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What is Surrealism?

28 Apr 2021 10:49 PM | Lesley Samms (Administrator)

Dictionary definitionSurrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Surrealism isn’t just a style - it’s also a literary, philosophical and artistic movement that explored the workings of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and the revolutionary.

Surrealists worked to revolutionise the human experience. They rejected rational life, putting value onto dreams and the unconscious and demonstrating these through their artistic output.

Many surrealist artists used automatic drawing or writing to unlock ideas in their deep unconscious mind. Consequently, surrealist artwork is often described as strange and uncanny; defying conventional reason. 

Surrealist artworks range from mythical landscapes, unusual depictions of humans and people, and sculpture. In surreal paintings, artists convey emotion through symbols, colours and simple shapes, and by employing unexpected juxtapositions - such as a bowler hat and an apple, or a man floating above a chess board suspended below a red umbrella! - cryptic and ironic objects or scenes, that wouldn't fit together or occur in the “real” world.

Surrealist artworks also often place the viewer in an uncomfortable spot, caught between looking through and being watched by an empty eye....

Surrealism comes from the word ’surrealist’, coined by Guillaume Apollinaire, a French avant-garde poet. The term means ‘beyond reality’. Later Andre Breton, leader of a new group of artists in Paris, defined surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism’, meaning creation without moral and aesthetic preconceptions. 

Many argue that surrealism, as an identifiable cultural movement, ended with the death of Breton in 1966. Others believe however that it remains a vital and relevant force today.

The word ‘surreal’ today usually means ‘strange’ or unusual, whereas ‘surrealist’ more specifically means connection with the surrealist movement. 

Surrealist Artists include:

  • Joan Miro
  • Dorothea Tanning
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Salvador Dali
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Michael Cheval
  • Rene Magritte
  • Man Ray
  • Max Ernst



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