respects, was an offshoot of an earlier art movement known as dada, which was founded during World War I (1914-1918). Disillusioned by the massive destruction and loss of life brought about by the war, the dadaists' motivations were profoundly political: to ridicule culture, reason, technology, even art. They believed that any faith in humanity's ability to improve itself through art and culture, especially after the unprecedented destruction of the war, was naive and unrealistic. As a result, the dadaists created works using accident, chance, and anything that underscored the irrationality of humanity: for example, making poems out of pieces of newspaper chosen at random, speaking nonsensical syllables out loud, and displaying everyday objects as art. The surrealist program grew out of dada, but it put a more positive spin on dada's essentially negative message.

The surrealists were heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. They were especially receptive to his distinction between the ego and the id - that is, between our primal instincts and desires (the id) and our more civilized and rational patterns of behavior (the ego). Since our primal urges and desires frequently run afoul of social expectations, Freud concluded that we repress our real desires into the unconscious part of our minds. For individuals to enjoy psychological health, he felt, they must bring these desires to the awareness of the conscious mind. Freud believed that despite the overwhelming urge to repress desires, the unconscious still reveals itself - particularly when the conscious mind relaxes its hold - in dreams, myths, odd patterns of behavior, slips of the tongue, accidents, and art. In seeking to gain access to the unconscious, the surrealists invented radical new art forms and techniques.


Dreams, according to Freud, were the royal road to studying the unconscious, because it is in dreams that our unconscious, primal desires manifest themselves. The incongruities in dreams, Freud believed, result from a struggle for dominance of ego and id. In attempting to access the real workings of the mind, many surrealists sought to approximate the nonsensical quality of dreams. Chief among these artists were Salvador Dali from Spain, and René Magritte and Paul Delvaux from Belgium.

To suggest the irrational quality of the dream state - and at times, to shock their audience as well - many surrealist painters used realistic representation, but juxtaposed objects and images in irrational ways. In Magritte's Pleasure (1927, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany), for example, a young girl devours living birds with her bare teeth. The work underscores the cruelty of human nature, while playing upon the incongruity between title and image. In Dali 's Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut) a fruit dish appears as a face, a bridge as a dog's collar, and a beach as a table cloth, depending on what the spectator focuses upon.

Dali also experimented with motion pictures, which offered the possibility of cutting, superimposing, blending, or otherwise manipulating images to create jarring juxtapositions. In films such as Un chien Andalou (An Adalusian Dog, 1929) and L'age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930), both collaborations with Spanish motion-picture director Luis Buñuel, these devices were used in addition to irrational plot sequences and development.

The metamorphosis of one object into another, popular with surrealist painters and filmmakers, was a device also used by surrealist sculptors. Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim lined a teacup, saucer, and spoon with fur in Object (Breakfast in Fur) (1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), leading the spectator to imagine the disconcerting sensation of drinking from such a cup.

Many surrealists became fascinated with mythology. According to Freud, myths revealed psychological fixations and desires that were latent in every human being. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung went on to argue that myths, regardless of their time period or geographic origin, displayed remarkable similarities. He explained these similarities through the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, a layer of the psyche that all of humanity somehow shares. Just as dreams displayed irrational images that revealed the psychology of the dreamer, myths revealed the psychology of all humanity.

In Dali 's painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1934, Tate Gallery, London, England), the artist refers to the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, in which a young man fell in love with his own reflection and was transformed into a beautiful flower. Greek myths interested the surrealists because metamorphosis (changing from one form into another) is their most recurrent theme. Similarly, in Dali 's painting, what at first looks like the body of a man can, seen another way, become an image of a hand holding an egg.

Myth also appealed to the surrealists because of its importance to non-Western cultures. In the Freudian view, Western civilization was in danger of divorcing humanity from its primal nature. It was widely believed that non-Western cultures were more in tune with nature and primal forces - forces that were expressed through these cultures' myths and art. One surrealist who borrowed from African art was Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. In creating Spoon Woman (1926, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), in which a spoon also resembles a rounded female form, Giacometti was influenced by the Dan people of Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, whose spoons and ladles also played on similarities to the human form.


One strategy the surrealists used to elicit imagery from the unconscious is called the "Exquisite Corpse." In this collaborative art form, a piece of paper was folded in four, and four different artists contributed to the representation of a figure without seeing the other artists' contributions. The first drew the head, folded the paper over and passed it on to the next, who drew the torso; the third drew the legs, and the fourth, the feet. The artists then unfolded the paper to study and interpret the combined figure.

Max Ernst, a German surrealist, invented another technique that used chance and accident: frottage (French for "rubbing"). By placing pieces of rough wood or metal underneath a canvas and then painting or penciling over the top, the artist transferred the textures of the underlying surfaces onto the finished work. In Laocoön, Father and Sons (1926, Menil Collection, Houston, Texas), Ernst incorporated chance textures through frottage, while also referring to the Greek myth of Laocoön, a Trojan priest who struggled with giant pythons.

Perhaps the most important technique used by the surrealists to elicit the unconscious is automatism. In painting, automatism consisted of allowing the hand to wander across the canvas surface without any interference from the conscious mind. The resulting marks, it was thought, would not be random or meaningless, but would be guided at every point by the functioning of the artist's unconscious mind, and not by rational thought or artistic training. In The Kill (1944, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), French painter André Masson implemented this technique, but he then used the improvised marks as a basis for elaboration. Whatever bore a resemblance to an actual object (in this case, a face or body part), he refined to make the connection more apparent. Because Masson had not determined the subject matter of the painting beforehand, the surrealists claimed that his later elaborations were motivated purely by his emotional state during the act of creation.

Another artist who employed automatism was Spanish painter Joan Miro. In Birth of the World (1925, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), for example, he applied pigment randomly to the canvas and allowed the paint to run across the surface by means of gravity, creating a host of effects that he could not have predicted in advance. As with Masson, the second stage of the painting was more deliberate and calculated. The artist may have contemplated the stains on the canvas for a time and, inspired by the forms or meanings they suggested, added a number of curving, abstract shapes that evoke living beings. The title Birth of the World suggests a world created from nothing but also represents the birth of consciousness through the act of painting.

Some surrealists, including Ernst, Yves Tanguy from France, and Roberto Matta from Chile, used a combination of techniques to suggest a dream state or to produce an abstract vocabulary of forms. They are therefore difficult to pigeonhole in a single category. In Matta's The Unknowing (1951, Museum of Modern Art, Vienna, Austria) for example, the artist has created a three-dimensional space and objects that look solid. The objects, however, are so ambiguous that viewers can view them in any number of ways and impose their own interpretations on the painting.


Although surrealism has had its most lasting impact in visual art, it began as a literary movement. According to André Breton, the first surrealist work was Les champs magnétiques (1920; The Magnetic Fields, 1985), a collection of automatist writings that he produced in collaboration with French writer Philippe Soupault. Other important surrealist writers include Frenchmen Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau (who also made surrealist films), and Paul Éluard. Some surrealist writers produced accounts of dreams and, like surrealist painters, turned to automatism to access the unconscious. In automatist writing the surrealists allowed their thoughts to flow freely onto the page without attempting to edit or organize them. The resulting stream of words was often difficult to follow. Like surrealist painters, these writers later modified the pure automatism of their early efforts by editing, often with a deliberate emphasis on symbolic imagery.

The surrealist writers revived interest in two 19th-century French poets whose work seemed to anticipate that of the surrealists: Arthur Rimbaud and Isidore Ducasse, whose pen name was Le Comte de Lautréamont. Breton adopted Lautréamont's phrase "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," as an example of the shocking, incongruous beauty that the surrealists hoped to reveal.


Surrealism ranks among the most important and influential European art movements of the first half of the 20th century. Many surrealists, including Breton, Masson, Ernst, and Matta, spent time in the United States during World War II (1939-1945). Their presence proved pivotal to the artistic development of the American abstract expressionist painters, particularly to the work of Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. Surrealism also had a lasting influence on the art of Latin America (see Latin American Painting), in the works of artists such as Frida Kahlo of Mexico and Wifredo Lam of Cuba.

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