The Movements: Surrealism

Surrealism: The Dictionary of the Subconcious

Nowadays, when the word surrealism is encountered, what more often than not comes to mind even for those well acquainted with art is Spanish artist Salvador Dalí. His piece The Persistence of Memory (1931) has particularly been ingrained in modern-day culture; I think I can even vaguely remember, as a child, a landscape of eerie melting clocks featuring in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Dalí, however, was only one person within a movement that spanned literature, theatre, philosophy and politics alongside visual art, and encompassed the works of many other talented individuals of the twentieth-century such as Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Frida Kahlo, Man Ray and Federico García Lorca.


Beginning in the 1920s, surrealism is said to have been pioneered by French writer André Breton (1896-1966), who was in turn highly influenced by Freud’s work on dream analysis, the Symbolist movement of the nineteenth century, and the revolutionary writings of the time. Its philosophy aimed to drastically change human experience by embracing idiosyncrasy, the unconscious, and juxtaposed realities, but by rejecting the idea of an underlying madness. A circle of surrealist artists and writers soon grew into being, while its “Golden Age”, the 1930s, saw it spread across Europe and America.


Surrealist work often features startling juxtapositions of objects one wouldn’t expect to see together. Aiming to expose psychological truths by stripping these objects of their everyday significance, it assigns them assigning them new ones. They are dreamscapes of the subconscious, yet the forms are familiar and realistic; light and perspective, for example, are often how you would expect them to be. At the same time, it is highly individualistic, aiming to evoke an innate meaning from the viewer’s own subconscious in response to the irrational placement of rational objects.

Surrealist Art

The displacement of objects can vary on the spectrum of realistic versus dreamlike. René Magritte’s works The Son of Man (1964) and The Human Condition (1933), for example, can almost seem like a regular portrait and a still life. A portrait where an apple is suspended in front of a man’s face, and a still-life where the landscape painting on the canvas blends seamlessly into its real-life counterpart in the background. The displaced elements that make it surreal are themselves ordinary or subtly positioned. This plays games with the mind and pushes one to examine the very experience of seeing: in terms of becoming aware of consciously seeing and the seeing one does unconsciously all day – the seeing that eventually manifests itself only in dreams.

On the other hand, surrealist work can be almost entirely in the realm of the unconscious, with only form, light or shape behaving rationally. Yves Tanguy’s The Satin Tuning Fork (1940) for instance, is undoubtedly a landscape of the mind, with abstract forms suspended seemingly randomly on a background that can only be described as somehow soft. Yet the shadows the objects throw onto the background, and the behavior of the light that is hitting them, is coherent and realistic – easily letting us understand these abstract forms are three-dimensional and have reflective surfaces. This surrealism is almost completely in the realm of the unconscious, but assigning meaning to it is just as real and personal an experience.

Evolution and Continuation

Although some art historians and critics insist surrealism more or less “died out” after the Second World War, this isn’t completely true: it has been appropriated to the modern day, rather than come to an abrupt end. Many painters, writers, directors and musicians of the past few decades have produced work that can easily be considered surrealist in style. Stream-of-consciousness song lyrics, such as Bob Dylan’s and The Beatles’; films like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994); and novelists such as Paul Auster all retain the defining aspects of surrealism. Writers of the genre of Magic Realism, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Salman Rushdie, fundamentally retain a close juxtaposition of the real and the dream-like in their work, and can be considered surrealist writers to some extent.

Although the Golden Age of this movement has passed, its translation onto the modern day is undeniably there in its thought-provoking, quirky, unexpected and beautiful results. In the busy, race-against-time lifestyle of the twenty-first century, where both work and leisure demand a firm awareness of what is material and real, perhaps surrealism’s realm of the imagination and appreciation of irrationality can be more relevant than it seems.

Next Movement: Impressionism


  1. Is this a one off? or part of a series of articles looking at art movements?


  2. Yes – there will be a series of articles to come, each focusing on prominent art movements.