What Is Surrealism?

Early 1920s to the Present

Salvador Dalí - Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936
Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904-1989). Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936. Oil on canvas. 39 5/16 x 39 3/8 in. (99.9 x 100 cm). The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. 1950-134-41. Philadelphia Museum of Art. © Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Surrealists feasted on the unconscious. They believed that Freud's theories on dreams, ego, superego and the id opened doors to the authentic self and a truer reality (the "surreal"). Like the Dadaists, they relished the possibilities of chance and spontaneity.

Their leader, the "Pope of Surrealism," was French writer André Breton (1896-1966), who joined fellow writers Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, and Robert Denos (among many others) in their appreciation of nineteenth-century "bad boys" Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and Isidore Ducasse (whose pseudonym was Comte de Lautrémont, 1846-1870).

One quote from Lautrémont's prose-poem Les Chants de Maldoror expresses the Surrealist spirit concisely: "the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!"

Man Ray's The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920) refers to this quotation.

This approach to art was radical! Art schools and studios from time immemorial stressed the methodical application of one's skill. To let go of deliberate action - however, quickly or slowly executed it might be - seemed antithetical to the whole concept of art itself.

For the Surrealists, the idea of skill from training was understood. Their philosophy was to let go of the constraints of learned skills and tradition methods of making art. They sought out children's art, naïf art (for example, Henri Rousseau), "primitive" art and "outsider" art (such as the art made by patients in mental institutions) to stoke the fires of their almost incoherent inventions.

The Origin of the Word "Surreal"

The word "surreal" was coined by the poet/art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), and appeared for the first time in the program notes for ballet Parade (May 1917), a Ballets Russes production that enlisted the talents of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie and Leonid Massine.

Apollinaire also describe his play The Breasts of Tiresias (June 1917) as "surreal."

However, Apollinaire died six years before André Breton published his "Manifesto of Surrealism" (1924), and therefore his use of the word surreal may not be exactly the same as Breton's.

Today, we associate the word "surreal" with strange juxtapositions or absurd combinations, like those experienced in dreams. This concept belongs to Breton's interpretation of the word..

How Long Was Surrealism a Movement?

Surrealism officially began with "The Manifesto of Surrealism," published in 1924. However, it grew out of Dada.

Surrealism never died, it simply splintered into numerous directions and influenced new movements, with different names. Some artists still identify themselves as Surrealists and some founding Surrealist artists are still alive (see the list below).

What Are the Key Characteristics of Surrealism?

  • The exploration of the dream and unconsciousness as a valid form of reality, inspired by Sigmund Freud's writings.
  • A willingness to depict images of perverse sexuality, scatology, decay and violence.
  • The desire to push against the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviors and traditions in order to discover pure thought and the artist's true nature.
  • The incorporation of chance and spontaneity.
  • The influence of revolutionary 19th century poets, such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Isidore Ducasse.
  • Emphasis on the mysterious, marvelous, mythological and irrational in an effort to make art ambiguous and strange.
  • Fundamentally, Surrealism gave artists permission to express their most basic drives: hunger, sexuality, anger, fear, dread, ecstasy, and so forth.
  • Exposing these uncensored feelings as if in a dream still exists in many form of art to this day.
  • Two stylistic schools: Biomorphism and Naturalistic Surrealism.

What Are the Best Examples of Surrealism?

  • Max Ernst, , 1924. (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
  • Joan Miró, Carnival of Harlequin, 1924-25. (Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY)
  • René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe), 1929. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
  • Jean (Hans) Arp, Head with Three Annoying Objects, 1930. (Estate of the artist).
  • Salvador Dalí, , 1931. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Best Known Surrealist Artists:

  • Jean Arp (1886-1966)
  • Hans Bellmer (1907-1975)
  • Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
  • Leonora Carrington (b. 1917)
  • Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
  • Salvadore Dalí (1904-1989)
  • Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
  • Max Ernst (1891-1976)
  • Leonor Fini (1907-1996)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
  • Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
  • Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982)
  • René Magritte (1898-1967)
  • Henri Moore (1898-1986)
  • André Masson (1896-1987)
  • Roberto Matta (1911-2002)
  • Joan Miró (1893-1983)
  • Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985)
  • Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
  • Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
  • Man Ray (1890-1976)
  • Kay Sage (1898-1963)
  • Yves Tanguy (1900-1955)
  • Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

A Surrealist Parlor Game: "Exquisite Cadavers," a.k.a. "The Exquisite Corpse"

This exercise was used to suppress the guarded mind, let chance play its role and get the creative juices flowing. Its name comes from the first time the game was played. The first sentence composed was: "The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine." To play:

  • Write down any word at the top of a blank piece of paper.
  • Fold the paper down so that it hides the word and pass the paper to another person.
  • Have that person write down a random word and fold the paper over the word.
  • Pass the paper to another person and have him/her repeat: write the random word and fold to hide that word.
  • When the paper is completely folded, open the paper to expose the list of words.
  • Read the list of words as if it were a sentence.


    • Draw one image, fold down the paper and pass the paper along to the next person.
    • The chain of random words or images would be considered a cadavre exquis - an exquisite corpse

    Suggested Sources:

    Breton, André. The First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).

    Gilles, Vincent, Jennifer Mundy and Dawn Ades. Surrealism: Desire Unbound.
    Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

    Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism.
    London and New York: Phaidon, 2010.

    Rubin, William. Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage.
    New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968.

    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "What Is Surrealism?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-surrealism-183312. Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2017, June 11). What Is Surrealism? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-surrealism-183312 Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "What Is Surrealism?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-surrealism-183312 (accessed January 21, 2018).