About Surrealism

What is Surrealism?

Beginning in the 1920s, the international movement of painting, sculpture, theater, music, literature, film, and photography known as Surrealism sought to free humanity from traditional, constricting forces in order to reengage with the deeper self that conventional society had long suppressed. At the core of the surrealist movement, spearheaded by writer and theorist André Breton, was a sustained sense of revolt against the expected conventions of artistic practice. Breton and the artists who followed him turned to Freudian psychoanalytic theory as a means of engaging with the subconscious through the acts of painting or writing. Automatism, which allowed for the action of drawing or composing to be guided by the subconscious mind, provided means of accessing the latent content of dreams through artistic production, parallel to psychoanalysis. This interest in the collective or individual subconscious was in many ways a result of the alienation from and disillusionment with humanity following the end of World War I. Surrealism privileged the artistic mind as the source of both critique of and solution to political and artistic questions of the period.

Artists have continued to experiment with the questions and imagery of Surrealism throughout the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

Surrealism Characteristics & Style

Little unites the Surrealist group aesthetically; however, many of the key artists had similar intellectual approaches and techniques. Many Surrealists such as Magritte or Dali developed a naturalistic tendency within Surrealism, presenting clear, recognizable scenes and objects that seem to have been manipulated or metamorphosed into an impossible dream or nightmare image. These paintings use juxtaposition or surprising shifts in scale to question the nature of reality, perception, and language in absurdist scenes. Other Surrealists such as Masson or Miro turned to the Dada device of allowing chance to inform an artwork more than the hand of the artist. The process of automatic drawing or painting, the creation of art without conscious control, lent itself to biomorphic surrealism, a significant development toward abstraction. The spontaneous, intuitive nature of biomorphic surrealism allowed the artist to enter the painting – as Breton put it – towards the object, not away from it, resulting in abstract images that hint at living forms.

Salvador Dalí, La Musique or L'Orchestre Rouge or Les Sept Arts. Sold for £5,010,500.

Surrealism in the Americas

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939. Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

The international dissemination of European Surrealism was amplified by the need for artists to escape fascism leading to and during World War II. Abstraction in the United States was pulled toward Surrealism by American artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Joseph Cornell, Alexander Calder, who turned to Surrealism as a means of exploring identity or commenting on the drastically changing face of American society. Frida Kahlo is among the best known Mexican Surrealists; she organically came to the experimentation with symbolism and mythology as a means of grappling with her personal trauma as well as her identity as the daughter of a German expatriate father and Mexican mother within a colonial context. Peruvian artist César Moro experimented with collage, weaving together image and text within a clear Surrealist aesthetic. Artists all over the Americas have utilized the symbolism and abstraction of Surrealism to repudiate the dominance of European artistic convention and establish their own voices and artistic identities.

The Impact and Legacy of Surrealism

Surrealism indelibly directed the modernist project toward avant-garde investigations of the human psyche through impossible, frightening, and erotic worlds. These explorations and purposeful disturbances were sustained through the development of American abstraction following World War II. Because Surrealism elevated the profile of Freudian theory through visual means, artists of later generations sustained such engagement with the notions of psychology and analysis. Abstract Expressionist artists including Jackson Pollock experimented with automatism throughout his development of gestural abstraction. In literature, the Beat Generation was enormously influenced by Surrealist writing, as were Magical Realists, and key figures of the postmodern literary world.

Man Ray, Les Beaux Temps, 1941. Sold for €1,520,750.

Although Surrealism had a particular development between the World Wars, it was not a book-ended movement in an isolated period. Artists have continued to experiment with the questions and imagery of Surrealism throughout the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Magritte’s Treachery of Images was the basis for Michel Foucault’s exploration of semiotics and representation. Surrealist painting and sculpture occupies major museums around the world including the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou, the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and many other institutions.

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Timeline & History of Surrealism

  • 1922
    André Masson and Joan Miro meet at a party and discover they have adjoining studios in the same building in Paris. Jean Arp would soon join them, and all three would fall into the orbit of André Breton.
  • 1924
    André Breton completes The First Manifesto of Surrealism, initiating the start of the movement.
  • 1925
    The first Surrealist exhibition is held at Galerie Pierre in Paris, with works by artists Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Man Ray, André Masson.
  • 1929
    Salvador Dalí officially joins the group, and produces some of the most high profile and highly recognizable works of the movement.
  • 1936
    The Museum of Modern Art organizes Fantastic Art: Dada and Surrealism, bridging the gap between American and European Surrealism, and introducing the concepts of both movements to American audiences.
  • 1938
    Breton visits Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo in Mexico. Breton and Trotsky publish Towards a Free Revolutionary Art under the names Breton and Rivera, firmly linking the movement with Communism.
  • 1938
    Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme in Paris was one of the largest exhibitions of the movement, bringing together over 300 works by sixty artists from all over the world.
  • 1939
    World War II begins, scattering Surrealist artists to escape Fascism or fight it. Many European Surrealists fled to the United States, laying the groundwork for the eventual development of Abstract Expressionism.


Who Are the Surrealists?

Although Breton was the clear leader of Parisian Surrealism, the movement developed simultaneously in Belgium, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico, and the United States. It was also wide ranging in terms of media, with many artists turning to the new modes of visual construction of photography and film to experiment with the ambiguous nature of imagery.


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