How Surrealism Works

Many of the Dadaists pictured here influenced Surrealism or would later become Surrealists themselves.  
Many of the Dadaists pictured here influenced Surrealism or would later become Surrealists themselves.  
Apic/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fantastic, absurd, grotesque, improbable, erotic, bizarre or captivating; whatever words pop into your head when you see a piece of Surrealist art, chances are you still have some idea that what you're looking at is, indeed, Surrealist art -- or at the very least, a close artistic relation.

The Surrealism movement, which today is most commonly associated with its paintings, had its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. But to really understand what Surrealism is all about, we first have to examine what was brewing in the art world, and the world at large, to set the stage for the budding Surrealists. Several art movements that followed the turn of the century likely played a part in the creation of Surrealism, none more so than Dadaism. Dada sprang from the horrors of ]World War I, when artists -- appalled by the disgusting filth, brutal slaughter and psychological trauma associated with the Great War -- sought a means of rebellion against society at large.


The Dadaists turned their backs on everything previously revered by the art world (think of Marcel Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa) and treated objects with an irreverent and bitter absurdity that hinted at the traumatized artists' dark sentiments. Their aim was to shock the world and to stimulate a cultural reawakening, while attempting to unlock their subconscious and benefit from the catharsis that the artistic process delivered.

Dadaism was more of a mind-set than a particular style, and it was moving along a trajectory similar to that of psychoanalysts such as Freud and Jung, whose work would also heavily influence the Surrealists. Once the fiery spirit of Dadaism began to settle in the aftermath of the war, many of the movement's artists became submerged in the otherworldly and enigmatic style of Surrealism, which was even more invested in the idea of unlocking the unconscious and delving into the world of dreams.

Surrealism also occurred in the context of a rapidly advancing technological landscape and the mainstream modernization of the early 20th century. Surrealists were against this evolution; it served to enhance their need for cultural rebellion. On the next page, we'll take a closer look at some of the key tenets of the Surrealist movement.


The Techniques and Philosophies of Surrealism

The Surrealists frequently combined their visual arts with the written word, such as in this publication -- "Minotaure" -- which was issued in the 1930s.
The Surrealists frequently combined their visual arts with the written word, such as in this publication -- "Minotaure" -- which was issued in the 1930s.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As with Dadaism, one of the primary techniques practiced by many Surrealists was the process of automatism. Similar to other artistic manifestations such as improvisational free jazz, automatism involves writing and drawing with as little conscious control as possible.

This technique was considered valuable because the Surrealists believed it allowed them to tap into their subconscious and explore the realms of their inner psyches while consequently expanding that territory. Dreams were also of great significance, as these were considered a chief route to the primal self, encased by what they believed to be an artificially constructed cultural consciousness. In an extension of this, Surrealist art sometimes featured recurring symbolism to convey different intentions. Dalí, for instance, was famous for his soft watches, which were meant to convey the idea that time is fluid. Ants stood for putrefaction and transition, while drawers symbolized memories that could be locked away.


Creating odd and often thought-provoking juxtapositions was another core Surrealist technique, with fragments coming together in unconventional contexts. In fact, the more various puzzle pieces differed from one another -- and the greater the sense that the newfound relationship was genuine -- the more profound the conveyed message was believed to be. This relates to the word "surreal" itself, which was meant to express the idea that Surrealism goes above and beyond mundane reality, that it reforms and transcends it.

Surrealist paintings often leave viewers with a confused or eerie sensation. Apart from crazy juxtapositions, the art might portray menacing shadows cast by figures lurking just outside the frame or twisted objects that look like characters out of a nightmare or a hallucination. Components that many might consider perverse or grotesque are fair game, and eroticism often plays a role as well. All in all, Surrealism can easily come off as disturbing, or at the very least, a bit unsettling.

Now that we've had a look at some of the hallmark characteristics of Surrealism, let's take a closer look at who founded the movement, as well as the other creative savants who defined the Surrealist style.


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.


The Surrealist Artists

The best-known Surrealist today is probably Salvador Dalí, but there were many artists in the Surrealist movement, both officially and unofficially. Here are a few examples:

  • Max Ernst, an early adherent to the genre, was particularly fond of two techniques that fostered spontaneity, one called decalcomania and the other called frottage, which he helped pioneer. Both methods involve an element of unpredictability; for frottage, you create textured designs by making rubbings over substances like sand or grit; and for decalcomania, you press paint between two pieces of paper, making mirrored blot images. Ernst was also fond of collage as a technique for combining dissonant objects.
  • René Magritte was a master at making nonsensical juxtapositions in his paintings. From a castle perched on a floating rock to a toy train steaming out of a fireplace, as well as all manner of oddly devised people, Magritte had a flair for devising unexpected schemes.
  • Frida Kahlo is often considered a Surrealist for her vivid plunges into scenarios depicting the tumultuous psychological experiences that came with a life haunted by physical suffering.
  • Man Ray helped popularize photography as an artistic medium as opposed to a purely practical endeavor. One of his techniques involved placing objects directly onto a piece of photographic paper and exposing it to light. He liked to call the results "rayographs." Ray was one of the many jack-of-all-trade Surrealists: he was a painter, sculptor, philosopher, essayist, poet and filmmaker.
  • Joan Miró was one of the painters who, while not officially affiliated with the Surrealist doctrine, did paint in the Surrealist style. He specialized in using automatism to create biomorphic forms (shapes that resemble living creatures), and other abstractions.

For more on art movements and world-class artists like Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • Caws, Mary Ann. "The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter." MIT Press. 1999. (4/1/2010)
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