"Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life."
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Giorgio de Chirico Signature
"Surrealism is based on the belief .. in the omnipotence of dreams, in the undirected play of thought."
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André Breton - Manifesto of Surrealism
"Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality."
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André Breton Signature
"Knowing how to look is a way of inventing."
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Salvador Dalí Signature
"Art is the fatal net which catches these strange moments on the wing like mysterious butterflies, fleeing the innocence and distraction of common men."
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Giorgio de Chirico Signature
"Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them."
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Max Ernst Signature
"Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."
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René Magritte Signature
"Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist."
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René Magritte Signature
"The works must be conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness."
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Joan Miró Signature
"Nature does not create works of art. It is we, and the faculty of interpretation peculiar to the human mind, that see art."
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Man Ray Signature
"I would photograph an idea rather than an object, a dream rather than an idea."
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Man Ray Signature
"If we had to obey the decrees laid down by the Surrealist group, there would be virtually no Surrealist photography or even any genuinely Surrealist films, but Surrealism is not a theorem"
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Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."
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Salvador Dalí Signature
"Surrealism had a great effect on me because then I realized that the imagery in my mind wasn't insanity. Surrealism to me is reality."
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John Lennon
"[the contribution was in their determination] to tap the creative and imaginative forces of the mind at their source in the unconscious and, through the increase in self-knowledge achieved by confronting people by their real nature, to change society."
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Simon Wilson, from preface to Dalí exhibition at Tate Gallery, London, 1980
"Contrary to prevalent misdefinitions, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine, nor a philosophical system, nor a mere literary or artistic school. It is an unrelenting revolt against a civilization that reduces all human aspirations to market values, religious impostures, universal boredom and misery."
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Franklin Rosemont, from André Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism
"Putting psychic life in the service of revolutionary politics, Surrealism publicly challenged vanguard modernism's insistence on 'art for art's sake.' But Surrealism also battled the social institutions - church, state, and family - that regulate the place of women within patriarchy. In offering some women their first locus for artistic and social resistance, it became the first modernist movement in which a group of women could explore female subjectivity and give form (however tentatively) to a feminine imaginary."
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Whitney Chadwick, from Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation

Summary of Surrealism

The Surrealists sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Disdaining rationalism and literary realism, and powerfully influenced by psychoanalysis, the Surrealists believed the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighing it down with taboos. Influenced also by Karl Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution. Their emphasis on the power of personal imagination puts them in the tradition of Romanticism, but unlike their forebears, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life. The Surrealist impulse to tap the unconscious mind, and their interests in myth and primitivism, went on to shape many later movements, and the style remains influential to this today.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • André Breton defined Surrealism 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." What Breton is proposing is that artists bypass reason and rationality by accessing their unconscious mind. In practice, these techniques became known as automatism or automatic writing, which allowed artists to forgo conscious thought and embrace chance when creating art.
  • The work of Sigmund Freud was profoundly influential for Surrealists, particularly his book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). Freud legitimized the importance of dreams and the unconscious as valid revelations of human emotion and desires; his exposure of the complex and repressed inner worlds of sexuality, desire, and violence provided a theoretical basis for much of Surrealism.
  • Surrealist imagery is probably the most recognizable element of the movement, yet it is also the most elusive to categorize and define. Each artist relied on their own recurring motifs arisen through their dreams or/and unconscious mind. At its basic, the imagery is outlandish, perplexing, and even uncanny, as it is meant to jolt the viewer out of their comforting assumptions. Nature, however, is the most frequent imagery: Max Ernst was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego, Salvador Dalí's works often include ants or eggs, and Joan Miró relied strongly on vague biomorphic imagery.

Overview of Surrealism

Detail of <i>The Persistence of Memory</i> (1931) by Salvador Dalí

Building upon the anti-rationalism of Dada, the Surrealists made powerful art and offered a new direction for exploration, as Max Ernst said: "creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition."

Key Artists

  • André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
  • Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.
  • Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
  • Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
  • The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
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Do Not Miss

  • The objects and sculptures of Surrealism pierced the veil between reality and our more primitive desires, fantasies, taboos. A number of the Surrealists specialized in making three dimensional objects that conjured images and ideas from the primal, subconscious spaces of their psyches.
  • This ground-breaking practice of photography was inspired by Dada's improvisational practices and the Surrealist's foray into the unconscious, dream, and fantasy realms. Many artists contributed various works that ultimately stretched the possibilities of the medium.
  • Surrealist films, an important part of the greater Surrealism movement, explore, reveal, and possibly even replicate the inner-workings of the subconscious mind in a highly visual and accessible manner.
  • Existentialism deals largely with the complexities of individual human emotions, thoughts and responsibilities and the philosophy was widely used by various artist in the arena of modern art.

Important Art and Artists of Surrealism

Carnival of Harlequin (1924-25)

Artist: Joan Miró

Miró created elaborate, fantastical spaces in his paintings that are an excellent example of Surrealism in their reliance on dream-like imagery and their use of biomorphism. Biomorphic shapes are those that resemble organic beings but that are hard to identify as any specific thing; the shapes seem to self-generate, morph, and dance on the canvas. While there is the suggestion of a believable three-dimensional space in Carnaval d'Arlequin, the playful shapes are arranged with an all-over quality that is common to many of Miró's works during his Surrealist period, and that would eventually lead him to further abstraction. Miró was especially known for his use of automatic writing techniques in the creation of his works, particularly doodling or automatic drawing, which is how he began many of his canvases. He is best known for his works such as this that depict chaotic yet lighthearted interior scenes, taking his influence from Dutch 17th-century interiors.

The Human Condition (1933)

Artist: René Magritte

The iconic and enigmatic René Magritte's works tend to be intellectual, often dealing with visual puns and the relation between the representation of something and the thing itself. In The Human Condition a canvas sits on an easel before a curtained window and reproduces exactly the scene outside the window that would be behind the canvas, thus the image on the easel in a sense becomes the scene, not just a reproduction of the landscape. There is in effect no difference between the two as both are fabrications of the artist. The hyperrealist painting style often used by Surrealists makes the odd setup seem dreamlike.

Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)

Artist: Yves Tanguy

The most pivotal moment for Tanguy in his decision to become a painter was his sighting of a canvas by Giorgio de Chirico in a shop window in 1923. The next year, Tanguy, the poet Jacques Prévert, and the actor and screenwriter Marcel Duhamel moved into a house that was to become a gathering place for the Surrealists, a movement he became interested in after reading the periodical La Révolution surréaliste. André Breton welcomed him into the group in 1925. Tanguy was inspired by the biomorphic forms of Jean Arp, Ernst, and Miró, quickly developing his own vocabulary of amoeba-like shapes that populate arid, mysterious settings, no doubt influenced by his youthful travels to Argentina, Brazil, and Tunisia. Despite his lack of formal training, Tanguy's mature style emerged by 1927, characterized by deserted landscapes littered with fantastical rocklike objects painted with a precise illusionism. The works usually have an overcast sky with a view thatseems to stretch endlessly.

Mama, Papa is Wounded depicts Tanguy's most common subject matter of war. The work is painted in a hyperrealist style with his distinctive limited color palette, both of which create a sense of dream-like reality. Tanguy often found the titles of works while looking through psychiatric case histories for compelling statements by patients. Given that, it is difficult to know if this work is relevant to his own family history as he claimed to have imagined the painting in its entirety before he began it. His brother was killed in World War I and the bleakness of the landscape may refer generally to losses suffered in the war by thousands of French families. De Chirico's influence on Tanguy's work is obvious here in his use of falling shadows and a classical torso in the landscape.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Surrealism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Dec 2011. Updated and modified regularly
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