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 2021

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 Dali 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 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.


Andre Breton
1896 - 1966
Max Ernst
1891 - 1976
Joan Miro
1893 - 1983
Yves Tanguy
1900 - 1955
Charles Pulsford
1912 - 1989
Salvador Dalí
1904 - 1989


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