A literary and artistic movement that sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance. It is now regarded as one of the most radical movements of the twentieth century.

René Magritte Le Miroir magique [The Magic Mirror] 1929 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023

Video: What is Surrealism?


The Origins of Surrealism

The term ‘Surrealism’ was coined by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 to describe something that exceeds reality. In Paris a loosely knit group of poets, writers and painters were exploring these ideas, but it was not until 1924 that they were galvanised by French poet André Breton through his First Manifesto of Surrealism. He referred to the movement as:

‘Thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.’

Breton’s ideas were literary, but they quickly attracted visual artists.

Surrealism and Dada

Many artists, such as Max Ernst and Jean Arp, had previously been involved with Dadaism; its defiance of logic, love of the absurd and shock tactics through performance, music, theatre, poetry and art were the seed from which Surrealism grew. However, under Breton’s influence, writers and artists shifted focus away from anarchy, negativity and nonsense towards the intellectual pursuits of automatic writing, dreams and chance.

Breton outlined numerous sources for his ideas, including Marxism, psychoanalysis and occult philosophies which believed that rational thought could be disrupted through trances, chanting, séances, tarot cards and ouija boards. His ambitious aims were to break down barriers between outer and inner thought, changing perceptions of reality and liberating the unconscious mind. Psychologist Sigmund Freud exerted a powerful influence, particularly with his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899.

Surrealist styles and techniques

Surrealist painting generally fell into two distinct categories. Artists including Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte made hyper-real paintings with dream-like subjects depicted in minute precision, adding to their otherworldly quality. Other painters explored automatism, tapping into their unconscious mind to create expressive images. Breton defined automatism as, ‘Pure psychic automatism … the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns.’ Some artists moved between the two styles, such as Joan Miró, who often employed both techniques within the same work of art.

Pioneering artists like Max Ernst found expression through the new techniques of collage and frottage; Ernst claimed he discovered frottage by rubbing the floorboards of a hotel floor with black crayon, to create what resembled mysterious forests. Elle garde son secret (she keeps her secret), 1925 was reproduced for the book Histoire Naturelle, 1926, in which textured materials were used to create rubbings as starting points for imagery. In around 1930 Ernst began a series of ‘collage novels’, including Une Semaine de Bonte (A Week of Plenty), 1934 where Victorian steel engravings are cut up and rearranged into bizarre, fantastical scenarios.

Max Ernst, Untitled (Unpublished collage for 'Une Semaine de Bonté'), 1934. © The Estate of Max Ernst/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

Max Ernst, Untitled (Unpublished collage for 'Une Semaine de Bonté'), 1934. © The Estate of Max Ernst/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

In sculpture Alberto Giacometti was a leading exponent, creating important works such as Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932, a bronze cast hovering somewhere between woman and praying mantis, encapsulating the Surrealist’s fascination with sex, femininity and death. Man Ray was the first Surrealist photographer, while others including Hans Bellmer and Lee Miller would follow. The style also spread into other media including film, fashion, advertising and applied art.

Alberto Giacometti, Femme égorgée [Woman with her Throat Cut], 1932. © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2017.

Alberto Giacometti, Femme égorgée [Woman with her Throat Cut], 1932. © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2017.

Surrealism outside France

Although Surrealism was initially Paris based, by the 1930s it had become a potent force in many countries and would eventually become a world-wide phenomenon. In Britain its ideas were just beginning to take hold, thanks to the young artist and collector Roland Penrose, who was instructive in organising the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. The style flourished in Britain in the interwar period, particularly in London and Birmingham. Associated artists were Conroy Maddox, John Melville, Emmy Bridgewater, John Banting and Ithell Colquhoun. Other artists briefly linked to the movement were Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash and Henry Moore.

Women and Surrealism

Although it was previously thought that Surrealism was dominated by men, women artists made vital contributions to its development. Some have argued that women featured in Surrealism predominantly as objects of masculine desire or fantasy, with the female body the ultimate Surrealist object. However feminist art critics such as Dawn Ades and Mary Ann Caws have since corrected this impression, bringing to attention the many women artists who deserve recognition.

Female Surrealists who challenged the male perception of women as inferior or threatening include Claude Cahun, Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim and Lee Miller, exploring fluid approaches to gender and mythology. Painter Leonora Carrington’s work touched on sexual identity without falling back on Surrealist stereotyping of women. British painter and photographer Eileen Agar was closely involved with the Surrealists in England and abroad, while Argentinian painter, sculptor, illustrator and author Leonor Fini became known for depicting powerful female figures.

Abstract Expressionism

The Abstract Expressionist movement that emerged in New York was largely derived from Surrealist thought, with its focus on automatism and imagery derived from the unconscious mind. In 1936 the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, which sparked interest amongst modern artists including Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Robert Motherwell.


1896 - 1966
1891 - 1976
1893 - 1983
1900 - 1955
1902 - 1980
1912 - 1989
1904 - 1989
1917 - 2011

Glossary terms


A radical artistic and literary movement that was a reaction against the cultural climate that supported the First World War. The Dadaists took an anti-establishment attitude, questioning art's status and favouring performance and collage over traditional art techniques. Many Dadaists went on to become involved with Surrealism.


A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1913 to describe an existing object that is taken from its original context and regarded as a work of art. The term is broadly applied today to any art that transforms ordinary objects into artworks through a variety of means.


A painting, drawing or writing process that aims to suppress rational thought, allowing the subconscious to take control. This spontaneous approach is associated with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.


A technique for generating images by applying paint to one surface, which is then pressed against another surface to transfer the design. The term was popularised by the Surrealists in the early twentieth century. A variation is popular with young school children in a process often referred to as a ‘butterfly print’, where paint applied to paper is then folded and opened again. The shortened version of the term commonly used today is ‘decal.’


A technique in which paper or canvas is placed over a grainy surface and rubbed with a crayon or charcoal. This was often used by Surrealist artists to create chance effects. From the French word ‘frotter’, meaning ‘to rub’.

Degenerate 'Art'

The term Degenerate Art ('Entarte Kunst' in German), was coined in the 1930s by the Nazis to ridicule modern art that did not fit with Hitler’s vision'. Confiscated by the German government, exhibitions of 'Degenerate' art took place in cities including Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. In addition to this ridicule, the Nazi's banned artists branded with the term from exhibiting or holding teaching posts.


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