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Surrealism was a movement in literature and the visual arts that began in Paris around 1920 and lasted approximately until the 1940s. Initially it arose from avant-garde Marxist circles, heavily influenced by Freudianism, and it promised a total revolution in the human mind and the world, by unlocking the unconscious, which Freud had recently popularised as an idea.[1][2]

In academic art history it never matched the popularity of rival movements like Cubism or Dada, but its most famous artist Salvador Dali became a household name (despite accusations of fascism). Also contrary to its Marxist roots, the movement was distinguished by many skilled self-publicists, from Andre Breton to Dali. Since its heyday Surrealism has been enormously influential in commercial and fine art, and many of its figures have recently been reappraised by feminist theorists (not always positively).

Regardless of its aesthetic merit, it also involved a lot of eccentric ideas about the human mind, creativity, art, and politics. It formed the first major attempt to take the full insanity of Sigmund Freud and construct a complete artistic and political theory on top. In its attempts to unify Freud and Marx it prefigures the New Left of the 1950s and '60s, while being a lot more fun and funny, and way sexier.

Ideology and politics[edit]

TODO: Lots more, with quotes from Breton etc

The early Parisian Surrealists were Marxist radicals who wanted to change the world through their art, heavily influenced by Dadaism and Futurism, both of which placed as much emphasis on manifestos and public declarations as they did on actual art (Dada in particular was heavily associated with stunts and outrageous cabaret performances, delivered initially to the students and draft-dodgers of Zurich). But while the Dadaists and Futurists wanted primarily to upset the middle classes, destroy everything old, and maybe create something anew as an afterthought, Surrealism drew on Freud as well as Marx and (mostly) had a more positive vision of creating self-expressive individuals free of sexual repression. The means to this was to find new ways of unlocking human creativity and freeing the mind from ritual and routine.

As with most attempts at free love and uninhibited self-expression, this does skate over the question of whether a little self control isn't a good thing, particularly when it comes to social organisation.

Main techniques[edit]

Automatic writing and drawing[edit]

In its early years, automatic writing in particular was considered the key surrealist practice.[3] One of the main ideas in surrealism was that human creativity could best be unlocked by avoiding all conscious thought and relying on chance to create art. This would allow thoughts hidden deep in the unconscious to come to the surface.[4] This would combat traditional social structures, overcome the destructive power of sexual repression, and revolutionise society by maximising creativity and liberty.

In theory, this drew heavily on Freudian psychoanalysis, both in Freud's own writings on society, and his disciples such as Wilhelm Reich.

The unconscious was brought to mind through methods such as:

  • Automatic writing - Don't think about what you're writing, just let it all come out. For added bonus points, take lots of drugs. In practice, different writers used different levels of self control, and the results vary between unreadable burbling and the mildly quirky.
  • Automatic drawing - Similar to automatic writing: let your pen run over the paper and go where it may. The results were typically even more boring than automatic writing, though Joan Miro seemed to use it as a starting point for some of his art.
  • Corps exquis - A children's game where one person draws a head and folds over the paper so you can only see the neck, and hands it to the next person who draws the body, etc. Although some of the results were funny, it never really went beyond being a game.


Random or aleatory art uses chance as a part of the creative process.[5] The idea of randomness drew on Dadaist artists and writers such as Hans (Jean) Arp, who made works by throwing paper in the air, and Tristan Tzara, who wrote poems by drawing words from a bag. As well as automatic writing which is never truly random, a variety of other techniques existed. Frottage involved transferring ink from a rough surface onto paper, producing interesting abstract shapes, which were then worked up by the likes of Max Ernst into strange landscapes. In fact, the main method of landscape painters has always been to find and depict interesting forms created by erosion, wind, volcanism, plate tectonics, and where seeds happen to fall, so this method is not as big a departure as it seems.

Going for a walk[edit]

TODO: Better refs

Another way of achieving randomness, Andre Breton borrowed from 19th century writers such as Baudelaire the idea of wandering aimlessly through Paris, noting down details you stumble upon, and so attempting to experience the city directly. This formed a large part of works such as Breton's novel Nadja and inspired Situationist practice, which led to the later artistic (and pseudo-intellectual) discipline of psychogeography.[6]

Since writing about your walk involves using significant amounts of artistic sensibility to mediate random wanderings, it produces a more interesting output than pure randomness. Although it's still not going to produce novels rich in satisfying plots and complex characters. More recent followers of psychogeography are fond of asserting its political radicalism and ability to overcome social division and combat social exclusion, but that's another debate.


The chief method of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, and what most people today associate with Surrealism, this involved producing strange collisions of objects in the hope of unsettling the viewer and producing new associations.[7][8] Breton quoted Lautreamont's reference to "the surprising encounter between an operating table, a sewing machine and an umbrella". Hence lobster telephones, apple faces, and fish everywhere. Again, randomness could be involved, but often objects were carefully chosen. At its best, surrealist juxtaposition not only reveals the unexpected beauty in everyday objects we seldom look at closely, but also shows the violence and/or sexuality inherent in the same objects (which may reflect the mind of the designer or the mechanisms of industrial/commercial society). At its worst, it goes for the easy joke of putting fish in inappropriate pla(i)ces.

Appropriation and found objects[edit]

The use of non-art or earlier art objects in artworks, AppropriationWikipedia is a lesser Surrealist thread, taken from Dada and Cubism such that it can be hard to clearly differentiate between them. Breton was one of several surrealists to work with found objects, making suggestive Joseph Cornell-style boxes. The master was Marcel Duchamp, who is generally classed as a Dadaist but whose work had much in common with Surrealism.[9]

Main figures[edit]

TODO: Delete those who're not important for ideology/political reasons

Surrealism attracted a mix of ideologues like Breton, keen followers, and more distantly related artists (Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte) who may have pursued similar styles without ever buying into the intellectual framework.

André BretonWikipedia - predominantly a writer rather an artist, he was a skilled producer of manifestos. Breton's greatest work was perhaps the novel Nadja (1928), which recounts the largely true story of a short love affair that ended up with the woman in a mental hospital after Breton grew bored with her. This illustrates how most male artists are are basically shits towards women. He is known for provocative quotes like "The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly." Although this seems to reflect the old anarchist idea of propaganda of the deedWikipedia rather than anything particularly surreal.

Man RayWikipedia - a failed American post-impressionist painter who turned to photography, he produced some extraordinarily beautiful (and sexy) images and films, often in conjunction with collaborators such as Lee Miller.

Lee MillerWikipedia - an American woman photographer who was in Paris in the 1920s, her career ran from high art to war photography to Home and Gardens magazine-type images, but she has only recently got full credit for her work. Her husband Roland Penrose was also a minor surrealist artist, collector, and art historian, writing the standard biography of Pablo Picasso.

Pablo PicassoWikipedia - never quite a card-carrying surrealist, he still moved in similar radical-leftist circles and in the enormous variety of his art there are strong surrealist elements.

Max ErnstWikipedia - like Man Ray, Ernst moved from Dadaism to Surrealism. His work ranged from semi-abstract collages to grotesque landscapes and enigmatic pictures of women and men, often with his birdlike alter-ego Loplop. Whether you like rough work that looks like a bored kid threw it together in five minutes, or fully realised fantastical worlds, he did great stuff.

Joan MiroWikipedia - sometimes dull geometric work, often partly generated by stochastic procedures. See also Yves Tanguy.

Luis BunuelWikipedia - the master of Surrealist film, early short films such as Un Chien Andalou were deeply unsettling, mixing sex, violence, religion, and everyday life, and set the template for experimental motion pictures ever since. He had one of the longest careers of any Surrealist, still producing critically-acclaimed and disturbing work in the 1970s.

Paul DelvauxWikipedia - his main subject was naked women surrounded by picturesque ruins, plants, and bodies of water. This was the sort of Surrealist art that your dad would appreciate, but he was also J.G. Ballard's favourite artist. His cityscapes show the influence of Italian proto-surrealist Giorgio de ChiricoWikipedia.

Salvador DaliWikipedia - he turned Surrealism from an artistic movement into a brand, with his big mustache and works such as The Persistence of MemoryWikipedia (floppy clocks); he collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock and leading designers. He claimed Moorish descent, and his ancestors may have included Spanish Muslims who converted to Christianity.[10] He is also known for his fondness for Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, though it's uncertain how much he cared about Franco's politics, and how much he was just being outrageous or homesick after the Spanish Civil War and subsequently protecting himself and his money.[11] He also liked cauliflowers a lot.[12]

Rene MagritteWikipedia - he never bought into the political or psychoanalytical side of surrealism, but his playful, enigmatic images show a definite affinity.

Claude CahunWikipedia - French-born woman photographer, she is notable for her subversion of gender: cross-dressing, adopting a male name, and living with another woman on the Channel Islands, where she led a subversive campaign against the Nazi occupation during World War II.

Dorothea TanningWikipedia - The greatest American surrealist painter, in the 1940s and 1950s she produced a wide range of strange, sinister images that seem to hint at aspects of women's experience.


TODO: Refs

There are two main criticisms of Surrealism. Firstly that it wasn't popular enough, and secondly that it was too popular.

The early work, particularly associated with Paris in the early 1920s, depended heavily on randomness. Without the controlling intelligence of an artist, the results were often not manifestations of any particularly interesting subconscious passion, but dull and disordered, of no more value than any other random pattern on a piece of paper. In contrast with more overtly political art, it didn't seem to say anything. The poetry was particularly bad. It didn't help that in Paris they were more interested in arguments than art: Breton managed to excommunicate more or less everybody from the Surrealist movement by the late 20s; faced with such in-fighting, creative people were less inclined to participate, and soon the more radical and theoretically-minded side of the movement was dead.

Later, Surrealism was attacked for being too easy and pretty, under the influence of Clement Greenberg's critique of "kitsch" commercialised and commoditised art.[13] Surrealist art became popular, with Dali posters on every student wall and Dali museums in every major world city. In part this hostility was because of a general distaste for academic or naturalistic art, which spilled over into a general distaste for obvious signs of skill. Particularly in the aftermath of World War II there was a suspicion of high culture and civilisation as having led to unimaginable evil and destruction: Adorno asked how it was possible to make art at all after Auschwitz.

Rejecting organised society, post-war artists took a new interest in the art of children and the insane. Ironically this drew heavily on earlier Surrealist interests, but the new art was deliberately simplistic and crude, reflecting Dada and some early Surrealist working practices but not mature Surrealism. The highly polished art of Dali or Delvaux was the precise opposite of movements like CoBrA, Jean Dubuffet's art brut, Pollock's abstraction, de Kooning's rough use of paint, or Francis Bacon's hideously distorted forms. Surrealism's growing commercial success only emphasised the idea that it was failing to challenge society - in an era where capitalist society and advertising was linked with the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, and later the Vietnam War.

However, even if art historians may affect disdain for Surrealist poster art, it has remained enormously influential not only in commercial art but in avant-garde artistic practice. Surrealism and Freudianism fed into advertising and back into high culture with Pop Art, which was greatly influenced by the shiny surfaces and odd juxtapositions of the Surrealist movement. British pop art like Allen Jones's woman-shaped chairs copied the sexual charge of Delvaux or Dali, while Andy Warhol yoked violence with mass media reflecting Breton's earlier obsessions. Postmodern art has continued to be interested in pop-cultural superficiality and the dark secrets beneath, working with appropriation and sexually explicit images. Dali's self-promotion has been a model from Warhol and Yves Klein to Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Meanwhile, women surrealists like Miller, Cahun, Tanning, Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, and Leonora Carrington were rediscovered by feminist art historians, who noticed how they played with conventions of gender in a way that's not possible in abstract art.[14][15] Later woman artists like Louise Bourgeois, Francesca Woodman, and Eva Hesse built on this legacy. Even the more sexually violent and misogynistic male Surrealists became objects of renewed interest and analysis.

Surrealism has certainly been part of a general movement away from sexual repression in 20th-century culture, although it's not clear if the idealised women in much classical Surrealist art are any more honest or liberating than the nudes of earlier academic painting. But regardless of the merits of some of its art, Surrealism has certainly succeeded in its goals of encouraging creativity and provoking enormous controversy, even if we don't quite live in a Marxist utopia yet.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Surrealism.
  2. "Surrealism", The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms (2 ed.), Michael Clarke and Deborah Clarke, 2010
  3. Katherine Shingler, "Review of Surrealism and the Visual Arts: Theory and Reception. By Kim Grant, Cambridge University Press", Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies
  4. "Automatism", The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms (2 ed.), Michael Clarke and Deborah Clarke, 2010
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Aleatoricism.
  6. Psychogeography, Tate Gallery
  7. "The Real Functioning of the Mind": Surrealism, Radford
  8. Elements of Chance, Tate
  9. "Marcel Duchamp", A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art (3 ed.), John Glaves-Smith and Ian Chilvers, Oxford University Press, 2016
  10. The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali, Ian Gibson, New York Times, 1997
  11. Salvador Dali, Fascist, Vincente Navarro, Counterpunch, 6 December 2003
  12. Salvador Dalí: 11 things you didn't know, The Daily Telegraph, 2014
  13. A Vernacular Vanguard: Surrealism and the Making of American Art History, Sandra R Zalman, thesis, ProQuest, 2008
  14. Women artists and Surrealism, Sue Gilbert, The F Word, 2010
  15. “The Problem of Woman”: Female Surrealists and their Unique Brand of Mystery, Sothebys, 2014