Surrealism Defined in 8 Minutes

Leonora Carrington, “Horse,” circa 1939. Sold for $204,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2005).

Possibly one of the most enchanting art movements of the twentieth century, surrealism sought to celebrate the human unconscious while repressing rationality. Today, surrealism is most often associated with the visual artist Salvador Dalí. But in actuality, it encompassed much more than just the visual arts, was practiced by many artists, and still influences artists today.

What is Surrealism?

The surrealist movement began as a literary group in the 1920s. Founded by the poet André Breton, it was rooted in the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud. Armed with Freud’s theories on the unconscious mind, Breton sought to create a revolutionary artistic movement that could release the masses from society’s rational order. In doing this, Breton hoped to merge the “real” and “dream” worlds. Soon, the surrealist group expanded to include other forms of art aside from literature. Due to the great success of artists such as Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy, it would become increasingly associated with the visual arts.

Max Ernst, “Nature at Dawn,” Sold for €564,750 via Sotheby’s (December 2011).

The surrealist group’s popularity continued into the 1940s. As political upheaval increased and World War II began, many artists turned to surrealism as a way to express the world’s state of crisis. However, as the movement grew, it eventually broke off into smaller factions. Breton and many of his followers believed more and more in creating art that was inherently political, while others such as Dalí focused more on the self and the dream world. Later, many abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell cited surrealism as a major influence, particularly the surrealists’ practice of automatism.

Techniques in Surrealism

Surrealist artists employed a number of techniques to help bring their unconscious thoughts to the forefront of their work. Automatism was a favorite practice, which embraced the element of chance in artmaking, as opposed to meticulously planning out a composition. This could involve letting paint or other media fall freely onto the canvas and then creating the composition around these results, as well as other techniques of chance and uncertainty.

Yves Tanguy, “Composition,” 1935. Sold for €4,000 via Piasa (January 2014).

Other artists chose to bring dreamlike visions to life through hyper realistic paintings, drawings and sculptures. According to Freud, dreams were the only place the deepest unconscious thoughts were allowed to roam free, so it’s no surprise that many surrealist artworks have a dreamlike quality to them. Surrealism was not confined to two dimensional art, though. In order to further personify the dream world, many artists experimented with sculpture, design, mixed media, and film.

Salvador Dali and Edra, “La Bocca” sofa. Sold for €3,828 via Tajan (June 2014).


Surrealist Artists

Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí, “Flordali I,” 1981. Color lithograph. Sold for €1,430 via Tajan (April 2017).

Dalí was a true Renaissance man of his time, producing not just painterly work but also printmaking, sculpture, filmmaking, writing, advertising, and even fashion. Many of his works were rooted in Freudian theory, which he used to create his own visual language that allowed him to portray his innermost fears and hopes. An example of this is the sphinx motif, which features prominently in Dalí’s work. This fictitious half female, half monster creature plays an important role in the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, which later inspired the naming of Freud’s “Oedipus complex” theory. The duality of the sphinx—nurturing female versus ferocious beast—embodied Dalí’s own fear and respect of the women in his life.

René Magritte

Rene Magritte, “L’état de veille.” Sold for £224,750 via Christie’s (February 2018).

The Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte is celebrated for the clarity and simplicity in his visually stunning paintings. As opposed to creating over-the-top, busy compositions like some of his contemporaries, Magritte chose to feature everyday objects and give them new meaning by placing them in unusual contexts or juxtapositions. He is also well known for incorporating wordplay into his works. No matter which technique he employed, Magritte’s surrealist works challenged the viewer’s preconceived notions of reality.

Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, “Horse,” circa 1939. Sold for $204,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2005).

Like Dalí, Leonora Carrington’s work is rooted in concepts of the unconscious mind and uses dream-like imagery to depict that. However, Carrington’s symbolic imagery was much more personal and because she preferred not to explain it, her work is not as easy to interpret. Using themes of identity, magic, and metamorphosis, Carrington created truly fantastical compositions. Though the surrealist group was notoriously sexist and many artists in it tended to view females strictly as muses or objects of desire, Carrington rejected falling into this stereotype and successfully made a name for herself as a professional artist in her own right. Though she was born in England, she spent much of her adult life living and working in Mexico City alongside other surrealist artists such as Remedios Varo.

Max Ernst

Max Ernst, “Ohne titel (Sedona Landschaft).” Sold for $588,500 via Bonhams (November 2017).

Though Salvador Dalí is arguably the most well-known artist to use Freud’s theories, Max Ernst was the first to apply Freud’s dream theories to his work. Because of his time serving during World War I, he was highly critical of western culture’s social conventions and used his work to openly mock them. Ernst was an early proponent of automatic painting, which he used in order to unlock subconscious thoughts and emotions. This form of painting would later influence the Abstract Expressionists.

Surrealism in the Market Today

Surrealist art has done so well in the market that many auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s offer sales solely dedicated to surrealist artists, in addition to including them in with their main- and mid-season Impressionist & Modern sales. In 2017, Christie’s The Art of the Surreal auction in London achieved a total sale of GBP 42,568,598, an increase from the year before. The star lot was René Magritte’s painting La cord sensible, which sold within the estimate for GBP 14,441,348. Other star lots included works by Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, and Yves Tanguy.