What is Surrealism? A Brief Guide to the Movement

Ceci n'est pas une pipe Rene Magritte, La Trahison des Images (1929).

Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” ― Salvador Dali

Surrealism was an artistic and literary movement that began in Europe following, and as a response to, World War I.

To paint a picture of the movement, it’s important to first understand precursor: Surrealism was greatly influenced by Dada, a movement that began in New York around 1915, later to flourish in Paris in 1920 but to fizzle out in the mid-1920s.

Dadaists’ response to World War I was to reject logic and reason, instead creating purposefully irrational and nonsensical artwork. It was a movement aligned with far-left politics and perspectives of war. Later, artists inspired by Dada sought to “activate the unconscious mind” through Surrealist art. They continued with Dada-esque paintings of “illogical” objects and scenes with great precision. 

The Surrealists were led by French poet André Breton who, during the war, had worked at a neurological hospital that employed Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods, and who had been inspired by various young, non-traditional writers and Dadaists of the day. On October 15 1924, together with Surrealism’s early followers, including Robert Desnos and Paul Éluard, he published the Surrealist Manifesto. 

The geographical epicenter of Surrealism was, of course, Paris, but after blossoming in the ‘20s, the movement proceeded to influence literature, film, music, politics, philosophy, theory, and much more at a global scale. 

What is Surrealism?

Founder and leader, Breton, noted that the goal of the movement was “to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” 

Surrealists believed that “Automatism”, the creation of art without conscious thought, using material from the unconscious mind as part of the creative process, would induce societal change – more so than tactics of Dadaists. They came to emphasize that creating scenes from the ordinary – for example, objects and landscapes – was important, but that “the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination.” 

This thinking was also largely influenced by Freud and Marxist theories – in fact, Surrealists saw Freud’s work in dream analysis and the unconscious as immensely crucial to their work.

Characteristics of Surrealism

Surrealists sought to revolutionize human experience and free people from false rationality; they believed rationality to be restrictive. According to The Tate’s website, “The movement’s poets and artists found magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional.”

Artists and writers saw their masterpieces first as expressions of the philosophical movement, and second as artifacts themselves of the movement (it was revolutionary, above all, according to Breton). 

As Surrealists sought to depict elements of reality and the unconscious state, freeing the mind to be more imaginative, Surrealism went on to include elements of surprise, or unexpected combinations of objects in its characteristics. Artists created illogical, startling works spanning various types of media to truly evoke viewers’ senses of emotion and thought. 

Max Ernst's Surrealist take on a classical scene

Max Ernst, The Stolen Mirror, 1941. Sold for $16,322,500 via Christie’s (November 2011).

The Golden Age of Surrealism in the 1930s brought artists and writers of the movement to the spotlight. A Surrealist group established itself in London, for example, and later Salvador Dalí joined and helped to bring the group’s work and aims into the public spotlight. Art icons Dalí and René Magritte became the most widely known artists of the era, with Surrealist paintings like Voice of Space (La Voix des airs) by Magritte, and The Persistence of Memory by Dalí, a famous surreal landscape.

Surrealist photography, too, grew in this era – photographer Man Ray, for example, joined Magritte and Dalí in their pursuit of creating a Surrealist visual program. 

It was during this period that Surrealism came to find a method of execution: to remove the typical purpose of ordinary objects, and create an image that was extraordinary in terms of organization. This was all done in effort to evoke feelings of empathy among viewers. 

The art created by the Surrealists became a combination of abstraction with psychological and depictive elements, which represented alienation and, reaching deeply into the psyche, “to be made whole with one’s individuality.” 

Famous Surrealist Art: Icons & examples

Beyond painting and photography, this renowned and influential movement yielded Surrealist drawing, Surrealist sculpture, Surrealist portraits and Surrealism in literature, among other art forms and media. 

Let’s explore a few popular examples of Surrealism and their celebrated creators, below. 

André Masson, Automatic Drawing. 1924. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

André Masson, Automatic Drawing. 1924. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

André Masson, Automatic Drawings, 1924

André Masson (1896-1987) was a French artist whose early works explored cubism, and who later became associated with Surrealism. His automatic drawings in pen and ink, such as the example above, were seen as a turning point: the acceptance of Surrealism in visual arts, and the break from Dada. Automatic drawing was a technique used by the Surrealists in which the artist’s hand is allowed to move freely across the paper to express the subconscious mind (sometimes in altered states of consciousness). 

Masson went on to experiment with consciousness alongside artists around his Paris studio, including Joan Miró and Antonin Artaud. He moved to the US during World War II, where his work came to influence the American abstract expressionists.

Giacometti's long slender modern torso sculpture

Alberto Giacometti, Unique Torse de femme, conceived 1932, cast 1948-1949. Sold via Christie’s, est: $3,000,000- $5,000,000 (May 2010).

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Unique Torse de femme, 1925

Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti was one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. He heavily influenced both Cubism and Surrealism, and often questioned the human condition in his work. He worked alongside artists like Joan Miró, Max Ernst, and Pablo Picasso, and quickly became a leading sculptor of the Surrealist movement.

Giacometti was celebrated for his sculptures that favored simplified forms over classical sculpture.

Max Ernst's Black Doves against a Red Background, example of the grattage technique

Max Ernst, Colombes noires sur fond rouge, 1927. Sold via Christie’s, est: £400,000 – £600,000 (June 2010).

Max Ernst (1891-1976), Colombes noires sur fond rouge, 1927

German-born Max Ernst was a painter, sculptor, and poet who was one of the pioneers of the Dada and Surrealist movements. While he was not formally trained as an artist, he was credited with inventing the techniquefrottage, which involves using pencil rubbings of objects to create images, as well as “grattage” (together with Joan Miró), where paint is scraped across canvas to reveal imprints of objects placed beneath. 

The latter technique can be seen in Ernst’s work above, Colombes noires sur fond rouge, 1927. The painting, textured and 3-D in appearance, shows a forest scene with abstract trees, within which is a childlike drawing of a dove. 

Joan Miró, Spanish Dancer, 1928

Spanish artist Joan Miró’s work has often been interpreted as Surrealist, yet he added his own personal touch and sometimes leaned more toward Fauvism and Expressionism in his work. Regardless, he was notable for his experimentation with the unconscious and subconscious mind, hence his recreation of childlike images.

In the mid-1920s, Miró developed pictorial sign language featuring simplified figures, a language that remained the focus of works throughout the rest of his career. He also created his famous Spanish Dancer series, the first of which (1928) can be seen above. According to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Catalan “women” dancers shown in this series were “written about by Paul Éluard and collected by André Breton.” They are not considered “either painting, or sculpture, or drawing, or collage because they are more like constructions steeped in a desire to transgress.” 

Lithograph print of one of the most famous works of the Surrealism movement by Salvador Dali

After Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, lithograph. Sold for $175 via Greenwich Auction (August 2018).

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Salvador Dalí was a Spanish surrealist who became famous for his technical skill and the striking and strange evocations of his work. At a young age, he became interested in Cubism and avant-garde movements, before moving closer to Surrealism in the 1920s. He joined the Surrealist group in 1929. 

He completed his best known work shown above, The Persistence of Memory, in August 1931, and it became one of the most famous Surrealist paintings. Major themes in his work include dreams, the subconscious, religion, science, and sexuality. 

The Persistence of Memory features soft, melting pocket watches, a major interpretation of these is that they represent a rejection of the assumption that time is rigid. In other works, he explores this same idea, showing expansive surreal landscapes and watches being eaten by ants.

“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying.” — René Magritte

René Magritte, La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images)


René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist painter known for his witty, thought-provoking works. In alignment with Surrealism, he painted ordinary objects in out of the ordinary contexts, challenging viewers’ perceptions of reality. He greatly influenced pop art, minimalist art, and conceptual art to follow. 

The Treachery of Images of 1929, shown above, is also known as This is Not a Pipe and The Wind and the Song, and is one of Magritte’s most famous works. One interpretation of the work is that the pipe is not a pipe, but rather, a drawing of a pipe. It’s seen as an example of a “meta message” conveyed by a paralanguage.

Then & now: Modern Surrealism 

While the Surrealism of Breton’s age eventually faded, the movement and its purpose carried on for decades, inspiring later artists like Asger Jorn in the 1960s and the underground artistic opposition movement, the Orange Alternative, in Poland in the 1980s. Surrealism also heavily influenced Postmodernism in the later half of the 20th century, an artistic and literary movement which shared many themes and techniques with Surrealism. 

Surrealism is still practiced today, as Surrealist groups and literary publications continue to be active, including the Chicago Surrealist Group and the Leeds Surrealist Group. And Surrealism remains popular among museum-goers, in galleries, and at auction. 

Recently, in March 2021, a Christie’s “Surrealism Art Evening Auction,” yielded a total turnover volume of £48.42 million. The top two lots of the auction were Joan Miró’s Peinture of 1925, which sold for £10.23 million, and René Magritte’s Les Mois des Vendanges, 1959, which sold for £10 million. 

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