Max Ernst, L'Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surréalisme (1937), private collection.

History of Modern Art: Surrealism

Hello folks, welcome back to our weekly series of History of Modern Art. Today we’ll review the movement of Surrealism.

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings. Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artefact. Leader André Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement.

Surrealism developed out of the Dada activities during World War I and the most important center of the movement was Paris. From the 1920s onward, the movement spread around the globe, eventually affecting the visual arts, literature, film, and music of many countries and languages, as well as political thought and practice, philosophy, and social theory.

World War I scattered the writers and artists who had been based in Paris, and in the interim many became involved with Dada, believing that excessive rational thought and bourgeois values had brought the conflict of the war upon the world. The Dadaists protested with anti-art gatherings, performances, writings and art works. After the war, when they returned to Paris, the Dada activities continued.

During the war, André Breton, who had trained in medicine and psychiatry, served in a neurological hospital where he used Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from shell-shock. Meeting the young writer Jacques Vaché, Breton felt that Vaché was the spiritual son of writer and pataphysics founder Alfred Jarry.

He admired the young writer’s anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition. Later Breton wrote, “In literature, I was successively taken with Rimbaud, with Jarry, with Apollinaire, with Nouveau, with Lautréamont, but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most.

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory (1931), Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory (1931)

As they developed their philosophy, they believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic. They also looked to the Marxist dialectic and the work of such theorists as Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse.

Freud’s work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious was of utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination. They embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness. Later, Salvador Dalí explained it as: “There is only one difference between a madman and I. I am not mad.”

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Beside the use of dream analysis, they emphasized that “one could combine inside the same frame, elements not normally found together to produce illogical and startling effects.” Breton included the idea of the startling juxtapositions in his 1924 manifesto, taking it in turn from a 1918 essay by poet Pierre Reverdy, which said: “a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.”

In 1924 they declared their philosophy in the first “Surrealist Manifesto”. That same year they established the Bureau of Surrealist Research, and began publishing the journal La Révolution surréaliste.

Breton wrote the manifesto of 1924 that defines the purposes of the group. He included citations of the influences on Surrealism, examples of Surrealist works and discussion of Surrealist automatism. He defined Surrealism as:

  1. Surrealism, noun: Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
  2. SurrealismPhilosophy: Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.


The movement in the mid-1920s was characterized by meetings in cafes where the Surrealists played collaborative drawing games, discussed the theories of Surrealism, and developed a variety of techniques such as automatic drawing. Breton initially doubted that visual arts could even be useful in the Surrealist movement since they appeared to be less malleable and open to chance and automatism. This caution was overcome by the discovery of such techniques as frottage and decalcomania.

Soon more visual artists became involved, including Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine Hugo, Méret Oppenheim, Toyen, and later after the second war: Enrico Donati. Though Breton admired Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and courted them to join the movement, they remained peripheral. More writers also joined, including former Dadaist Tristan Tzara, René Char, and Georges Sadoul.

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Throughout the 1930s, Surrealism continued to become more visible to the public at large. A Surrealist group developed in Britain and, according to Breton, their 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition was a high water mark of the period and became the model for international exhibitions.

Dalí and Magritte created the most widely recognized images of the movement. Dalí joined the group in 1929, and participated in the rapid establishment of the visual style between 1930 and 1935.
Surrealism as a visual movement had found a method: to expose psychological truth by stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance, in order to create a compelling image that was beyond ordinary formal organization, in order to evoke empathy from the viewer.

Yves Tanguy Indefinite Divisibility 1942, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Yves Tanguy Indefinite Divisibility (1942)

1931 was a year when several Surrealist painters produced works which marked turning points in their stylistic evolution: Magritte’s Voice of Space (La Voix des airs) is an example of this process, where three large spheres representing bells hang above a landscape. Another Surrealist landscape from this same year is Yves Tanguy’s Promontory Palace (Palais promontoire), with its molten forms and liquid shapes. Liquid shapes became the trademark of Dalí, particularly in his The Persistence of Memory, which features the image of watches that sag as if they were melting.

The characteristics of this style—a combination of the depictive, the abstract, and the psychological—came to stand for the alienation which many people felt in the modern period, combined with the sense of reaching more deeply into the psyche, to be “made whole with one’s individuality”.

Between 1930 and 1933, the Surrealist Group in Paris issued the periodical Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution as the successor of La Révolution surréaliste. From 1936 through 1938 Wolfgang Paalen, Gordon Onslow Ford, and Roberto Matta joined the group. Paalen contributed Fumage and Onslow Ford Coulage as new pictorial automatic techniques.

Long after personal, political and professional tensions fragmented the Surrealist group, Magritte and Dalí continued to define a visual program in the arts. This program reached beyond painting, to encompass photography as well, as can be seen from a Man Ray self-portrait, whose use of assemblage influenced Robert Rauschenberg’s collage boxes.

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World War II created havoc not only for the general population of Europe but especially for the European artists and writers that opposed Fascism, and Nazism. Many important artists fled to North America, and relative safety in the United States. The art community in New York City in particular was already grappling with Surrealist ideas and several artists like Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Roberto Matta, converged closely with the surrealist artists themselves, albeit with some suspicion and reservations.

Ideas concerning the unconscious and dream imagery were quickly embraced. By the Second World War, the taste of the American avant-garde in New York City swung decisively towards Abstract Expressionism with the support of key taste makers, including Peggy Guggenheim, Leo Steinberg and Clement Greenberg. However, it should not be easily forgotten that Abstract Expressionism itself grew directly out of the meeting of American (particularly New York) artists with European Surrealists self-exiled during World War II.

In particular, Arshile Gorky and Wolfgang Paalen influenced the development of this American art form, which, as Surrealism did, celebrated the instantaneous human act as the well-spring of creativity. The early work of many Abstract Expressionists reveals a tight bond between the more superficial aspects of both movements, and the emergence (at a later date) of aspects of Dadaistic humor in such artists as Rauschenberg sheds an even starker light upon the connection.

Up until the emergence of Pop Art, Surrealism can be seen to have been the single most important influence on the sudden growth in American arts, and even in Pop, some of the humor manifested in Surrealism can be found, often turned to a cultural criticism.

Hope you enjoyed the article as much as i did compiling the info and the images! See you next time!

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Article publié pour la première fois le 23/02/2013