A Short History of Surrealism

René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964
René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964

Surrealism was an artistic movement born in the early 1900s that formed part of the overall Modernist movement taking place during this time. It challenged conventional and classical representations in art. Instead Surrealism drew on images inspired by dreams and the subconscious… Artsper has rounded up the key facts to give you a short history on this dreamy artistic movement.

The Origins of Surrealism

The Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924
The Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924

In the wake of World War I, ideas of Surrealism emerged as a new cultural movement with roots in the Dada movement. The members of the Surrealist movement stood as a reaction against the “rationalism” which they believed had contributed to the horrifying events of World War I. Instead, Surrealists aimed to unite the conscious with the subconscious and bring this marriage into the real world. To achieve this, the members of the movement heavily leaned on ideas from Sigmund Freud. They paid particular attention to his concepts about dreams and the subconscious. André Breton, who fathered The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, hailed the subconscious as an abundant resource for imagination. He believed that this resource was accessible to both artists and writers.

Who Were the Surrealists?

Man Ray, A l'Heure de l'Observatoire - Les Amoureux , 1970
Man Ray, A l’Heure de l’Observatoire – Les Amoureux , 1970

As mentioned above it was the French writer, André Breton, who first marked the beginning of Surrealism with the publication of The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. The reaches of these ideas stretched far and wide with Surrealists coming from a variety of nations across Europe and America. Prominent names include Salvador Dali with his infamous dreamscapes, René Magritte with his witty paintings, the multidisciplinary Max Ernst or the surrealist photographer Man Ray (and these are just scratching the surface, artists such as Joan Miro were key in the movement!). Their styles ranged from being hyperrealistic to less precise images, from dark twisted themes to light playful compositions. However they were all united in their desire to represent the world in mind bending ways that defied conventions.

Female Surrealists

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943
Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943

Often, males surrealists would use the female body to represent their images of the world. Depictions of females were often sexualized, rendering women as merely the object of a painting. However, there were some key female surrealists who you should know about. Frida Kahlo, for example, needs no introduction. Her self portraits are infamous and opened up a whole discussion about the representation of females when done by a female. Another example is Meret Oppenheim who ran in the same circles as Breton and is known for her fur covered objects. Artist Kay Sage made a name for herself by imagining shadowy landscapes and dark buildings. Dorothea Tanning made women the subject of her pieces and used this to explore sexuality and desire. These, again, are just some of the incredible female surrealists who made their mark on the artistic world.

Methods Used to Access the Subconscious

Salvador Dali, Galatea of the Spheres, 1952
Salvador Dali, Galatea of the Spheres, 1952

Art produced by Surrealists was encouraged to be viewed as a way of exploring one’s own mind. They believed that reaching into the subconscious would bring about far more fruitful creativity than could ever be achieved by the conscious mind. The idea of “automatism” therefore appealed to them greatly. “Automatism” is a term used in psychology to describe actions that are involuntarily and do not require thought.

In conjunction with this was the use of dreams. Freud’s The Interpretations of Dreams was published in 1905. This publication greatly influenced Surrealists, particularly the likes of Salvador Dali, who revered Freud and the ideas he put forwards. This publication highlighted the significance of dreams as an untamed landscape in which the imagination ran wild, therefore granting access to the true primal desires of a person. The Surrealists sought to tap into this in their works. They aimed to unleash the chaos within an unconscious mind. To do this they used methods such as hypnosis, automatic writing, recording events in a dream and intuitive walking. There are accounts of artists attempting to keep themselves in a constant state of delirium through methods such as sleep depravation or staring at a fixed object for long periods of time.

Surrealism in the 21st Century

Julie Lagier, Vue sur mer, 2019, available on Artsper
Julie Lagier, Vue sur mer, 2019, available on Artsper

The Surrealist movement continues to inspire many artists to this day. However now there is an added dimension from technological advancements in the 21st century. Artists can experiment with 3D animation, modern film making techniques and photography to create visual spectacles and explore ideas provided by Surrealism. Artists who produce ‘surrealist’ paintings today may not be considered ‘Surrealists’ in their purist form. However, it is undeniable that the echoes of this movement that broke with conventions can still be seen today. 

To conclude, the Surrealist movement is a fascinating moment in the history of art that was born out of the desire to escape reality. The Surrealists sought to kick against and question a world that, ruled by rationality, had seen war and destruction.  It was a movement that prided itself on the irrationality of life. Ultimately it led to a shifted perspective of the world as it allowed people to delve deep into their own existence and psyches. It is a movement that continues to inspire artists today across different mediums