Surrealism, the Amazing Art of Dreams

Discover the Weird World of Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Max Ernst and Others

Two halves of a fractured face next to a serene ocean.
René Magritte. The Double Secret, 1927. Oil on canvas. 114 x 162 cm (44.8 x 63.7 in). Hannelore Foerster via Getty Images

Surrealism defies logic. Dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind inspire surrealistic art (French for "super-realism") filled with strange images and bizarre juxtapositions.

Creative thinkers have always toyed with reality, but in the early 20th century Surrealism emerged as a philosophic and cultural movement. Fueled by the teachings of Freud and the rebellious work of Dada artists and poets, surrealists like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Max Ernst promoted free association and dream imagery. Visual artists, poets, playwrights, composers, and film-makers looked for ways to liberate the psyche and tap hidden reservoirs of creativity.

Features of Surrealistic Art

  • Dream-like scenes and symbolic images
  • Unexpected, illogical juxtapositions
  • Bizarre assemblages of ordinary objects
  • Automatism and a spirit of spontaneity
  • Games and techniques to create random effects
  • Personal iconography
  • Visual puns 
  • Distorted figures and biomorphic shapes
  • Uninhibited sexuality and taboo subjects
  • Primitive or child-like designs

How Surrealism Became a Cultural Movement

Art from the distant past can appear surreal to the modern eye. Dragons and demons populate ancient frescos and medieval triptychs. Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593) used trompe l’oeil effects ("fool the eye") to depict human faces made of fruit, flowers, insects, or fish. The Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) turned barnyard animals and household objects into terrifying monsters.

Surrealistic rock formations painted by Bosch and Salvador Dali
Did Salvador Dalí model his strange rock after an image by Hieronymus Bosch? Left: Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503–1504, by Hieronymus Bosch. Right: Detail from The Great Masturbator, 1929, by Salvador Dalí. Credit: Leemage/Corbis and Bertrand Rindoff Petroff via Getty Images

Twentieth-century surrealists praised "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and called Bosch their predecessor. Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) may have imitated Bosch when he painted the odd, face-shaped rock formation in his shockingly erotic masterpiece, "The Great Masturbator." However, the creepy images Bosch painted are not surrealist in the modern sense. It’s likely that Bosch aimed to teach Biblical lessons rather than to explore dark corners of his psyche.

Similarly, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593)’s delightfully complex and freakish portraits are visual puzzles designed to amuse rather than to probe the unconscious. Although they look surreal, paintings by early artists reflected deliberate thought and conventions of their time.

In contrast, 20th-century surrealists rebelled against convention, moral codes, and the inhibitions of the conscious mind.The movement emerged from Dada, an avant-garde approach to art that mocked the establishment. Marxist ideas sparked a disdain for Capitalist society and a thirst for social rebellion. The writings of Sigmund Freud suggested that higher forms of truth might be found in the subconscious. Moreover, the chaos and tragedy of World War I spurred a desire to break from tradition and explore new forms of expression. 

In 1917, French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) used the term “surréalisme” to describe Parade, an avant-garde ballet with music by Erik Satie, costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso, and story and choreography by other leading artists. Rival factions of young Parisians embraced surréalisme and hotly debated the meaning of the term. The movement officially launched in 1924 when poet André Breton (1896–1966) published the First Manifesto of Surrealism.

Tools and Techniques of Surrealist Artists

Early followers of the Surrealism movement were revolutionaries who sought to unleash human creativity. Breton opened a Bureau for Surrealist Research where members conducted interviews and assembled an archive of sociological studies and dream images. Between 1924 and 1929 they published twelve issues of La Révolutionsur réaliste, a journal of militant treatises, suicide and crime reports, and explorations into the creative process.

At first, Surrealism was mostly a literary movement. Louis Aragon (1897–1982), Paul Éluard (1895–1952), and other poets experimented with automatic writing, or automatism, to free their imaginations. Surrealist writers also found inspiration in cut-up, collage, and other types of found poetry.

Visual artists in the Surrealism movement relied on drawing games and a variety of experimental techniques to randomize the creative process. For example, in a method known as decalcomania, artists splashed paint on to paper, then rubbed the surface to create patterns. Similarly, bulletism involved shooting ink onto a surface, and éclaboussure involved spattering liquid onto a painted surface that was then sponged. Odd and often humorous assemblages of found objects became a popular way to create juxtapositions that challenged preconceptions.

A devout Marxist, André Breton believed that art springs from a collective spirit. Surrealist artists often worked on projects together.The October 1927 issue of La Révolution surréaliste featured works generated from a collaborative activity called Cadavre Exquis, or Exquisite Corpse. Participants took turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper. Since no one knew what already existed on the page, the final outcome was a surprising and absurd composite.

Surrealist Art Styles

Visual artists in the Surrealism movement were a diverse group. Early works by European surrealists often followed the Dada tradition of turning familiar objects into satirical and nonsensical artworks. As the Surrealism movement evolved, artists developed new systems and techniques for exploring the irrational world of the subconscious mind. Two trends emerged: Biomorphic (or, abstract) and Figurative.

Surrealistic town square at night with empty arches, distant train.
Giorgio de Chirico. From the Metaphysical Town Square Series, ca. 1912. Oil on canvas. Dea / M. Carrieri via Getty Images

Figurative surrealists produced recognizable representational art. Many of the figurative surrealists were profoundly influenced by Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), an Italian painter who founded the Metafisica, or Metaphysical, movement. They praised the dreamlike quality of de Chirico's deserted town squares with rows of arches, distant trains, and ghostly figures. Like de Chirico, figurative surrealists used techniques of realism to render startling, hallucinatory scenes.

Biomorphic (abstract) surrealists wanted to break entirely free from convention. They explored new media and created abstract works composed of undefined, often unrecognizable, shapes and symbols. Surrealism exhibits held in Europe during the 1920s and early 1930s featured both figurative and biomorphic styles, as well as works that might be classified as Dadaist.

Great Surrealist Artists in Europe

Jean Arp: Born in Strasbourg, Jean Arp (1886–1966) was a Dada pioneer who wrote poetry and experimented with a variety of visual mediums such as torn paper and wooden relief constructions. His interest in organic forms and spontaneous expression aligned with surrealist philosophy. Arp exhibited with Surrealist artists in Paris and became best known for fluid, biomorphic sculptures such as "Tête et coquille" (Head and Shell). During the 1930s, Arp transitioned to a non-prescriptive style he called Abstraction-Création.

Salvador Dalí: Spanish Catalan artist Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) was embraced by the Surrealism movement in the late 1920s only to be expelled in 1934. Nevertheless, Dalí acquired international fame as an innovator who embodied the spirit of Surrealism, both in his art and in his flamboyant and irreverent behavior. Dalí conducted widely-publicized dream experiments in which he reclined in bed or in a bathtub while sketching his visions. He claimed that the melting watches in his famous painting, "The Persistence of Memory," came from self-induced hallucinations.

Paul Delvaux: Inspired by the works of Giorgio de Chirico, Belgian artist Paul Delvaux (1897–1994) became associated with Surrealism when he painted illusionary scenes of semi-nude women sleep-walking through classical ruins. In "L’aurore" (The Break of Day), for example, women with tree-like legs stand rooted as mysterious figures move beneath distant arches overgrown with vines.

Max Ernst: A German artist of many genres, Max Ernst (1891–1976) rose from the Dada movement to become one of the earliest and most ardent surrealists. He experimented with automatic drawing, collages, cut-ups, frottage (pencil rubbings), and other techniques to achieve unexpected juxtapositions and visual puns. His 1921 painting "Celebes" places a headless woman with a beast that is part machine, part elephant. The title of the painting is from a German nursery rhyme.

Alberto Giacometti: Sculptures by the Swiss-born surrealist Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) look like toys or primitive artifacts, but they make disturbing references to trauma and sexual obsessions. "Femme égorgée" (Woman with Her Throat Cut) distorts anatomical parts to create a form that is both horrific and playful. Giacometti departed from Surrealism in the late 1930s and became known for figurative representations of elongated human forms.

Playful line figures with distorted shapes in a colorful circus setting.
Paul Klee. Music at the fair, 1924-26. De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti via Getty Images

Paul Klee: German-Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) came from a musical family, and he filled his paintings with a personal iconography of musical notes and playful symbols. His work is most closely associated with Expressionism and Bauhaus. However, members of the Surrealism movement admired Klee’s use of automatic drawings to generate uninhibited paintings like Music at the Fair, and Klee was included in surrealist exhibitions.  

Placid men at a crime scene with a dead woman
René Magritte. The Menaced Assassin, 1927. Oil on canvas. 150.4 x 195.2 cm (59.2 × 76.9 in). Colin McPherson via Getty Images

René Magritte: The Surrealism movement was already well underway when Belgian artist René Magritte (1898–1967) moved to Paris and joined the founders. He became known for realistic renderings of hallucinatory scenes, disturbing juxtapositions, and visual puns. "The Menaced Assassin," for example, puts placid men wearing suits and bowler hats in the midst of a gruesome pulp novel crime scene.

André Masson: Injured and traumatized during World War I, André Masson (1896-–1987) became an early follower of the Surrealism movement and an enthusiastic proponent of automatic drawing. He experimented with drugs, skipped sleep, and refused food to weaken his conscious control over the motions of his pen. Seeking spontaneity, Masson also threw glue and sand at canvases and painted the shapes that formed. Although Masson eventually returned to more traditional styles, his experiments led to new, expressive approaches to art.

Colorful abstract shapes floating in a swirl of thin lines
Joan Miró. Femme et oiseaux (Woman and Birds), 1940, #8 from Miró’s Constellations series. Oil wash and gouache on paper. 38 x 46 cm (14.9 x 18.1 in). Credit: Tristan Fewings via Getty Images

Joan Miró: Painter, print-maker, collage artist, and sculptor Joan Miró (1893–1983) created brightly colored, biomorphic shapes that seemed to bubble up from the imagination. Miró used doodling and automatic drawing to spark his creativity, but his works were carefully composed. He exhibited with the surrealist group and many of his works show the influence of the movement. "Femme et oiseaux" (Woman and Birds) from Miró’s Constellations series suggests a personal iconography that is both recognizable and strange.

Meret Oppenheim: Among the many works by Méret Elisabeth Oppenheim (1913–1985) were assemblages so outrageous that the European surrealists welcomed her into their all-male community. Oppenheim grew up in a family of Swiss psychoanalysts and she followed the teachings of Carl Jung. Her notorious "Object in Fur" (also known as "Luncheon in Fur") merged a beast (the fur) with a symbol of civilization (a tea cup). The unsettling hybrid became known as the epitome of Surrealism. 

Pablo Picasso: When the Surrealism movement launched, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was already lauded as a forefather of Cubism. Picasso’s Cubist paintings and sculptures were not derived from dreams and he only skirted the edges of the Surrealism movement. Nevertheless, his work expressed a spontaneity that aligned with surrealist ideology. Picasso exhibited with surrealist artists and had works reproduced in La Révolution surréaliste. His interest in iconography and primitive forms led to a series of increasingly surrealistic paintings. For example, "On the Beach" (1937) places distorted human forms in a dream-like setting. Picasso also wrote surrealistic poetry composed of fragmented images separated by dashes. Here’s an excerpt from a poem that Picasso wrote in November 1935:

when the bull–opens the gateway of the horse’s belly–with his horn–and sticks his snout out to the edge–listen in the deepest of all deepest holds–and with saint lucy’s eyes–to the sounds of moving vans–tight packed with picadors on ponies–cast off by a black horse
Two hazy white shapes on a black background.
Man Ray. Rayograph,1922. Gelatin silver print (photogram). 22.5 x 17.3 cm (8.8 x 6.8 in). Historical Picture Archive via Getty Images

Man Ray: Born in the United States, Emmanuel Radnitzky (1890–1976) was the son of a tailor and a seamstress. The family adopted the name “Ray” to hide their Jewish identity during an era of intense anti-Semitism. In 1921, “Man Ray” moved to Paris, where he became important in the Dada and surrealist movements.Working in a variety of media, he explored ambiguous identities and random outcomes. His rayographs were eerie images created by placing objects directly onto photographic paper.

Metronome with a drawing of an eye attached
Man Ray. Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed), Oversized reproduction of 1923 original. Exhibition at Prado Museum, Madrid. Atlantide Phototravel via Getty Images

Man Ray was also noted for bizarre three-dimensional assemblages such as "Object to Be Destroyed," which juxtaposed a metronome with a photograph of a woman’s eye. Ironically, the original "Object to Be Destroyed" was lost during an exhibition.

Yves Tanguy: Still in his teens when the word surréalisme emerged, French-born artist Yves Tanguy (1900–1955) taught himself to paint the hallucinatory geological formations that made him an icon of the Surrealism movement. Dreamscapes like "Le soleil dans son écrin" (The Sun in Its Jewel Case) illustrate Tanguy’s fascination for primordial forms. Realistically rendered, many of Tanguy’s paintings were inspired by his travels in Africa and the American Southwest.

Surrealists in the Americas

Surrealism as an art style far outlived the cultural movement founded by André Breton. The passionate poet and rebel was quick to expel members from the group if they didn’t share his left-wing views. In 1930, Breton published a "Second Manifesto of Surrealism," in which he railed against the forces of materialism and condemned artists who didn’t embrace collectivism. Surrealists formed new alliances. As World War II loomed, many headed to the United States.

The prominent American collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) exhibited surrealists, including Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, and her own husband, Max Ernst. André Breton continued to write and promote his ideals until his death in 1966, but by then Marxist and Freudian dogma had faded from Surrealistic art. An impulse for self-expression and freedom from the constraints of the rational world led painters like Willem de Kooning (1904-–1997) and Arshile Gorky (1904–1948) to Abstract Expressionism.

Huge spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois illuminated at night
Louise Bourgeois. Maman (Mother), 1999. Stainless steel, bronze, and marble. 9271 x 8915 x 10236 mm (about 33 feet high). On exhibit at the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Nick Ledger / Getty Images

Meanwhile, several leading women artists reinvented Surrealism in the United States. Kay Sage (1898–1963) painted surreal scenes of large architectural structures. Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012) won acclaim for photo-realistic paintings of surreal images. French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) incorporated archetypes and sexual themes into highly personal works and monumental sculptures of spiders.

Portrait of Frida Kahlo in a white headdress with a portrait of Diego Rivera engraved on her forehead.
Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind), 1943. (Cropped) Oil on Masonite. Gelman Collection, Mexico City. Roberto Serra - Iguana Press / Getty Images

In Latin America, Surrealism mingled with cultural symbols, primitivism, and myth. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) denied that she was a surrealist, telling Time magazine, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Nevertheless, Kahlo's psychological self-portraits possess the other-worldly characteristics of surrealistic art and the literary movement of Magical Realism.

The Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) was midwife to a unique national style composed of biomorphic forms, distorted human bodies, and cultural iconography. Steeped in symbolism, Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings might be loosely described as surrealistic. However the dreams they express are those of an entire nation. Like Kahlo, she developed a singular style apart from the European movement.

Although Surrealism no longer exists as a formal movement, contemporary artists continue to explore dream imagery, free-association, and the possibilities of chance.


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Craven, Jackie. "Surrealism, the Amazing Art of Dreams." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Craven, Jackie. (2023, April 5). Surrealism, the Amazing Art of Dreams. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Surrealism, the Amazing Art of Dreams." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).