The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Surrealism is an artistic movement and an aesthetic philosophy that aims for the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative powers of the unconscious. Surrealism originated in early-twentieth century European avant-garde art and literary circles, and many early Surrealists were associated with the earlier Dada movement. Surrealism was an expressly revolutionary movement, encompassing actions intended to advance radical political, social, cultural and personal change. While surrealism's most important center was in Paris, it spread throughout Europe and to North America during the course of the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's.

The term "surreal" is also applied more generally to describe the juxtaposition of ordinary events, actions or objects in a manner where the totality does not comport with the ordinary "sense" or social decorum. In this sense it is the successor to the idea of the "fantastic" in Victorian art and literature.


History of Surrealism

The term surrealism was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire to describe the Jean Cocteau/Erik Satie/Pablo Picasso/Léonide Massine collaboration Parade (1917) in the program notes: "From this new alliance, for until now stage sets and costumes on one side and choreography on the other had only a sham bond between them, there has come about, in Parade, a kind of super-realism (sur-réalisme), in which I see the starting point of a series of manifestations of this new spirit (esprit nouveau)."

Surrealism's Founding

André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 and the publication of the magazine La Révolution Surréaliste ("The Surrealist Revolution") marked the beginning of the movement as a public agitation. In the manifesto of 1924 Breton defines surrealism as "pure psychic automatism" with automatism being spontaneous creative production without conscious moral or aesthetic self-censorship. By Breton's admission, however, as well as by the subsequent development of the movement, this was a definition capable of considerable expansion. Breton also wrote the following dictionary and encyclopedia definitions:

  • "SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, or 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.
  • ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. 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 all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life."
René Magritte's "The Betrayal of Images" (1928-9)
René Magritte's "The Betrayal of Images" (1928-9)

Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote the first automatic book, Les Champs Magnetiques, in 1919. Later, automatic drawing was developed by André Masson, and automatic drawing and painting, as well as other automatist methods, such as decalcomania, frottage, fumage, grattage and parsemage became significant parts of surrealist practice. (Automatism was later adapted to the computer.) By December of 1924, the publication La Revolution Surrealiste edited by Pierre Naville and Benjamin Peret and later by Breton, was started. Also, a Bureau of Surrealist Research began in Paris and was at one time, under the direction of Antonin Artaud. In 1926, Louis Aragon wrote Le Paysan de Paris , following the appearance of many surrealist books, poems, pamphlets, automatic texts and theoretical works published by the surrealists, including those by Rene Crevel . Many of the popular artists in Paris throughout the 1920s and 1930s were surrealists, including René Magritte, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine Hugo , Meret Oppenheim , Man Ray, and Yves Tanguy. Games such as the exquisite corpse also assumed a great importance in surrealism. Although sometimes considered exclusively French, surrealism was in fact international from the beginning, with both the Belgian and Czech groups developing early; the Czech group continues uninterrupted to this day. In fact, some of what have been described as the most significant surrealist theorists such as Karel Teige from Czechoslovakia, Shuzo Takiguchi from Japan, Octavio Paz from Mexico, also Aime Cesaire and Rene Menil from Martinique, who both started the surrealist journal Tropiques in 1940, have hailed from other countries. The most radical of surrealist methods have also hailed from countries other than France, for example, the technique of cubomania was invented by Romanian surrealist Gherasim Luca.

While related to Dada, from which many of its initial members came, surrealism is significantly broader in scope. Dada was based primarily on the rejection of catagories and labels, and rooted in negative response to the First World War, surrealism advocated the idea that the ordinary and depictive were still vital and important, but that the sense of arrangement should, and indeed must, be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic . The surrealists believed life can be changed and transformed into a fertile crescent of freedom, love, and poetry. Andre Breton who proclaimed that the true aim of Surrealism was: "long live the social revolution, and it alone!".

Surrealism was connected with the theories of Sigmund Freud and with primitivism more generally. Its political agenda was striving towards Communism as well as being influenced by Anarchism. As with many movements of the period, including Expressionism, its diagnosis of the "problem" of the realism and capitalist civilisation is the restrictive overlay of false rationality, including social and academic convention, on the free functioning of the instinctual urges within the mind. But this dry connection does not get at the root of surrealism's broader appeal: according to Dalí, it was that Surrealism did not reject the sense of beauty and aesthetic appeal of the past, merely the confines of it (however, this analysis may have been criticised by many surrealists, who considered the movement extra-aesthetic). It also embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of underlying madness and darkness of the mind. Dalí's famous quote is "The only difference between myself and a madman is I am not MAD!"

Interwar Surrealism: Centrality of Breton

Breton, as the central figure of the Surrealist movement, not only published its most thorough explanations of its techniques, aims and ideas, but was the individual who drew in, and occasionally expelled, writers, artists and thinkers. Through the interwar period he formed the focus of Surrealist activity in Paris, his writings would be enormously influential in spreading surrealism as a body of thought, in such works Nadja (1928), the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), Communicating Vessels (1932), and Mad Love (1937).

In the late 1920s there was a turbulent period, as several individuals closely associated with Breton left the movement, and several prominent artists entered. However, Surrealism continued to expand in public visibility, in Breton's own estimation the high water mark being the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition. In 1937, Breton and Leon Trotsky co-authored a Manifesto for an independent revolutionary art on the need for a permanent revolution, and attacked Stalinism and Socialist realism, as "the negation of freedom".

Surrealism also attracted to Paris writers from the United Kingdom, one of these would be David Gascoyne, who would become friends with Paul Eluard and Max Ernst, and translate Andre Breton and Salvador Dalí into English. In 1935 he authored A Short Study of Surrealism, and then returned to England during the war, where he roomed with Lucian Freud, and continued to write in the Surrealist style during the rest of his lifetime.

Surrealism During World War II

The rise of Adolf Hitler and the events of 1939-1945 in Europe, for a time, overshadowed almost all else, However, after the war, Breton continued to write and espouse the importance of the liberation of the human mind. For example in "The Tower of Light" in (1952). Breton's critiques of rationalism and dualism, would find a new audience after the Second World War, as his argument that return to old patterns of behavior was to insure a repeated cycle of conflict seemed increasingly prophethetic to French intellectuals as the Cold War mounted. Breton's insistence that Surrealism was not an aesthetic movement, nor a series of techniques and tools, but instead the means to an on going revolt against the reduction of humanity to market relationships, religious gestures and misery, would mean his ideas and stances taken up by many, even those who had never specifically heard of Breton, or read any of his work. The importance of living Surrealism was repeated by Breton and by those writing about him.

In 1941, Breton went to the United States, where he founded the short lived magazine VVV , which boasted high production values and a great deal of content, however, its that content was increasingly in French, not English. It was American poet Charles Henri Ford and his magazine View which offered Breton a channel for promoting Surrealism in the United States. Ford and Breton would have an on again, off again relationship, Breton felt that Ford should work more specifically for Surrealism, and Ford, for his part, resented what he felt to be Breton's attempts to make him "toe the line". Never the less, View would publish an interview between Breton and Nicolas Calas , as well as special issues on Tanguy and Ernst, and in 1945, on Marcel Duchamp.

The special issue on Duchamp was crucial for the public understanding of Surrealism in America, it stressed his connections to Surrealist methods, offered interpretations of his work by Breton, as well as Breton's view that Duchamp represented the bridge between early modern movements such as Futurism and Cubism with Surrealism.

According to Martica Sawin, this Second World War represents "Surrealism in Exile", and he traces the connections to the founding of the "New York School" focused on Abstract Expressionism, and the increasing influence of Existentialism as competing with, and in many cases displacing, Surrealism's place in the American avant-garde. This view, that Surrealism would be submerged by later movements, is held particularly by American art historians, many of whom emphasize the Second World War as the end of Surrealism as an organized movement.

However, With Breton's return to France after the Second World War, an new phase in activity began in Paris, one which attract considerable attention and lead to works designed to place argue for Surrealism's continued importance in the context of 20th century philosophy, art and literature.

The End of Surrealism

There is no clear consensus about the end of the Surrealist movement: some historians suggest that the movement was effectively disbanded by WWII, others treat the movement as extending through the 1950s; art historian Sarane Alexandrian (1970) states that "the death of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of surrealism as an organized movement." However, some who knew Breton, and were part of groups he founded or approved continued to be active until well after his death. For example, Czech Surrealism Group in Prague, though driven underground in 1968, re-emerged in the 1990's. Still other groups and artists, not directly connected to Breton, have claimed the surrealist label. In addition, Surrealism, as a prominent critique of rationalism and capitalism, and a theory of integrated aesthetics and ethics had influence on later movements, including many aspects of postmodernism.

Surrealism as an Artistic Movement

Early Surrealist Visual Arts

In general usage, the term Surrealism is more often applied to the movement in visual arts than the original cultural and philosophical movement. As with many terms, the relationship between the two usages is a matter of some debate outside the movement: other examples are Romanticism and Minimalism, which apply to different ideas and periods in differing contexts. The relationship between the movement in visual arts and surrealism as a political and philosophical movement is complex. Many surrealist artists regarded their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, and André Breton was explicit in his belief that Surrealism was first and foremost a revolutionary movement.

Since so many of the artists involved in Surrealism came from the Dada movement, the demarcation between Surrealism and Dadaist art, as with the demarcation between Surrealism and Dada in general is a drawn differently by different scholars, however, Masson's automatic drawings of 1923, are often used as a convenient point of difference, since these reflect the influence of the idea of the subconscious. In 1924, Miro and Masson would apply Surrealism to painting explicitly leading to the La Peinture Surrealiste Exposition at Gallerie Pierre in 1925, which included work by Man Ray, Masson, Klee and Miro among others. It confirmed that Surrealism had a component in the visual arts (though it had been initially debated whether this was possible), even if it would use techniques from Dada, such as photomontage. In 1926, on March 26th the Galerie Surrealiste opened, with an exhibition by Man Ray. In 1928, Breton would publish "Surrealism and Painting", which summarized the movement to that point, though he continued to update the work until the 1960s.

The roots of surrealism in the visual arts run to both Dada and Cubism as well as the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky and Expressionism, as well as Post-Impressionism. However, it was not the particulars of technique which marked the surrealist movement in the visual arts, but an the creation of objects from the imagination, from automatism, or from a number of surrealist techniques. One example is Alberto Giacometti's 1925 "Torso", which marked his movement to simplified forms and inspiration from pre-classical sculpture. However, a striking example of the line used to divide Dada and Surrealism among art experts is the pairing of 1925's Von minimax dadamax selbst konstruiertes maschinchen with Le Basier from 1927 by Max Ernst. The first is generally held to have a distance, and erotic subtext, where as the second presents an erotic act openly and directly. In the second the influence of Miro and Picasso's drawing style is visible with the use of fluid curving and intersecting lines and colour, where as the first takes a directness that would later be influential in movements such as Pop art.

But it was Giorgio de Chirico who would be one of the important joining figures between the philosophical and visual aspects of surrealism. Between 1911 and 1917, he would adopted a very primary colour pallete, and unornamented epictional style whose surface would be adopted by others later. One can see in La tour rouge from 1913 the stark colour contrasts and illustrative style which would be adopted by later surrealist painters. His 1914 La Nostalgie du poete has the figure turned away from the viewer, and the juxtaposition of a bust with glasses and a fish as a relief which defies conventional realistic explanation.

But he was also a writer: his novel Hebdomeros presents a series of dreamscapes, with an unusual use of punctuation, syntax and grammar, designed to create a particular atmosphere and frame around its images. His images, including set designs for the Ballet Russe , would create a decorative form of visual surrealism, and he would be an influence on the two that would be even more closely associated with surrealism in the public mind: Dalí and Magritte.


These two painters would create the most widely recognized images of the movement. Dali joined the group in 1929, and joined in what would be a 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.

1931 marked a year where several surrealist painters produced works which marked turning points in their stylistic evolution: Magritte's La Voix des airs is an example of this process, where three large spheres representing bells hanging above a landscape. Another surrealist landscape from this same year is Tanguy's Palais promontoire, with its molten forms and liquid shapes. But liquid shapes would become the trademark of Dalí, particularly in his famous "The Persistence of Memory", which features the famous image of clocks that sag as if they are made out of cloth.

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 ones individuality. Long after personal, political and professional tensions broke up the Surrealist group, Magritte and Dali would continue to define a visual program in the arts. This program reached beyond painting, to encompass photography as well, as can be seen from this Man Ray self portrait whose use of assemblage would influence Robert Rauschenberg's collage boxes.

During the 1930's Peggy Guggenheim, an important art collector would marry Max Ernst and begin promoting work by other surrealists such as Yves Tanguy. However, by the outbreak of the Second World War, the taste of the avant-garde would swing decisively towards Abstract Expressionism with the support of key taste makers, including Guggenheim. According to Micheal Bell, it was at this point that the two sides of surrealistic art, what he labels automatism and veristic surrealism became more pronounced, and, according to his interpretation of events "only automatism was accepted after the war" because of its relationship to abstraction. In his writings he expresses a sympathy for the "creative" path of Dalí as the "Veristic Surrealist" over the "automatist" approach.

The Second World War and Beyond

As with many artistic movements in Europe, the coming of the Second World War proved disruptive: both because of the rift between Breton and Dali over Dali's support for Francisco Franco, and because of a diaspora of the members of the surrealist movement itself. Dali said to remain a surrealist forever was like "painting only eyes and noses", and declared he had embarked on a "classic" period; Max Ernst in 1962 said "I feel more affinity for some German Romantics". Magritte began painting what he called his "solar" or "renoir" style.

However the works continued, many surrealist artists continued to explore their vocabularies, including Magritte. Many members of the surrealist movement continued to correspond and meet; in 1960, René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Man Ray met in Paris. And while Dali may have been excommunicated by Breton, he neither abandoned the themes from the 1930's, including references to the "persistence of time" in a later painting, nor did he become a depictive "pompier". His classic period did not represent so sharp a break with the past as some descriptions of his work might lead one to believe.

During the 1940's Surrealism's influence was also felt in England and America, Mark Rothko took an interest in bimorphic figures, and in England Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon (painter) and Paul Nash would be use or experiment with surrealist techniques. However, Conroy Maddox, one of the first British Surrealists, beginning in 1935, would remain within the movement, organizing an exhibition of current Surrealist work in 1978, in response to an exhibition which infuriated him because it did not properly represent surrealism. The exhibition, entilted Surrealism Unlimited was in Paris, and attracted international attention. He held his his last one man show in 2002, just before his death in 2005.

Magritte's work became more realistic in its depiction of actual objects, while maintaining the element of juxtaposition, such as in [1951]'s Personal Values and 1954's Empire of Light. Magritte continued to produce works which have entered artistic vocabulary, such as Castle in the Pyrenees which refers back to Voix from 1931, in its suspension over a landscape.

Other figures from the surrealist movement were "expelled", for example Roberto Matta, but by their own description, "remained close to surrealism." Moreover, many new artists explicitly took up the surrealist banner for themselves, some following what they saw as the path of Dali, others holding to views they derived from Breton. Duchamp continued to produce sculpture and, at his death, was working on an installation with the realistic depiction of a woman viewable only through a peephole. Dorothea Tanning and Louise Bourgeois continued to work, for example with Tanning's Rainy Day Canape from 1970.

With the 1970's, Surrealism's desire to be understandable became a point of departure for many artists. These including Mark Tansey, who regard abstraction as fragmented, and incomplete as a tool of artistic conversation. Surrealism also remains enormously popular with museum patrons; the Tate Modern in 2001 held an exhibition of Surrealist Art that attracted over 170,000 vistors in its run. Having been one of the most important of movements in the Modern period, Surrealism proceded to inspire a new generation seeking to expand the vocabulary of art.

Since "Surrealism" ceased to have as much cachet in the world of modern art criticism, there has been an explosion of self-identified surrealists, having no more connection to the original surrealist movement than an admiration for one or more aspects of it. A sampling of current working artists who identify in one way or another might include Howard Newman , Quentin Shih , Kunihiro Shinohara and Alan Turner .

That surrealism has remained commercially successful and popularly recognized has lead many people associated with the Breton's Surrealist Group to criticise more general uses of the term. They argue that many self-identified surrealists are not grounded in Breton's work and the techniques of the movement.

The 1960s saw an expansion of surrealism with the founding of The West Coast Surrealist Group as recognized by Andre Breton's personal assistant Jose Pierre and also The Surrealist Movement in the United States.

Impact of Surrealism

While surrealism is typically associated with the arts, it has been said to transcend them; surrealism has had an impact in many other fields. In this sense, surrealism does not specifically refer only to self-identified "surrealists", or those sanctioned by Breton, rather, it refers to a range of creative acts of revolt and efforts to liberate the imagination.

In addition to Surrealist ideas that are grounded in the ideas of Hegel, Marx and Freud, surrealism is seen by its advocates as being inherently dynamic and is dialectic in its thought. Surrealist groups have also drawn on sources as seemingly diverse as Clark Ashton Smith, Bugs Bunny, comic strips, the obscure poet Samuel Greenberg and the hobo writer and humourist T-Bone Slim . One might say that surrealist strands may be found in movements such as Free Jazz (Don Cherry, Sun Ra, etc.) and even in the daily lives of people in confrontation with limiting social conditions. Thought of as the effort of humanity to liberate the imagination as an act of insurrection against society, surrealism dates back to, or finds precedents in, the alchemists, possibly Dante, various heretical groups, Hieronymus Bosch, Marquis de Sade, Charles Fourier, Comte de Lautreamont and Arthur Rimbaud. Surrealists believe that "Non-western" cultures also provide a continued source of inspiration for surrealist activity because some may strike up a better balance between instrumental reason and the imagination in flight than Western culture.

Some artists, such as H.R. Giger in Europe, who won an Academy Award for his stage set, and who also designed the "creature," in the movie Alien, have been popularly called "surrealists," though Giger is a visionary artist and it is speculated the he doesn't claim to be surrealist. The Society for the Art of Imagination has come in for particularly bitter criticism from a self-characterised surrealist movement (although this criticism has been characterized by at least one anonymous individual as coming from "the Marxists [sic] surrealist groups, who maintain small contingents worldwide;" he has also pointed out what he considers the hypocrisy of any surrealist criticism of the Society for the Art of Imagination given that Kathleen Fox designed the cover of issue 4 of the bulletin of the Groupe de Paris du Mouvement Surrealiste and also participated in the 2003 "Brave Destiny"[1] show at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center." Though some presented "Brave Destiny" as the largest-ever exhibit of surrealist artists, the show was officially billed as exhibiting "Surrealism, Surreal/Conceptual, Visionary, Fantastic , Symbolism, Magic Realism, the Vienna School , Neuve Invention , Outsider, Naïve, the Macabre , Grotesque and Singulier Art .")

Surrealist music

In the 1920's several composers were influenced by Surrealism, or by individuals in the Surrealist movment. Notably Bohuslav Martinu, Andre Souris and Edgar Varese who stated that his work Arcana was drawn from a dream sequence. Souris in particular was associated with the movement, he had a long, if sometimes spotty, relationship with Magritte, and worked on Paul Nouge 's publication Adieu Marie.

Even though Breton by 1946 responded rather negatively to the subject of music with his essay "Silence is Golden," later surrealists have been interested in, and found parallels to surrealism in, the improvisation of jazz (as alluded to above), and the blues (surrealists such as Paul Garon have written articles and full-length books on the subject). Jazz and blues musicians have occasionally reciprocated this interest; for example, the 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition included such performances by Honeyboy Edwards .

Surrealists have also analysed reggae and, later, rap, and some rock bands such as The Psychedelic Furs. In addition to musicians who have been influenced by surrealism (including some influence in rock -- the title of the 1967 psychedelic Jefferson Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow was obviously inspired by the movement, and some people claim that Frank Zappa's 1969 album Uncle Meat was a "surrealist record" -- particularly hardcore), such as the experimental group Nurse With Wound (whose album title "Chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and umbrella" is taken from a line in Lautreamont's "Maldoror"), surrealist music has included such explorations as those of Hal Rammel .

Surrealist film

Surrealist films such as Un chien andalou and L'Âge d'Or by Luis Buñuel.

Surrealist and film theorist Robert Benayoun has written books on Tex Avery, Woody Allen, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers.

Some have described David Lynch as a surrealist filmmaker. He has never participated in the surrealist movement or in any surrealist activity, but there are arguably some aspects of many of his films that are of surrealist interest.

Surreal Films

Surrealist television

Some have found the television series' The Prisoner and Lost to be of surrealist interest.

See also


  • Guillaume Appollinaire (1917, 1991). "Program Note for Parade", printed in Oeuvres en prose complètes, 2:865-866, Pierre Caizergues and Michel Décaudin, eds. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.
  • André Breton. The Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism, reprinted in:
    • Marguerite Bonnet, ed. (1988). Oeuvres complètes, 1:328. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.
  • André Breton, "Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism" (Gallimard 1952) (Paragon House English rev. ed. 1993). ISBN 1569249709.
  • "What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings of André Breton" (edited and with an Introduction by Franklin Rosemont). ISBN 0873488229.
  • André Breton, "Manifestoes of Surrealism" containing the 1st, 2nd and introduction to a possible 3rd Manifesto, and in addition the novel "The Soluble Fish" and political aspects of the surrealist movement. ISBN 0472179004.
  • Gerard Durozoi, History of the Surrealist Movement (translated by Alison Anderson, University of Chicago Press). ISBN 0226174115.
  • Rosemont, Franklin, Surrealism and Its Popular Accomplices San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books (1980). ISBN 087286121X.
  • Brotchie, Alastair and Gooding, Mel, eds. A Book of Surrealist Games Berkeley, CA: Shambhala (1995). ISBN 1570620849.
  • Alexandrian, Sarane. Surrealist Art London:Thames & Hudson, 1970.
  • Melly, George Paris and the Surrealists Thames & Hudson 1991
  • Lewis, Helena The Politics Of Surrealism 1988
  • Caws, Mary Ann Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology 2001 MIT Press

External links

Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13