The general public had polarized reactions to Surrealism. Some people found its dreamlike and fantastical concepts interesting, while others were confused by the unconventional and bizarre imagery. Surrealism might be challenging to connect with for some, as it seemed to not make sense, decreasing the willingness to understand the deeper meanings behind the artwork. In this article, regardless of your initial feelings about Surrealism, we hope you can set aside your first impressions and take your time to understand it. Your thoughts about Surrealism may be different.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
"Dalí Atomicus," a photograph taken in 1948 by Philippe Halsman, features the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí | © Philippe Halsman | Magnum Photos.
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What is Surrealism?


Surrealism, an influential art and literary movement, flourished in Europe in the aftermath of the tumultuous World War I. Founded by the poet André Breton, its primary aim was to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the confining shackles of rationalism. Surrealism strikes a delicate balance between a conventional view of life and one that celebrates the power of dreams and the unconscious, renowned for depicting scenes and ideas that defy logical sense, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of a dream. Prominent artists associated with Surrealism include Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Joan Miró.
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(Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris)

History of Surrealism


Surrealism originated in Paris, France, in the early 1920s as a response to societal upheaval, disillusionment, and a desire to break away from conventional norms following World War I. During the chaotic post-war period, the Dada movement emerged, expressing a sense of nihilism and absurdity in response to the war's chaos, laying the groundwork for Surrealism.

The Surrealist movement was officially founded by the French poet André Breton with the publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Profoundly influenced by the theories of the neurologist Sigmund Freud, he regarded the unconscious as a wellspring of boundless imagination. In his statement, "I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak." André Breton envisioned Surrealism as a revolutionary movement with the potential to liberate the minds of the masses from the rational constraints of society.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Left: André Breton was a French writer and poet, also the founder of Surrealism. Right: Cadavre Exquis with André Breton.
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One of the central purposes of Surrealism was the exploration of automatism, allowing the subconscious mind to guide the creative process without the constraints of conscious thought. Automatism, a technique resembling free association or a stream of consciousness, provided the Surrealists with a method for creating art from the unconscious mind. Many Surrealist artists employed techniques such as automatic drawing or writing to unlock ideas and images from their unconscious minds.

As World War II unfolded in 1939, numerous Surrealist artists faced the choice of escaping fascism or actively resisting it. A substantial group of European Surrealists found refuge in the United States, playing a crucial role in the early stages of Abstract Expressionism. Over time, Surrealism evolved into a global phenomenon, leaving a lasting impact on artists, writers, and thinkers far beyond the boundaries of France.
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The Characteristics of Surrealism


Surrealism might be hard to classify aesthetically; however, there are still a few common characteristics that help us recognize them. Below, let's explore the five main characteristics of Surrealism:
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1. Surrealist Automatism

As mentioned earlier, the core objective of Surrealism was the exploration of automatism. According to Tate's explanation, the term "Automatism" is borrowed from physiology, where it refers to bodily movements not consciously controlled, such as breathing or sleepwalking. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud employed techniques like free association, automatic drawing, or writing to delve into the unconscious minds of his patients.
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Jean (Hans) Arp, Untitled (Automatic Drawing), 1916.
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Surrealist automatism is an artistic method in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the creative process, allowing the unconscious mind to exert significant influence. For instance, Jean Arp, a key figure in the Dada and Surrealism movements, explored automatic drawing during his career. Jean Arp produced a series known as his "automatic drawings," in which he deliberately let go of conscious intention, allowing his pen or pencil to roam freely.
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2. Dreamlike and Unusual Imagery

When you see Salvador Dalí's artworks, how would you describe them? Salvador Dalí is often considered the most prominent Surrealist artist, renowned for his surreal and dreamlike creations. Like many artists associated with the Surrealism movement, Salvador Dalí's artworks frequently showcase fantastical landscapes and distorted figures, along with unexpected and unconventional pairings of elements. They sought to create scenes that defy logical or realistic interpretation, evoking the strange and mysterious elements characteristic of Surrealism and dreams.
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3. Symbolism and Metaphor

Understanding Surrealism can be challenging due to the rich symbolism and metaphor employed by Surrealist artists. As René Magritte aptly stated, "Everything we see hides another thing, and we always want to see what is hidden by what we see." These symbols and metaphors, ranging from everyday objects to recurring themes, provide a language that transcends the literal, allowing for the expression of profound and multi-faceted ideas. This enrichment bestows Surrealist artworks with layers of meaning and depth. What adds to the fascination is that each person forms their own thoughts about symbolism and metaphor. Surrealism is a subjective and personal process, as individuals have their own interpretations of it.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
"The Treachery of Images" (French: "La Trahison des images" or "Ceci n’est pas une pipe"), Painted by René Magritte in 1929.
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A great example is "The Treachery of Images," a famous painting by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, created in 1929. The painting features a pipe, and below it, Magritte has written the phrase "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (French for "This is not a pipe"). In this surrealist painting, Magritte aimed to provoke thoughts about the relationship between images and language, reality and representation. While the painting shows an image of a pipe, the actual pipe is not present; it functions as a symbolic representation. The words simply serve as a reminder that the image isn't the real thing but only a representation of it.
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4. Using Collage and Assemblage Techniques

Surrealism in the context of collage involves using disparate elements, often sourced from various images and contexts, to create dreamlike and imaginative compositions. Surrealist artists utilized collage as a medium that allowed them to explore the unexpected mixing and positioning of images, break traditional narrative structures, and tap into the unconscious mind.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Cadavre Exquis with Valentine Hugo, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Greta Knutson, c. 1933.
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There is a game called "Exquisite Corpse" (from the original French term "cadavre exquis") that was invented by surrealists. In this game, each participant takes turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper, folds it to conceal their contribution, and then passes it to the next player for a further contribution. André Breton, the principal founder of Surrealism, reported that it started as fun but evolved into a playful and eventually enriching activity. This collaborative drawing approach results in unexpected and bizarre juxtapositions. During the 1920s, it became a popular method for generating combinations of images and words.
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5. Exploration of the Subconscious Mind

Under the influence of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories, which proposed that the unconscious mind holds hidden desires, memories, and symbolic representations, Surrealist artists delved into the depths of the unconscious to create art that expressed thoughts, emotions, and ideas beyond rational thought. They believed that by articulating unconscious thoughts, they could achieve personal and societal transformation. Therefore, Surrealist artists were profoundly fascinated by interpreting dreams as channels for unexpressed emotions and desires. They used the symbolic language of dreams, shaping their approach to art.
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Famous Surrealist Artists and Their Works

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1. Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí was a prominent Spanish Surrealist painter known for his bizarre and imaginative works. Initially influenced by Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism, he soon forged his unique style within Surrealism. Dalí was not only renowned for his artistic contributions but also for his impact across various media, including film, literature, and fashion. His works were rich in symbolism, drawing on Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis and personal symbolism, and he also created his own distinctive symbols.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.
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"The Persistence of Memory" is one of Dalí's most famous works, painted in 1931 when he was just 28 years old, at the peak of the Surrealist art movement. This Surrealist painting features melting clocks draped over various objects in a barren landscape. It has been interpreted in various ways, often exploring themes of memory, mortality, and the fluidity and relativity of time. Its surreal and thought-provoking imagery has turned it into a symbol of Surrealism and one of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century.
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2. René Magritte

René Magritte, a Belgian Surrealist artist, is renowned for his adept use of simple graphics and everyday objects as recognizable icons in the realm of Surrealism. This includes clouds, pipes, bowler hats, and green apples. However, Magritte skillfully places these objects into unfamiliar or uncanny scenes, making the familiar disturbing and strange. His work, deeply rooted in Surrealism, poses profound questions about the nature of representation and reality.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
René Magritte, The False Mirror, 1928.
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The eye, a subject that fascinated numerous Surrealist poets and artists, holds a unique position on the threshold between the inner, subjective self and the external world. In "The False Mirror," a masterpiece of Surrealism, a giant eye with a cloudy sky within the iris, deliberately rendered non-transparent, challenges the conventional portrayal of reality. This art piece serves as a potent representation of the Surrealist notion that our eyes may not always offer a clear or truthful reflection of the world.
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3. Yves Tanguy

Yves Tanguy was a French-born American Surrealist painter and a close friend of André Breton. Embracing Surrealism and joining the art movement in 1925, he became renowned for his dreamlike and imaginative landscapes. Tanguy's highly detailed objects with organic and biomorphic forms characterized his enormously skilled Surrealist artworks. His art captured the attention of influential artists such as Salvador Dalí and Mark Rothko, leading to the formation of personal friendships within the field of Surrealism.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Yves Tanguy, Azure Day, 1937.
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Representative of Yves Tanguy's distinctive approach within Surrealism, "Azure Day" showcases his frequent portrayal of expansive dreamlike landscapes. His artistic forms stand out in Surrealist art—amorphous yet somehow recognizable to the viewer. With a refined sense of mystery, Tanguy presents in this work a vivid hyper-reality that encapsulates the objectives of the Surrealist art movement.
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4. Max Ernst

Max Ernst was a key member of the first Dada and then Surrealism movements in Europe during the 1910s and 1920s. He utilized a variety of mediums, including painting, collage, printmaking, sculpture, and various unconventional drawing methods, contributing significantly to the development of Surrealism. Ernst frequently incorporated bird and nature motifs into his Surrealistic art. Additionally, he assembled found objects and images to create surreal and symbolic compositions. The fragmented logic of collage, referred to by Ernst as "the culture of systematic displacement," persists in his surrealist paintings, where subjects are disjointed even if their surfaces are smooth.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Max Ernst, Woman, Old Man, and Flower (Weib, Greis und Blume), Paris 1923, Eaubonne 1924.
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Referencing MoMA's explanation about "Woman, Old Man, and Flower": In 1923, Ernst painted the first state of this composition, a period coinciding with his move from Cologne to Paris to join the Surrealist group. Later, he made significant modifications to the artwork, introducing a mysterious figure in the foreground, partially transparent and seemingly topped with a fantastic flower—presumably the flower referenced in the title. This Surrealist painting showcases Ernst's abundant and fantastical imagination.
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5. Joan Miró

Joan Miró was a Catalan Surrealist painter and sculptor known for artworks characterized by a playful and whimsical use of symbols, shapes, and vibrant colors. Unlike other Surrealist artists, Miró's art imparts a sense of childlike wonder and a connection to his Catalan roots. His Surrealism style, earning international acclaim, has been interpreted as Surrealism with a personal touch.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Joan Miró, The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), Montroig, July 1923 - winter 1924.
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"The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), Montroig," is a Surrealist artwork painted by Joan Miró in 1923. In this piece, Miró explores his Catalan roots, transforming the traditional landscape and the figure of the hunter into abstract and symbolic forms with bright colors. The artwork reflects Miró's playful approach to representing reality through a lens of imagination and personal symbolism, aligning with the principles of Surrealism. Miró encourages viewers to interpret his works freely, much like a child interprets the world around them without preconceived notions.
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6. Jean Arp

Jean Arp, also known as Hans Arp, was a prominent German-French artist and sculptor associated with Dada and Surrealism. Principally famous as one of the greatest abstract sculptors, Arp's artwork often incorporated elements of chance and spontaneity, reflecting Surrealist interests in the unconscious and the automatic. He developed a technique known as "chance collages," in which Arp would drop scraps of paper at random onto a large sheet and subsequently glue the pieces exactly where they fell. This unique process became a powerful manifestation of automatism in the Surrealist art movement.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Jean Arp, Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III, 1932.
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During the 1920s and early 1930s, Jean Arp worked on his reliefs and was actively engaged with both Surrealism and the approach to pure abstraction associated with Neo-Plasticism. Although these two movements were usually considered mutually exclusive, Arp's diplomacy enabled him to maintain contact with both. Similar to Joan Miró's approach, Arp's work engaged Surrealism through its process, employing automatist strategies to transcend the limitations of rational thought.
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7. Man Ray

Most Surrealists primarily worked in the medium of painting, but Man Ray specialized in Surrealist photography. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890, he was an American modernist artist who spent most of his career in Paris. Man Ray became a significant figure in the Dada and Surrealism movements, best known for his pioneering photography. His avant-garde approach also extended to the world of fashion.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), Noire et blanche, 1926.
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"Noire et Blanche" (French for Black and White) is a black and white photograph taken by Man Ray in 1926. It is one of his most famous photographs from the time when he was an exponent of Surrealism. The term "Black and White" refers to two masks, creating a contrast between a white woman's face and a dark African mask, resulting in a doubling effect. In Surrealism, the act of doubling signifies that we are all divided subjects, composed of both the conscious and unconscious. Additionally, the title "black and white" is a wordplay, as the order is reversed when reading the image from left to right.
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8. Méret Oppenheim

Méret Oppenheim was a Swiss artist and photographer, a key figure in the Surrealism movement. Oppenheim was one of the few females absorbed into the Surrealist circle, which, until then, had a strict limited female participation. Her artwork often explored themes of sexuality, identity, and the unconscious mind. Additionally, after meeting Man Ray, she became his muse, showcasing the mutual influence that was typical of the dynamic creative environment within the Surrealist circle.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936.
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Besides photography, Surrealism can also be applied to objects. One of Oppenheim's most famous artworks is "Object" (also known as "Luncheon in Fur" or "Le Déjeuner en fourrure"), created in 1936. This Surrealist sculpture features a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered in fur, transforming these everyday objects into works of art and challenging traditional notions of functionality. "Object" is considered an iconic piece of Surrealist art and has become synonymous with Oppenheim's name.
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The Objections and Criticism of Surrealism


Despite Surrealism indeed bringing a new aspect to modern art, like any art movement, Surrealism still faces objections and criticism. First, Surrealism focuses on dreamlike and fantastical elements, but for realists, it might provide an unrealistic and detached view of the world. Some realists may criticize Surrealism for what they perceive as a lack of engagement with the socio-political issues of the time, as it seems to exist in its own daydream. Realists used art as a powerful tool for social commentary, addressing the social issues and realities of their time. Surrealism, on the other hand, emphasizes only the subconscious and dreamlike states, appearing irrelevant and disconnected from direct social concerns.
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Surrealism in Art: From the Unconscious Dream to Artistic Reality - dans le gris
Meret Oppenheim, one of the few female artists in Surrealism. Photo: KEYSTONE/Walter Studer.
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Secondly, as we explore the history of Surrealism, including the contributions of Meret Oppenheim, you might notice that Surrealism is predominantly composed of male artists. Despite the occasional presence of a few female Surrealist artists and poets, leadership and recognition within the Surrealist art movement were largely dominated by men. This has led to accusations of sexism and exclusion within the movement, with some criticizing its male-centric focus and the marginalization of female artists.

Thirdly, since Surrealism often relies on automatic or spontaneous methods, some critics might perceive its creations as nonsensical, lacking any meaningful viewpoint. This brings to mind conceptual art, where proponents argue that the idea holds more significance than the physical artwork itself. However, in the case of Surrealism, it is criticized for lacking deeper intellectual and philosophical dimensions behind its art.

Lastly, returning to the aesthetics of Surrealism, as it seeks to break free from rational constraints and employs unconventional imagery, it might create a visual impact but can make it challenging for some to resonate with. Without identifying a consistent aesthetic, people find it bizarre and hard to appreciate. In addition, Surrealism, with its pervasive use of symbols and metaphor, fosters individual creativity but also causes disorientation for those seeking a cohesive visual language.
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Continue Reading:


• What is Modern Art? A Complete Definition and Guide
• Impressionism: The Art of Capturing Fleeting Moments
• 3 Main Differences Between Modern Art & Contemporary Art
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January 26, 2024
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