Surrealism: the Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

The term surreal is thrown around a lot, but what is surreal art really about?

The artists who started the Surrealist movement and created Surrealist art that absolutely broke ground at the turn of the 20th century sought to channel the unconscious mind, exploring what they saw as its potential for radical creativity. The methods of Surrealism relied on tapping deep into humans’ non-rational mechanisms in the subconscious part of the mind. The movement aimed to reconcile the previously contradictory states of mind of dream and reality. 

What Is the Surrealist Movement?

Surrealism was a cultural movement that started in the early 1920s. It is known for striking visual artworks and captivating writing. 

Who Started Surrealist Art?

Surrealism developed as a result of the Dada activities during World War I, and the most important center of that movement was Paris. From the 1920s onward, the movement spread around the globe, eventually impacting artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, and social theorists on every continent. 

When Was Surrealism Launched?

The movement officially started in 1924, when writer Andre Breton issued his manifesto and used the term “Surrealism” for the first time.

What Are the Characteristics of Surrealism?

There are several characteristics associated with surrealist art. The following are some of the most important:

  • Automatism.

This refers to using chance operations or subconscious processes in creating artwork. It was believed that artists could create more honest and spontaneous works of art by tapping into the unconscious mind.

  • Fantastic imagery.

Surrealist artists often used images that were bizarre or dreamlike. They sought to challenge the viewer’s preconceptions about what art should look like.

  • Juxtaposition.

Surrealists were interested in using unexpected combinations of elements to create new meanings. This might involve placing two seemingly disparate objects next to each other or combining different images in a single work of art.

  • Photomontage.

This technique involves cutting up and rearranging photographs to create new images. Surrealist artists often used it to create dreamlike or nonsensical scenes.

What Are Some of the Most Famous Surrealist Artworks?

Some of the most famous surrealist artworks include the following:

  • Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931)
  • Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928-9)
  • Max Ernst’s Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924)
  • Joan Miro’s The Farm (1921-2)
  • André Masson’s Automatic Drawing (1924)
  • Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912)
  • Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

Best Surrealist Artists in America

Although the surrealist movement is most commonly associated with Europe, it also significantly impacted American art. Some of the most important American Surrealist or Surrealist-influenced artists include:

  • Man Ray
  • Lee Miller
  • Dorothea Tanning
  • Edward Hopper
  • Jackson Pollock
  • Andy Warhol

What Are the Impacts and Legacy of Surrealism?


Surrealism has had a lasting impact on both the world of art and popular culture. The following are seven of the most significant ways in which it has left its mark:

  • It challenged traditional ideas about what art should look like.

Surrealism showed that art could be more than just a pretty picture. And it could be strange, disturbing, and even humorous.

  • It paved the way for other major avant-garde movements.

Surrealism was part of a larger wave of avant-garde movements that emerged in the early 20th century. These movements challenged traditional ideas about art and culture and paved the way for more experimental and innovative approaches.

  • It influenced popular culture.

Surrealism has significantly impacted popular culture, particularly in fashion, film, and advertising. Many of its ideas and techniques have been adopted by mainstream culture, often without people realizing their surrealist origins.

  • It continues to inspire artists today.

The legacy of Surrealism can still be seen in the work of many contemporary artists. They may not always identify as surrealists, but their work is often indebted to the movement’s ideas and aesthetics.

  • It has been used as a political tool.

Surrealism, much like Futurism before it, has often been appropriated for political purposes, it has been used as a propaganda tool, and its ideas have been co-opted by both left- and right-wing groups.

  • It is sometimes seen as a negative force.

Surrealism can be seen as a negative force by those who view it as anti-rational, chaotic, or subversive. Its dark and often disturbing images can be seen as a reflection of the anxieties of the modern world. After all, Futurism spawned the Surrealist movement. Both of these movements reject realistic representations of the world and show disdain for the ordinary, and this requires destroying ties with the tradition and the past.

  • It has been accused of being anti-feminist.

The surrealist movement has been accused of being anti-feminist due to its embrace of Freudian ideas about female sexuality and its often objectifying treatment of women in its artworks.

Despite its sometimes controversial nature, Surrealism remains one of the most influential artistic movements of the 20th century. It has left a lasting mark on the art world and popular culture, and its ideas continue to inspire artists and thinkers today.

Reasons for the Decline of Surrealism

Surrealism’s history is fascinating, but the process did not long at all. There are several reasons why the surrealist movement lost its momentum in the 1940s and 1950s:

  • The rise of other avant-garde movements.

In the early 20th century, Surrealism was just one of many active avant-garde movements. As time went on, other movements, such as abstract expressionism and pop art, began to eclipse Surrealism in terms of popularity and influence.

  • The outbreak of World War II.

The outbreak of World War II had a devastating effect on the Surrealist movement. Many key figures, such as Andre Breton and Max Ernst, were forced into exile, and the movement lost momentum.

  • The death of Salvador Dali.

The death of Salvador Dali in 1989 was a major blow to the surrealist movement. Dali was one of its most important and influential members, and his death marked the end of an era for the movement.

  • The changing nature of the art world.

The art world has changed significantly since the heyday of Surrealism. In the past, art was often seen as a political or social change vehicle. Today, however, it is more likely to be viewed as a commodity. This change in attitude has made it difficult for Surrealism to maintain its relevance.

Those were some of the main reasons for the decline of Surrealism. However, it is important to remember that the movement did leave a lasting legacy. Many of its ideas and techniques have been adopted by other artists, and its impact can still be seen in the work of contemporary artists.

Is Surrealism Modern Art’s Defining Moment?

Surrealism has significantly impacted both the art world and popular culture. Although the movement lost momentum in the 1940s and 1950s, its ideas have continued to inspire artists and thinkers today. The legacy of Surrealism is still very much alive, and its influence can be seen in many contemporary artworks.