Browse All Surrealist Artists Browse All Surrealist Paintings

Surrealism is an artistic movement that emerged in France and was prompted by a group of poets and artists, leaded by poet Andre Breton (1896 – 1966). It was shaped up first of all in literature and then was absorbed by artists, cinematographers and others.

It’s believed that the term “surrealism” (“above reality”) was introduced by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917, who defined his play “The Breasts of Tiresias” as surrealistic drama. “Litterature” magazine, established by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, was the mouthpiece of the movement, close to Dadaism, born in Zurich in 1916. Dadaists were headed by Tristan Tzara, who popularized rejection of aesthetical, cultural and social values. Scandalousness and strive for unrestricted freedom was te common ground of both movements. After the day of Dada, Tzara, Breton and Soupault shifted to surrealism.

In 1919 the poem “Magnetic fields” was published. It was created by Breton in cooperation with Soupault. They were created using the method of automatic writing of thoughts and associations, without any corrections and punctuation marks. In 1924 Andre Breton wrote “Manifesto of Surrealism”, calling his colleagues to withdraw of vulgar stereotypes and talking about applying of subconscious ideas and combining dreams and reality. The same year 1924 poet Yvan Goll undertook an attempt to form a vanguard school around the only published issue of “Surrealism” magazine.

Originated in the atmosphere of disappointment so characteristic for French society after World War I, Surrealism took the form of all-embracing protest against cultural, social and political values. The surrealistic canon is formulated in the tripartite motto “Love, beauty, rebellion”. “‘Transform the world,’ said Marx. ‘Change life,’ said Rimbaud. For us these two commands are one and the same”.

Surrealism and philosophy

In the philosophical aspect, surrealism is defined by irrationalism and subjectivism, referring to the works of Berkley, Cant, Nietzsche, Bergson and other prominent thinkers, particularly Hegel.

Surrealists revealed a great interest in alchemy and other occult sciences. The decisive influence on the movement was caused by psychoanalysis of Freud, paradoxically mixed with legacy of de Sade, considered by surrealists a predecessor of Freudianism. Freud claimed that our dreams consist of images, thoughts, memories and desires, produced in subconsciousness, where they had been ousted as inappropriate by our reason, logic and morality. Surrealists draw inspiration from this world, not neglecting the lowest instincts like aggression, violence, sex etc. Anyway, they had some precursors like Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya, who had created not least stunning pieces in their own time. Boundless reality, not subjected by ant laws and rules, reality of subconsciousness had more chances for existence then all-negating movement of Dada, similar to the youthful maximalism.

Using concepts, subjects and samples of Freudian psychoanalysis, surrealists developed their own poetic-therapeutic or anti-therapeutic method, kind of “alternative psychoanalysis”. In “Manifesto of surrealism” Breton formulated a canonic definition of Surrealism as “Pure psychic automatism, by which one seeks to express, be it verbally, in writing, or in any other manner, (is) the real working of the mind. Dictated by the unconsciousness, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, and free from aesthetic or moral preoccupations. […] Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life”.

Painting of Surrealism

In painting surrealism was represented by some outstanding artists. The brightest one was Salvador Dali, who proclaimed “The surrealism is me”. His works were executed in academic manner, meticulously painted and naturalistic, but all objects were shown as an origination of a delirious conscious. In 1929 the first surrealistic film “Un Chien Andalou” (“An Andalusian Dog”) directed by Dali and Luis Buñuel, was demonstrated for the first time. The same year Dali was accepted to the circle of surrealists. In 1930s he elaborated on the base of psychoanalysis his own paranoiac-critical method that lies in systematization and control of a certain type of hallucination, which could serve as a source of inspiration for an artist. Dali was self-sufficient, eccentric and scandalous – he was even expelled from the surrealistic society in 1939 for his political views and behavior.

Rene Magritte saw Surrealism as paradoxical combination of absolutely real things. Titles of the canvases are important for understanding them, as they’re involved in complicated associative connections between word and picture. The artist often underlined that image of an object wasn’t equal to the existing one. His paintings are metaphysical, poetic and always surprising.

Joan Miro was often associated with surrealists, never officially recognized himself as one of them. Nevertheless, he closely collaborated with them and participated in their exhibitions. His pieces are more similar to abstract surrealism then pure surrealism.

Another artist, who is known as surrealist in history of art, was Giorgio Chirico. He joined the movement in 1924, but just in two years was harshly criticized by its ideologists for new paintings. In 1929 Chirico decided to came apart from Surrealism because of creative controversies. Anyway, in his legacy, he called “metaphysical” master continued the surrealistic break with logical explanation of life.

Aesthetic principles and methods of surrealism

So, aspiration for absolute freedom was brought by former Dadaists to new, more well-sensible movement – Surrealism. If Dadaism had merely repudiated aesthetical, moral and social virtues, being a sort of anarchism in the artistic world, Surrealism had ideological background and argumentation.

Surrealists paid a lot of attention to primitive art – many of them collected “primeval objects” of indigenous peoples of America, Indonesia, Oceania (and keeping interest in so beloved by cubists African art), contributing to progress of anthropology in 1930s – 1950s. The art itself was considered to be mythological: along with wide usage and imitating of already existing myths (Celtic, Indians and others), including literary ones (biblical myths, William Tell, Oedipus etc.), Surrealism is defined by creating its own myths. This feature flourished in 1930s, when Andre Breton perceived creating a “new mythology” (in social meaning, of course) as an instrument of fighting against fascist myths and propaganda. One of the ways surrealists applied was mythologization of motifs and some personages of contemporaneity, scientific of artistic works of “forestalls”: mannequins, top hats, smoking pipes and so on and so forth; Nietzsche, Mussolini, Rimbaud, Freud, Trotsky, etc.; personages of de Sade, Lautreamont, Appolinaire, Lacan. Another way is expanding and deepening of metaphor, imitation of myth beyond the mythological mentality.

Dreams, hallucinations, ravings gave Surrealists material for their projects. Masters tried to unite two existing worlds – the world of subconsciousness and of reality. Their favorite method was automatism, often during collective hypnosis, when mind wasn’t in control of the process. Painters often started working immediately after waking up, while reason and logic couldn’t impede them.

Max Ernst suggested a peculiar technique, called frottage (from French frotter – “to rub”) – a shit of paper was put on a textured surface and then rubbed over with a pencil or pastel. As a result, an artist got random and unexpected drawing, which could serve as a base for further refinement. Surrealists knew other techniques of random drawing – smoking with candle that left spots on paper, as well as spots of ink.

Sometimes they even used games to produce a collective creation – “exquisite cadaver”. Players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to show only part of the phrase or drawing, and then pass it to the next player for further completing. Consequently a strange phrases resulted, like “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” (“The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine”) or “The oyster from Senegal shall eat the tricolored bread”.

Decay of the movement

World War II had a noticeable impact on the history of Surrealism, as many of its representatives were forced to shelter in the USA, where they got some admirers, mainly due to the talent of Salvador Dali. However, after returning to Paris the movement never reached the flourishing of the past years, yet Andre Breton repeated till the end of his days Surrealism managed to hold out. Specialists consider 1969 to be the ultimate year of the movement, tough its influence can be traced even nowadays.

Random Surrealist Artists

Joan Miró

Joan Miro


Alberto Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti


Paul Klee

Paul Klee


René Magritte


Random Surrealist Paintings

Southern Gardens
A Pressure of Tegernsee
Alfa Morphology
One Night Museum
Maloja Landscape the Lake and the Maloja Palace
City of Churches
The End of Contemplation

Latest Articles

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: Synthetic Vision

February 15, 2016

There is a type of artists, whose legacy, despite being deeply national, embodies the highest achievements of European fine […]


Auguste Rodin: Embodied Passion

February 14, 2016

We would like to celebrate this special day – St. Valentine’s Day – with a selection of the works by […]


William Blake: Unrecognised Genius

February 12, 2016

Sadly but History of art is full of personalities who were deprived of the appreciation they deserved during […]


The birth of Photography: William Talbot

February 11, 2016

William Henry Fox Talbot, English inventor of photographic processes, was bon on this day in 1800. A man […]