add tag

Tags you are adding:

20th Century Art Movements: Surrealism

Marc Zeale - Contemporary art in the early 1900’s was advanced by the bold philosophy of Cubist painters like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Leger, who distanced themselves from traditional artists by narrowing their focus to develop flat, mechanistic planes converging within a single canvas.

Surrealism is an art movement that represents the next level of radical departure from familiar interpretations of natural landscapes and pastoral scenes so prevalent in 19th Century paintings. Influenced by radical Dada ideology in the aftermath of World War I, Surrealists cultivated the idea of free association that flowed from the subconscious in art, attempting to better understand their existence in uncertain times.

Increasingly, their artwork attempted to introduce a more sensual (if no less dramatic) counterpoint to the scandalous, unapologetic notions of Dada purists, to whom Surrealists like Max Ernst, whose The Fireside Angel (The Triumph of Surrealism) (1937) shown in photo 1, owe their heritage.  

Surrealist Ideology

1920’s Paris was the epicenter for the group’s development, with young artists like Salvador Dali (Daddy Long Legs of the Evening…Hope! (1940) is shown in photo 2), Rene Magritte (The Lovers (1928) is shown in photo 3), and Yves Tanguy (Indefinite Divisibility (1942) shown in photo 4) interpreting nihilistic values, the psychology of Sigmund Freud, and the writings of Andre Breton, who in 1924 drafted the movement’s official manifesto.  

These conditions contributed the proper aesthetic for a strange, controversial, and ambiguous visual language previously unseen in art. The subsequent fellowship of notable socialites like art critic Clement Greenberg and wealthy collectors like Peggy Guggenheim added an air of respectability to Surrealism’s progress in the contemporary art world.

Surrealism quickly spread from Paris to other areas of the world, drawing sympathetic eyes from artists like Armenian Arshile Gorky, American Robert Motherwell, and Chilean Robert Matta (whose Invasion of the Night (1941) is shown in photo 5) , who each came to empathize with the movement’s ideals, though never officially making a direct connection with Surrealist values.

Abstract Expressionists were strongly influenced by Surrealism, at once either rebelling against or formulating alter-egos in line with the basic premise of the movement’s ideals, creating wildly original pieces with little historical reference.

New Directions

In time, Surrealists divided between two different interpretations of the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Automatists encouraged the subconscious in art to surface naturally, unburdened by the need for specific meaning as expression, but subject to interpretation by man’s own ego. These were the most widely-accepted artists within the genre.

Veristic Surrealists, on the other hand, viewed objects as metaphors for an inner reality that developed a better understanding of the outside world, the “what’s inside” of all matter.

Surrealist thought also suggested that chance played a role in any artistic expression. Some artists used a parlor game concept called The Exquisite Corpse to encourage groups of artists to collaborate on a single canvas or sentence, creating unique compositions based on random ideas as part of a whole.

Breton’s manifestos gave structure to core artists and poetic license to other writers who adopted alternative world views based on man’s ability to dream and be spontaneous, suggesting that “(T)he mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him.”

Surrealists encouraged each other to express their deepest, most unusual emotions, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior by having no concern for how discussing sex, violence, fear, and uncensored emotions challenged the boundaries of acceptable behavior in society.

Influence on Art and Culture

Surrealism never officially ended, but steadily declined in popularity after 1941, such that serious artists have seldom been lauded by modernists for expressing its sentimentality then and now. Still, it’s effect on theatre, film, music, and literary culture throughout history cannot be discounted.

Today proponents are sensitive to the movement’s ambition in combining spiritual, physical, and psychological planes in an attempt to paint an understanding of the human condition in a way that emphasizes introspection and encourages a valuable interpretation of the human psyche.


Breton, A.  Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (1924). Available at: (1999).

Sanchez, M. History of Surrealism. Available at: (2014).

Photo Credits

Photo 1:

Photo 2:

Photo 3:

Photo 4:

Photo 5: