"Surrealism. Noun, masculine. Pure psychic automatism, by which one intends to express verbally, in writing or by any other method, the real functioning of the mind. Dictation by thought, in the absence of control exercised by reason, and beyond any aesthetic or moral preoccupation."
André Breton (1896-1966), French surrealist writer defining Surrealism in his Surrealist Manifesto, 1924.

"To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams."
Giorgio DeChirico (1888-1978), Italian surrealist painter.



The term “Surrealism“ derives from a drama of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1917), where the word was invented to describe this new style of drama.

The Movement

Surrealism is a cultural avant-garde movement and artistic style that was founded in 1924 by the poet and critic André Breton (1896-1966) and originated in the nihilistic ideas of Dadaism. The surrealist artists committed themselves to discover reality with automatic writing and drawing, without rational corrections, using images to express their emotions. But those emotions never followed any logic or reason.

The movement was begun primarily in Europe, centered in Paris, and was strongly influenced by the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In Europe, the surrealist movement flourished between World War I and World War II.

The surrealists, coming mainly from the communist party, used this movement to rebel against the bourgeois society. Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century became involved in the Surrealist movement, and the group included Giorgio de Chirico, Man Ray, René Magritte, and many others. The Surrealist movement eventually spread across the globe, and has influenced artistic endeavors from painting and sculpture to pop music and film directing.

The movement represented a reaction against what its members saw as the destruction wrought by the "rationalism" that had guided European culture and politics in the past and had culminated in the horrors of World War I. According to the major spokesman of the movement, André Breton, who published his first “Surrealist Manifesto" in 1924, Surrealism was a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely, that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in "an absolute reality, a surreality."

(picture: The Surrealist Group in Paris, ca. 1930. From left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Élouard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray)

Historical Development

In 1916 André Breton discovered the theories of Sigmund Freud and met Guillaume Apollinaire. Surrealism developed out of Dadaism (nihilist destruction) and a romantic construction.

1924-1939: The First Stage of Surrealism
In 1924 André Breton published the First Surrealist Manifesto and the journal La révolution surréaliste was founded and continued to be edited until 1929. The main topics were: a radical ideological change, institutional criticism (politics, religion, military), surveys about taboo issues.

From 1925 on the surrealist movement was politicized, there were first contact to the communists.

Between 1925 and 1930 another journal was published, called El Surrealismo al servicio de la Revolución, in which among others Max Ernst, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí declared themselves supporters of Breton. The surrealist movement became international with groups in the United States, Denmark, London, Czechoslovakia and Japan. From that moment on a struggle began between those surrealists who thought of Surrealism as a purely artistic movement, rejecting subordination to Communism and those who acompanied Breton in his turn to the left wing.

In 1929 Breton published the Second Surrealist Manifesto.

In 1934, Salvador Dalí was expelled from the Surrealist group, Breton met Trotzky and subsequently published the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art in 1938.

1940-1966: The Second Stage of Surrealism
Breton travelled to New York and Mexico. His death in 1966 marks the end of Surrealism.

Freudian Influence


The surrealists based their work mainly on the psychoanalytical theories of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). According to Freud, the subconscious mind in the form of dreams dominates logical and rational thinking. As the iceberg model on the left illustrates, the individual (EGO) stays between the ID, which represents the uncoordinated instincts and primitive wishes, and the SUPEREGO, which plays a critical and moralising role. The modern individual often has to repress the wishes of his subconscious mind due to cultural and societal norms. The conflict between living sexuality, aggression and the forbidden, and maintaining social relations, influences the individual and leaves him completely unsatisfied, complicating his pursuit of happiness. The surrealists were looking for ways of liberating the unconscious, which for them was the wellspring of creativity and imagination.

Surrealist Techniques

1. Automatism
The principle of automatic writing developed by André Breton is a method to liberate and express the unconscious. The artist starts to write letting flow his thoughts without any censorship or manipulation. Thus he does not write in a way that is expected from him, i. e. according to societal and cultural norms, but expresses his true emotions and thoughts.

2. Exquisite cadaver
In this surrealist method various artists drew the different parts of a figure or a text without looking what the previous artist had done, handing over the folded paper.

3. The Paranoiac Critical Transformation Method
Of all the Surrealists and their achievements, there is one that stands out above all the others. The Paranoiac Critical method was a sensibility, or way of perceiving reality that was developed by Salvador Dalí. It was defined by Dalí himself as "irrational knowledge" based on a "delirium of interpretation". More simply put, it was a process by which the artist found new and unique ways to view the world around him. It is the ability of the artist or the viewer to perceive multiple images within the same configuration.

The concept can be compared to Max Ernst's frottage or Leonardo da Vinci's scribbling and drawings. As a matter of fact, all of us have practiced the Paranoid Critical Method when gazing at stucco on a wall, or clouds in the sky, and seeing different shapes and visages therein. Dalí elevated this uniquely human characteristic into his own art form.

Dalí, though not a true paranoid, was able to simulate a paranoid state, without the use of drugs, and upon his return to 'normal perspective' he would paint what he saw and envisioned therein.

Dalí was able to create what he called "hand painted dream photographs" which were physical, painted representations of the hallucinations and images he would see while in his paranoid state. Although he certainly had his own load of mental problems to bear, it can be said that Dalí's delusions and paranoid hallucinations did not totally dominate his mind, as he was able to convey them to canvas.

Being a painter of miraculous skill, he was capable of reproducing his myriad fantasies and hallucinations as visual illusions on canvas. It is in this context that one of Dalí's most famous statements takes on a whole new meaning and understanding:
"The only difference between myself and a madman, is that I am not mad!"

In Dalí's own words, taken from his Conquest of the Irrational, published in 1935:
"My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialize the images of my concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision..."
He then goes on to say:
"Paranoiac-critical activity organizes and objectivizes in an exclusivist manner the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective 'significance' in the irrational [...] it makes the world of delirium pass onto the plane of reality"

Surrealism and Painting

The most important surrealist painters:

Yves Tanguy (1900-1955)

Through Birds Through Fire But Not Through Glass (1943)

René Magritte (1898-1967)

The Son of Man (1964)

Max Ernst (1891-1967)

The Fireside Angel (1937)

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

I and the Village (1911)

André Masson (1896-1987)

The Labyrinth (1938)

Joan Miró (1893-1983)

Harlequin's Carnival (1924-25)

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936)

Surrealism and the Cinema

The most important surrealist films:
  • La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) by Germaine Dulac, 1922
  • Coeur fidèle (Faithful Heart) by Jean Epstein, 1923
  • La Retour à la Raison (Return to Reason) by Man Ray, 1923
  • Un chien andalou (An andalusian Dog) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, 1929
  • L'Âge d'Or (The Golden Age) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, 1930

Essential elements in surrealist films:
  • deformation or accentuation of reality
  • dreams
  • hallucinations
  • the unconscious
  • fantasy
  • spontaneity
  • slow cameras
  • confused time and space
  • lyrical eroticism
  • rude and cruel humor

Surrealism and Literature

The most important surrealist literary works:
  • Sobre los ángeles (Concerning the Angels), a poem by the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti (1929)
  • Poeta en Nueva York (The Poet in New York), a collection of poems by the Spanish poet and dramatist and close friend of Salvador Dalí Federico García Lorca (1930)
  • Espadas como labios (Swords as Lips), a poem by the Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre (1932)
  • La Vida Secreta de Salvador Dalí (The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí), a fictionalized autobiography by Salvador Dalí (1942)

Characteristics of surrealist literature:
  • play with time
  • play with life and death, with the possible and the impossible
  • jumping between reality and fiction
  • imagination of the impossible, but from oneiric situations (dreams)
  • free association of words – through symbols, metaphors, images, etc. 
  • strange syntax and apparent lexical incoherence

Techniques of surrealist writers:
  • automatism as a literary form write the words as they come
  • no change of the written manuscript no interference in the pure act of creation
  • let flow thoughts freely ways of communication with the subconscious of the reader

A surrealist joke:

Q. How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Fish!