Quintessential Surrealist Works and Concepts

The surrealist movement that arose after World War I was inspired by a fascination with the effect of the unconscious on human behavior. It happened during a major turning point in history, which meant that it was time for drastic changes in art as well. The Avant-Garde movement was everything at once: unorthodox, experimental, bold, radical, revolutionary, and innovative. It officially began when Dadaist writer André Breton’s issued the Surrealist manifesto in 1924.


Surrealism was one of the most influential artistic movements of the 20th century. Surrealist artists aimed to revolutionize the human experience, rejecting rationalism and embracing the power of the imagination. What makes surrealist paintings and sculptures so memorable is what the members of the movement managed to capture, and the way they challenge our perception of reality, forcing us to question what we see and whether or not it is really what it appears to be, as well as conventional social norms and traditional ideas about art.

Many of the paintings incorporate various techniques, including chance operations, and they offer commentary on the relationship between reality and perception, as well as between art and science.

Surrealist Art Summarized

At times, surrealist art can be difficult to put into words, but it never fails to challenge our perception of reality. Artists rely on surreal imagery to provoke powerful emotions in viewers. The surrealists sought to channel the unconscious mind, tapping into a realm of dream and imagination that was beyond the reach of reason. They believed that the rational mind repressed the true potential of the human psyche and that by unleashing the imagination, they could change the world.

Surrealists also used found objects, incorporating them into their art to create new meanings.  The surrealist movement was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind, which posited that there was a realm of psychic activity that operated outside of conscious awareness. They believed that by tapping into this hidden realm, they could access a higher level of truth.

They also developed a range of techniques to achieve their goals, including automatic writing, in which the writer relinquishes control of the pen and allows the unconscious mind to take over; and decalcomania, in which paint is applied to a surface and then pressed onto another surface, creating an abstract image.

Most Important Works of the Surrealist Movement

The surrealist movement profoundly impacted the art world, and its influence can still be seen in contemporary art. Surrealism is not just melting clocks, although the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali remains one of the most iconic images of the surrealist movement. The dreamlike scene features melting clocks, which are a symbol of the fluidity of time. 

Here are some of the other most famous surrealist masterpieces:

  • Forest and Dove by Max Ernst
  • The Beached Margin by Edward Wadsworth
  • The Spinning Top by Hans Bellmer
  • What the Water Gave Me by Frida Kahlo
  • Fascination by Victor Brauner
  • The Waterfall by Arshile Gorky
  • Venus Asleep by Paul Delvaux
  • Women and Bird in the Moonlight by Joan Miró 
  • Untitled by Roberto Matta
  • The Invisibles by Yves Tanguy
  • The Treachery of Images by René Magritte
  • The Son of Man by René Magritte
  • Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp
  • The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even by Marcel Duchamp

Important Surrealist films include: 

  • L’Age d’Or by Luis Buñuel: The surrealist film is a critique of bourgeois society, and it features several shocking images, including one of a couple making love in front of a cross.
  • Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel: This short film by Luis Buñuel is one of the most famous surrealist works. The film features bizarre images, including a man slicing a woman’s eye with a razor.
  • The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by Robert Wiene: This German expressionist film is considered one of the first surrealist films. The film tells the story of a man held captive by a doctor controlling his dreams.
  • Metropolis by Fritz Lang: This science fiction film is another early example of the surrealist aesthetic. The film is set in a future city where the wealthy live in luxury while the working class toils away in the underground.
  • Passion of Joan about Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer: This film is a moving portrayal of the trial and execution of Joan about Arc. The film features several surrealist images, including one in which Joan’s hair is cut by her executioners.

Why Do Surrealism Pieces Stand Out?

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Some of the most important features of surrealist art, especially paintings, include:

1. Challenging our perception of reality.

These paintings can challenge our perception of reality and force us to question what we see.

2. Emphasizing the relationship between art and science.

When we look at surrealist paintings, we can see how the two disciplines are related.

3. A critique of society.

Surrealist art can be used to critique conventional ideas about society.

4. Provoking emotions.

The strange and dreamlike images in surrealist paintings can provoke strong emotions in viewers.

5. Expression of ideas that are difficult to put into words.

Surrealist art could express ideas that were difficult to communicate with words. This is one of the many reasons why the surrealist movement was so influential.

What Did Surrealist Artists Do?

Surrealist artists broke ground in more ways than once. The innovations they introduced were at times derived from the movements that came before them, and sometimes entirely unimaginable up to that point.

The following are some of the most important concepts in surrealism:

1. Unusual juxtapositions.

One of the most common features of surrealist art is the use of unusual juxtapositions. This can be seen in the paintings of René Magritte, where objects are often placed in unexpected situations.

2. Unexpected imagery.

Surrealist artists often use images that are unexpected or bizarre. This can be seen in the paintings of Salvador Dalí, where everyday objects are often given a surreal twist.

3. Abstractions.

Surrealist artists often use abstraction to create their art. This can be seen in the paintings of Marcel Duchamp, where the images are often blurred or distorted.

4. Chance operations.

Many surrealist artists use chance operations to create their art, and this means that they allow randomness to play a role in the creation of their paintings.

5. Automatic writing.

Breton himself defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism” in the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Automatic writing is a technique that surrealist artists often used. This involves writing down whatever comes into your mind virtually automatically without thinking too much.