The Surrealist art movement originated from the earlier Dada movement. Dada was a movement where artists expressed their dislike with the war and with life as a whole. These artists showed that European culture had lost its meaning when they created “anti-art” or “nonart” pieces.

Surrealism was a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s primarily focused on providing a visual representation of your unconscious desires. Often called it psycho-analytical, the artists explored and reflected the chaos, fears, perspectives of the human mind.

The main idea was to go against traditional art and all that it stood for. To mimic a baby's talk, the name "Dada" was found to show their feelings of nonsense toward the art world in general. Art that originated from this movement often promotes violence, protest, and war.


Origin of Surrealism Art

After World War I, artists and intellectuals alike were searching for an escape route from the harsh weather of reality. The Dada movement wanted to reshape the world in their image. And with the help of Freud’s ability to tap into the unconscious part of our thoughts, he had a massive influence on achieving that goal.

By 1924, the Surrealist group was then founded, and later men like Max Ernst, Joan Miro, and Andre Masson became principal members.

The interests of the artistic exploitation of the unconscious human mind began to rise rapidly. They were eager to explore the issues of dreams, trances, and hallucinations. This was then eventually described in Sigmund Freud’s work.

The Surrealist group, along with Andre Breton, made art pieces, poetry, and also hypnotic writing. This was why most of their works depicted dream-like and unconscious works.

Read interesting stories about Frida Kahlo’s Lust for Life or Salvador Dali’s surreal art journey 

Definition of Surrealism

Surrealism can be defined as the medium of “Psychic automatism,” which we use in its purest form in order t0 express their messages verbally, in writing, and of course, the process of thoughts. The use of opinion without the presence of control either by moral or aesthetic means (Leslie 59).

Also, the general idea of Surrealism is non-conformity. This state happened to be not as extreme as the philosophies of the Dada movement since Surrealism could still be called art.

Breton also claimed that the most important part of Surrealism was “pure psychic automatism.” It possesses the techniques that had never been used before in the history of art. However, he was a firm believer that true Surrealists didn’t have a real talent whatsoever but only spoke their thought as they happened, which reflected in their artworks. (Leslie 61-63).

Suggesting “beyond reality,” the word “surrealist” was founded by the French avant-garde poet  Guillaume Apollinaire in a play written in 1903 and was then performed later in 1917. As a new leader of a growing group of poets and artists in the city of Paris, his Surrealism Manifesto book of 1924 defined Surrealism as;

A pure psychic automatism, which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or in any other manner, which is the real functioning thought.  Also, the dictation of thought in the absence of control exercised by reason apart from of all aesthetic and moral application.


Surrealism makes use of many methods to create and provide the needed effect and inspiration. Below are the ways;

  • Collage- This is about assembling different techniques to create a whole(e.g., The Hat Makes the Man by Max Ernst)
  • Cubomania- It is described as a form of collage where an image is cut into squares and reassembled randomly. This technique was invented by Romanian Surrealist artist Gherasim Luca,
  • Decalcomania- This was a technique that involved spreading thick paint on canvas when still wet and then covering it with paper or foil. This is then removed again while still damp, and the result is a pattern that becomes the base of the finished art piece.
  • Eclaboussure- This is the process if placing paints down where the water is splattered. The painting is then entirely soaked, which then reveals random splats and dots when the media is removed.
  • Frottage- This method is being used by a pencil, which is used to rub over a textured surface.
  • Fumage-   Also, be referred to as Sfumato, this art technique is made with the effective use of impressions by some of a candle or lamp into a black canvas.
  • Grattage- This has been achieved by scraping out paint from the canvas to reveal an imprint placed beneath.

The Impact of Surrealism in contemporary culture, art, cinema, and fashion.

Why Surrealism Matters in Art?

The desire to breaking free of a reason led Surrealism to question art’s most basic foundation. The idea of art is the product of a single artist’s creative imagination.
Breton then promoted the cadavre exquis, or “exquisite corpse” as a technique for collectively creating art. This is widely regarded as a game today.

This involves beginning a sentence, a collage or sketch by an artist, and then giving the work to another artist to continue. However, the second artist also has no idea of what had been written or drawn in the first place.

“The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” This term was entirely derived from a simple game of creating random prose that is merged into the sentence.

The method understood chance and the tendency to create images that displayed humor, absurd, and unsettling images. This made it a formidable technique for producing a collective and unconscious art piece. It was what Surrealist was all after.

Key Highlights

  • To revolutionize the human experience, Surrealism rejected the rational vision of life. This was to find value in the unconscious and dreams. The artists and poets of this movement discovered the magic and strange beauty in the unexpected, the uncanny, the disregarded, and the unconventional details of the art.
  • Surrealist always believed in what they called the innocent eye. It was defined as where art was created; in the unconscious mind (Mak 1). Most surrealists worked with psychology and the fantasy aspect of visual techniques. These techniques were based on feelings, memories, and also dreams.
  • Throughout the course of history, it is claimed that these surrealists needed the medium of drugs and ecstasy to venture into the dream world to seek unconscious images and sequences which can’t be found in the real and conscious world.
  • An art image created by a surrealist artist is the most recognizable element of the movement. Yet, it was also the most difficult to identify and categorize. Each of the artists relied heavily on the psychedelic images of their unconscious minds and dreams.  At its basic form, surrealism imagery is usually outlandish, visually confusing, and strange, with the sole aim of pushing the audience out of their comfort zone of thought.
  • Nature was the most frequent and trusted imagery in surrealism art. For example, Max Ernst was very fond of birds, which made him have an alter ego of a bird. Salvador Dali regularly includes ants or eggs in his works while Joan Miro was obsessed with vague and cryptic images,
  • Surrealism laid a lot of emphasis on the free form of content and details. It served as a significant alternative to the contemporary art style and Cubist movements. This eventually caused the modern art paintings to focus more on content.
  • Given that male artists mostly dominated Surrealism, it was sometimes referred to as a sexist movement. Despite that, some notable women still made their way into the tight Surrealism art circle
  • Some of the women have close relationships with their male counterparts but also flourished excellently in creating and exhibiting surrealist art. Examples of these women were; Kay Sage, Dorothy Tanning, Meret Oppenheim, ad Leonora Carrington. They later became essential members of the Surrealist group of the time.
  • Their major role can be highlighted by the in-depth exploration of the groundbreaking book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, which was written by Whitney Chadwick and published in 1985.
  • This brings us to the fact that the Surrealism art style influenced the late 20th century. Numerous themes and techniques of this postmodern era were identical to Surrealism, thereby reflecting its influence in the later stages of the century.


Surrealism  – Major Artworks

Art History Movements (Order by the period of origin)

Dawn of Man – BC 10

Paleolithic Art (Dawn of Man – 10,000 BC), Neolithic Art (8000 BC – 500 AD), Egyptian Art (3000 BC - 100 AD), Ancient Near Eastern Art (Neolithic era – 651 BC),  Bronze and Iron Age Art (3000 BC – Debated), Aegean Art (2800-100 BC), Archaic Greek Art (660-480 BC), Classical Greek Art (480-323 BC ), Hellenistic Art (323 BC – 27 BC), Etruscan Art (700 - 90 BC)

1st Century to 10th Century

Roman Art (500 BC – 500 AD), Celtic Art. Parthian and Sassanian Art (247 BC – 600 AD), Steppe Art (9000BC – 100 AD), Indian Art (3000 BC - current), Southeast Asian Art (2200 BC - Present), Chinese and Korean Art,  Japanese Art (11000 BC – Present),  Early Christian Art (260-525 AD,  Byzantine Art (330 – 1453 AD), Irish Art (3300 BC - Present), Anglo Saxon Art (450 – 1066 AD), Viking Art (780 AD-1100AD), Islamic Art (600 AD-Present)

10thCentury to 15th Century

Pre Columbian Art (13,000 BC – 1500 AD), North American Indian and Inuit Art (4000 BC - Present), African Art (),  Oceanic Art (1500 – 1615 AD), Carolingian Art (780-900 AD), Ottonian Art (900 -1050 AD), Romanesque Art (1000 AD – 1150 AD), Gothic Art (1100 – 1600 AD), The survival of Antiquity ()

Art History - 15th century onwards

Renaissance Style (1300-1700), The Northern Renaissance (1500 - 1615), Mannerism (1520 – 17th Century), The Baroque (1600-1700), The Rococo (1600-1700), Neo Classicism (1720 - 1830),  Romanticism (1790 -1890), Realism (1848 - Present), Impressionism (1860 - 1895), Post-Impressionism (1886 - 1904), Symbolism and Art Nouveau (1880 -1910), Fauvism , Expressionism (1898 - 1920), Cubism  . Futurism (1907-1928 )Abstract Art (1907 – Present Day), Dadasim,. Surrealism (1916 - 1970),. Latin American Art (1492 - Present, Modern American Art (1520 – 17th Century), Postwar European Art (1945 - 1970), Australian Art (28,000 BC - Present), South African Art (98,000 BC - Present)


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