Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Surrealism Works

The History of Surrealism

The fervor of the Dada movement started to wane around 1924, and many of its practitioners started to transition to the style of Surrealism. The movement was launched formally by André Breton, a Parisian writer, who issued a manifesto that included a dictionary and an encyclopedic definition of the word "Surrealism." Varying translations of the two can be found, but one rendition from R. Seaver and H.R. Lane appears in their book "André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism."

The dictionary entry defines the noun Surrealism as:

Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

While the encyclopedia entry describes the philosophy Surrealism as:

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 [...]

[source: Charles Harrison and Paul Wood]

At first Surrealism was mainly concentrated in literature, but the movement gradually expanded to include other artistic genres. Painters and other visual artists were quickly brought into the loop, and their first group exhibition debuted in 1925.

Although Breton's group was based in Paris, Surrealist groups started to spring up in other cities, too. Often they would publish journals and reviews; Breton, for example, published "La Révolution surréaliste" ("The Surrealist Revolution"). The groups would also meet to discuss current events, argue philosophical points and collaborate on different projects.

It wasn't all fun and games, however. Bitter arguments and spiteful rivalries often raged among the different artists, sometimes causing groups to splinter into competing factions.