Origins, Influences, History, Characteristics.

Pin it


Surrealism (c.1924-2004)


What is Surrealism?
Who Founded Surrealism?
Leading Exponents
Origins and Influences
History of Surrealism
Surrealist Styles
Surrealist Techniques
Legacy of Surrealism

Example Art Works

The Human Condition (1933)
Rene Magritte.

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
(1914) By Giorgio de Chirico, a key
pioneer of surrealistic painting.

The Listening Room (1933)
Rene Magritte.

Lobster Telephone (1936)
Salvador Dali.

Salvador Dali's work
The Persistence of Memory (1931)
showing his "melting" watches.
This particular work is one of the
greatest 20th century paintings
and contributed greatly to Dali's
reputation as the leading surrealist.

Object (1936) - Also known as
Fur-Covered Cup, Saucer, Spoon.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
By Meret Oppenheim.

What is Surrealism? - Characteristics

Surrealism was "the" fashionable art movement of the inter-war years, and the last major art movement to be associated with the Ecole de Paris, from where it spread across Europe, becoming one of the most influential schools or styles of avant-garde art. Its name derived from the phrase Drame surrealiste, the sub-title of a 1917 play by the writer and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). Surrealism evolved out of the nihilistic "anti-art" Dada movement, most of whose members became surrealists. However, while every bit as "revolutionery" as Dada, Surrealism was less overtly political and advocated a more positive philosophy - summed up by André Breton as "thought expressed in the absense of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations."

Initially, the main focus of the movement was literature but this rapidly broadened to encompass painting, sculpture and other forms of contemporary visual art. Surrealist artists aimed to generate an entirely new set of imagery by liberating the creative power of the unconscious mind.


For a discussion of the types,
values, and significance of the
visual arts, see: Definition of Art.

For more about the evolution
of oils, acrylics, watercolours
and other types of paintings,
as well as famous artists, see:
Fine Art Painting.

All sorts of techniques and phenomena were employed to achieve this subconscious creativity, including dreams, hallucinations, automatic or random image generation - basically anything that circumvented the usual "rational" thought processes involved in creating works of art. (For more, please see Automatism in Art.) The rational approach (reflecting outdated bourgeois values) was rejected by surrealist theorists as fundamentally reactionary, untruthful and highly limiting.

Not surprisingly, in its attempt to produce works of art untainted by bourgeois rationalism, Surrealism was responsible for a host of incredibly innovative but often bizarre, and sometimes unintelligible compositions. Nonetheless, despite its absurdist features, Surrealism was (and continues to be) highly appealing both to artists and the public. Indeed, in its iconic pictures and its impact on modern art, Surrealism has established itself as one of the 20th century's most enduring movements.


Who Founded Surrealism?

The writer Andre Breton (1896-1966), nicknamed "the Pope of Surrealism", was the movement's founder and chief theorist. He introduced and defined the new style in his initial 1924 manifesto (Manifeste du Surrealisme) and later in his painting bulletin (Surrealisme et la Peinture). An ex-Dadaist, Breton deplored the nihilistic and destructive character of Dada, nevertheless he built on many Dada ideas to create a movement with a coherent though doctrinaire philosophy, from which he tolerated no deviation, expelling rebellious members as he saw fit. Breton's overall aim was in fact highly revolutionery. He aimed at nothing less than a total transformation of the way people thought. By breaking down the barriers between their inner and outer worlds, and changing the way they perceived reality, he intended to liberate the unconscious, reconcile it with the conscious, and free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason which thus far had led only to war and domination.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

For the chronology and dates
of key events in the evolution
of visual arts around the world
see: History of Art Timeline.

For information about 3-D art
and famous sculptors, see:
Sculpture Art.

Other Leading Exponents

Several leading Paris surrealists were former Dadaists, such as Max Ernst (1891-1976), Man Ray (1890–1976), Francis Picabia (1879-1953), and Jean Arp (1887-1966), but the movement fostered its own famous painters, like Joan Miro (1893-1983), Rene Magritte (1898-1967)** and Salvador Dali (1904-89). Other important figures included Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)**, Andre Masson (1896-1987), Yves Tanguy (1900-55), Pierre Roy (1880-1950), and Maurits Escher (1898-1972),** as well as Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), the film-maker Luis Bunuel (1900-83), Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), Robert Matta (1911-2002), Russell Drysdale (1912-81), and Hans Bellmer (1902-75).


Other 20th century painters who were claimed for Surrealism whether they liked it or not, such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)**, Marc Chagall (1887-1985)** and Paul Klee (1879-1940)**. Leading American surrealists included: Frederick Kiesler (1896-1965), Enrico Donati (1909-2006), Arshile Gorky (1905-48) and Joseph Cornell (1903-73).

[** Not official members of the Surrealist Movement.]

Surrealist Women Artists

Despite the deprecation of women implicit in numerous surrealist works, there were several important female surrealist artists, notably Valentine Hugo (1887-1968), Eileen Agar (1899-1991), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Leonor Fini (1908-96), Jacqueline Breton (1910-2003), Dorothea Tanning (b.1910), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) and Meret Oppenheim (1913-85) and Lenora Carrington (b.1917).


Origins and Influences of Surrealism

The most formative intellectual influence on the philosophy of Surrealism were the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Viennese neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. Breton and other surrealists were highly impressed with Freud's insights into the unconscious, which they thought would be a major source of untapped pictures and imagery. They used his theories to clear away boundaries between fantasy and reality, and to address a number of disquieting drives as fear, desire and eroticisation.

In their art, surrealists gained inspiration from many different sources. Essentially, they wanted an art to marvel at - something mystical. As far as the European fine art tradition was concerned, they preferred obsession and imaginative eccentricity to rational academic work.


Particular favourites were the detailed fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch (1453-1516); the menacing engravings of prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778); and the dramatic nightmare pictures of the Swiss symbolist painter Henri Fuseli (1741-1825). Regarding nineteenth century styles, surrealists rejected Impressionism as too naturalistic, preferring Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist works, such as the nightmarish etchings and offkey paintings by Max Klinger (1857-1920), and the vivid Oceanic primitivism of Paul Gauguin. Breton in particular was impressed with the visionary paintings of the workaholic history painter Gustave Moreau (1828-1898). Cubism was also rejected for being too logical (the exception being Picasso's iconic early Cubist masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon 1907). Aside from Dada, two other important influences on Surrealism - at least its figurative wing - was the 19th century Symbolism movement, and the Italian school of Metaphysical Painting, originated by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978).

Symbolism, with its esoteric references and hidden or unconscious meanings, was an important source of imagery and forms. Rene Magritte's works have even been described as "Symbolism + Freud". Meanwhile Chirico's unsettling compositions of deserted Italianate squares (eg. "The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street", 1914) with exaggerated perspectives, irrational shadow, wrongly-sized objects/people, contained an air of unfathomable menace. According to Breton who greatly admired him, Chirico was considered to be a major precursor of Surrealism. But the most important and most immediate influence on the movement was Dada: for its anti-aesthetic approach, its determination to shatter the prevailing bourgeois traditions of art, and its innovative techniques.

NOTE: For other important historical artistic trends like Surrealism, see Art Movements and Schools (from about 100 BCE).

History of the Surrealism Movement

In brief, Surrealism sprang up in Paris and became embedded in the avant-garde art world (of which Paris was still the world centre). During the 1930s, some adherents left the movement, while others joined. Then, during the war, many members fled to America where they had a significant impact on US contemporary art, before returning to Paris in the late 1940s early 1950s.


Seeing themselves as revolutionaries in the spirit of Dada, surrealists were attracted by the liberating philosophies of socialism and communism - with whom they tried unsuccessfully to form an alliance - and by Soviet-style organizational structures. They issued their first manifesto in 1924 and, at the same time, founded a Bureau of surrealist Research, as well as an irreverent, scandalous journal called La Révolution Surréaliste (1924-9). Most of the early discussions, interchanges and pooling of ideas took place in cafes. Although principally literary to begin with, the movement quickly expanded into the visual arts (Breton courted Picasso assiduously, to no avail), and its first painting show - La Peinture Surrealiste - was staged at Gallerie Pierre in 1925. A year later, a new Galerie Surréaliste opened with an exhibition by the photographer Man Ray. The movement continued to thrive in Paris during the late 1920s, becoming the dominant school among the city's avant-garde in all arts disciplines.

Surrealism During the 1930s

The movement burst onto the international stage during the 1930s with major shows in Brussels, Copenhagen, London, New York and Paris. It rapidly became a worldwide popular phenomenon with branches in England, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Egypt, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania and Hungary.

The most memorable pictures were produced by Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, who between them did much to establish the visual style of Surrealism between 1930 and 1935, a style which aimed to explore psychological truth by detaching ordinary objects from their normal context in order to create a compelling image. Dali's melting watches (eg. in "The Persistence of Memory"), along with Yves Tanguy's molten forms and liquid shapes (eg. in "Promontory Palace"), became recognizable trademarks of the new style. Although its philosophical and cerebral aspirations may not have been grasped, its pictorial images captured the public imagination, and its strange juxtapositions, and dream imagery found its way into everything from fine art, photography and film, to high fashion design, to advertising, and applied art (eg. Dali's lobster telephone and Mae West lips sofa; and Méret Oppenheim's fur-covered tea cup). The same desire for glamour and escapism during the 1930s that led to the popularity of Art Deco also drew the public to Surrealism.


The London International Surrealist Exhibition, organised by the art historian Herbert Read in 1936, represented the zenith of Surrealism's reputation and influence. During the same year, New York's Museum of Modern Art hosted a major show entitled "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism". The last great 30s show, the International Surrealist Exhibition (designed by Marcel Duchamp), was held in 1938, at the Beaux-Arts Gallery in Paris. At the entrance visitors in evening dress were greeted by the sight of Dali's Rainy Taxi (an old cab, rigged to produce a steady drizzle of water down the inside of the windows, containing a figure with a shark's head in the driver's seat and a blond mannequin alive with live snails in the rear). Inside, the lobby was decorated like the interior of a dark cave, with over one thousand bags of coal hanging from the ceiling, lit by a single light bulb. Patrons had to be given flashlights to view the exhibits. On the floor was a carpet of dead leaves, and other plant-life. Not surprisingly, visitors were scandalized - much to the glee of the organizers.

Surrealism During World War Two

By 1939, many of the major surrealists, including Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Andre Masson, were in the United States. Assisted by the American influence and contacts of Marcel Duchamp, during his earlier visits to America, as well as the marriage in 1941 between Max Ernst and the millionairess art collector Peggy Guggenheim, they proved quite influential and acquired new adherents like Dorothea Tanning, Frederick Kiesler, Enrico Donati, Arshile Gorky and Joseph Cornell. And while the dominant American art school of the 1940s was Abstract Expressionism, its early work contains a number of Surrealist (and Dadaist) features. Indeed a good deal of late-modern and contemporary American art (eg. Pop-Art, Assemblage, Installation, Conceptual art, Performance) was inspired by Surrealism in one way or another.

Surrealism in Britain

British painters had taken Surrealism to heart from 1936, if not before, but especially during the 1940s. The sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) took an interest in biomorphic figures, while Lucian Freud (b.1922) the grandson of Surrealism's mentor Sigmund Freud, Francis Bacon and Paul Nash experimented with surrealist techniques. However, its staunchest and most consistent advocate was the British painter Conroy Maddox (1912-2005), who in 1978 commented: "No other movement has had more to say about the human condition."

Post-War Surrealism

Although Andre Breton's return to Paris after the war triggered a new phase of surrealist activity, the exceptionally depressing mood of post-war France was not receptive to whimsy or satire. Instead, Breton found the movement under attack from former members such as Tristan Tzara and the new leader of the avant-garde, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who damned it for its stupid optimism. Despite this, major surrealist exhibitions were held in Paris in 1947 and 1959, and surrealist ideas and techniques made their mark on many of the post-war art movements. For a South American artist influenced by the movement, see Fernando Botero (b.1932). For a Canadian painter whose work borrows from the Surrealist canon, see the Magic Realist Alex Colville (b.1920).

Pop Art was another spin-off from Surrealism. See for instance the satirical gigantic object-sculptures of Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) which clearly echo the works of Rene Magritte.

End of Surrealism

There is no clear agreement between art critics or historians about the end of Surrealism. Some art experts consider that it disbanded after the war; others cite the death of André Breton in 1966 (or that of Salvador Dali in 1989) as marking the end of Surrealism as an organized movement. Whatever about its demise, Surrealism as a style was (and still is) immensely popular with the art public. Recent exhibitions of Surrealism have been hosted in New York City by The Guggenheim Museum and The Met (1999, 2002), while in 2001 the Tate Modern in London held an exhibition of surrealist art that drew 170,000 visitors. This was followed in Europe by a packed show - "La Révolution Surréaliste" - at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Surrealist Art Styles: Figuration and Abstraction

There were two main trends within Surrealism. One was representational: dependent on figuration, on the precise reproduction of natural forms - generally detached, dislocated, juxtaposed, transposed, or mutated far from real-life situations. The second style of Surrealism was abstract, based on imagery without specific reference to natural shapes, and was largely dependent on forms generated by the unconscious.

Figurative Surrealism

The figurative or representational style of Surrealism (Veristic) appears at its most successful in the work of Magritte, Dali and Delvaux, and in the work of certain other artists who in their variety and achievement escape categorization in any one mode. Picasso was one, Ernst was another, and Arp yet another, and in the 1930s and 1940s Giacometti and Moore (1898-1986). In addition, note that this style of surrealist painting had been anticipated by the French symbolist Odilon Redon (1840-1916).

Rene Magritte
The most outstanding figurative surrealist was the Belgian Rene Magritte, who specialized in academic, naturalistic, but illusionistic pictures. Apart from a brief stay near Paris in 1927-30, when he met Breton and exhibited with the surrealists, Magritte spent a discreet and industrious life in Brussels, painting the impossible with calm, confident conviction. He was the most dazzling disappointer of conventional expectations, exploiting astonishing discrepancies of scale (an apple fills a room; a train bursts through a giant fireplace); and defying the laws of gravity. His unique effect is heightened by his use of everyday objects. For example, the hero of many of his later pictures is the man in urban uniform - coat, bowler hat, sometimes a brief-case - as expressionless as a tailor's dummy. The ambiguity of the object versus its painted image is stressed constantly - a faithful likeness of a pipe, inscribed "This is not a pipe". His most famous surrealist paintings include "La Condition Humaine" (1933) and "The Red Model" (1935).

Salvador Dali
In contrast to the publicity surrounding other artists, the quietness of Magritte's method meant that initially his achievement was undervalued. Instead, public attention was concentrated on the frenetic activities of the Spaniard Salvador Dali, provocateur-in-chief of the bourgeoisie from his first association with Parisian Surrealism in 1927. Ironically, like Magritte, Dali's painterly technique was one of 19th century academic naturalism, applied to un-real subjects as if they were real. He worked in many media, in writing, painting, jewellery design, film (with Luis Bunuel) - but perhaps above all in his own fantastically moustachioed person, in a spectacular public career often virtually like show business - a giant egocentricity powered by an energetic paranoia. His relations with official Surrealism, at first euphoric, later became strained. Famous surrealist works by Dali include: "The Persistence of Memory" (1931) and "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans" (1936), among many others.

Paul Delvaux
Another Belgian, Paul Delvaux, was a slightly narrower talent, but one that introduced an enduringly mysterious note into the range of surrealist imagery. In his haunting paintings he presents a world of lonely alienation: suburbs of desolation haunted by trains and trams, peopled by silent waiting women who prove on closer inspection to be all identical - perhaps the most intense realization of dream or nightmare achieved by any surrealist. However, he was not officially associated with the movement; nor was Maurits Escher (1898-1972), a Dutchman whose best-known works are his brilliantly calculated drawings - games with perspective, presenting with great precision quite different images interpenetrating with such ambiguity that the eye cannot establish where one begins and the other ends.

Francis Bacon
The Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909-92) must be considered one of the top contemporary exponents of figurative Surrealism, although interviews reveal that his complex repertoire of human forms represented his conscious attempt to create a new kind of figurative narration in tune with modern filmic imagery as well as his view of the age of alienation through which he was living.


Was Figurative Surrealism Unconscious? If Not, Was it Surrealistic?

Given that these representational works required meticulous "rational" thought, one would have thought that they fell outside the definition of surrealist art as the product of unconscious thought. Not so, apparently. Figurative works were permitted (by Breton and other theorists) as long as they questioned the normal "rational" reality. Thus Magritte's academic style work was considered surrealist due to its bizarre juxtapositions which stood reality on its head and presented a new surreality. Dali's works also passed muster because they were created (according to Dali) in a semi-hallucinatory state which he named critical paranoia. "I would awake at sunrise and, without washing or dressing, sit down before the easel... my eyes staring fixedly, trying to "see" like a medium the images that would spring up in my imagination. When I saw these images exactly situated in the painting, I would paint them on the spot, immediately." Dali's imagery, like his melting watches and his bizarre half-human figures have made him the most celebrated of all surrealist painters. Even so, in 1937, when he switched to a more regular academic style, Breton expelled him from the movement. On balance, one can say that surrealist art inclded even highly representational work, provided that it illustrated the limitations of a reason-based reality.

Abstract Surrealism

In brief, surrealist abstraction rejected geometric shapes in favour of the visual and emotional impact of organic forms of nature: either actual (Jean Arp, Andre Masson, Joan Miro) or imagined (Yves Tanguy, Robert Matta).

The non-representational arm of Surrealism was no less vigorous. The work especially of Jean Arp was more often non-figurative than not, but the major artists most consistently independent of natural phenomena were the Spaniard Joan Miro (1893-1983) and the Frenchman Andre Masson (1896-1987), who had studios side by side in Paris and who both joined Breton's surrealist group at its launch in 1924. For a spell both artists experimented freely with "automatic" drawings, the visual counterpart of the crucial "non-technique" of surrealist irrationalism, "automatic" writing. (Its aim was to allow the free association needed to create an absolutely spontaneous expression.) But both artists found that geometric abstraction - whether in the rigid doctrinaire Cubist theories of Gleizes, or the austere geometric reductions of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - was sterile and inadequate to their needs.

Andre Masson
The French painter Andre Masson was permanently affected by his appalling experiences in World War I; he was obsessed by the domination of the rule of tooth and claw in all life, animal or human, and his work is a release of the violence of base instincts, as illustrated by "Battle of Fishes" (1926). Masson was himself a violent man, who often physically attacked canvases he thought were unsatisfactory. In 1926 he began exploiting "chance" as part of his technique: he would scatter sand over canvases previously spread (randomly) with glue, and then, very fast, orchestrate their random configurations into loose patterns of art. The images that appeared could be brutal; as they gradually became more specific, horrific creatures emerged. Three years later, he withdrew from the official surrealist movement, and his work of the 1930s became less intense and less successful. However, in America during World War II, he reverted to his earlier automatist techniques, and his work of these years influenced the subsequent emergence of the Abstract Expressionist school.

Joan Miro
The prolific, versatile, genial and also generally the most optimistic of the creative practitioners of abstract Surrealism, was the Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miro, though he himself has always dismissed suggestions that his work was abstract. In his eyes, each of his fantastic forms always signified a real object. He was, like Picasso and Dali, one of that brilliant breed of new Spanish artists who arrived in Paris in the early twentieth century but, unlike Picasso, he returned constantly from Parisian turmoil to his native country. At the end of World War I, he was working in a style of meticulous realism, from which the development of his mature style emerged almost abruptly about 1924, like a butterfly from its chrysalis, largely as a result of his surrealist contacts. If, as some art critics have alleged, there are any sinister undertones in his work, particularly during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), they are more than outweighed by the child-like gaiety that sparkles from his canvases. His abstract images are typically biomorphic, similar to those of Arp, and his fantasy often approaches that of Paul Klee. Unknown but convincingly depicted organisms take shape, defined in clear outline and sharp colours - primary reds, blacks and whites predominate, as illustrated by "Harlequin's Carnival" (1924). In slight contrast, Miro's semi-abstract pictorial imagery is exemplified by his famous work "Dog Barking at the Moon" (1926). Miro claimed that his ideas sprang from "a state of hallucination, provoked by some shock or other, objective or subjective, for which I am entirely irresponsible". Whatever the source, his initial conception is then marshalled by an unerring sense of design, of space and interval, into a strange formal harmony. In Spain during the Second World War, he turned his attention to printmaking, and later to sculpture and especially ceramics. Afterwards he was drawn to monumental works and giant murals like those for the Terrace Hilton Hotel in Cincinnati, and the ceramic walls of the UNESCO building in Paris (1958). A constant innovator, he was willing to investigate the possibilities of any medium, often in collaboration with specialist craftsmen, and the fertility of his vision never slackened in his long career.

Yves Tanguy
The surrealist abstract painter Yves Tanguy evolved and developed (but never escaped from) a style of imaginery landscapes or sea-beds populated by bizarre but compelling half-vegetable, half-animal forms, and amoeba-like organisms previously unknown to science, derived from hallucinations. More and more he developed the contrasts and variety of his textures, so that his pictures might be classed as a kind of metaphysical Dutch still-life painting. Forms grew beneath Tanguy's brush under their own mysterious prompting, so he maintained, rather than by any intervention on his part. Key works by Tanguy include "The Look of Amber" (1929), Promontory Palace (1931) and "The Palace of the Windowed Rocks" (1942).

Jean Arp
The ex-Dadaist Jean Arp, a close friend of Max Ernst, was a participant in the first surrealist exhibition in Paris at Gallerie Pierre in 1925, and a regular contributor to Surrealism until 1930. Known originally for his Dadaist wood-reliefs, cardboard cut-outs and torn paper collages, his surrealist works comprised simple biomorphic shapes sometimes with echoes of primitive art. He also experimented with automatic composition (automatism). In 1930, he joined Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square) a Parisian discussion and exhibition society for (mainly) geometric abstract artists, and in 1931 became a member of the larger Abstraction-Creation group, with whom he began producing his sensuous organic abstract sculptures in marble or bronze. This terminated his rather short involvement with Surrealism. Despite this, he was a forceful personality within both Dada and Surrealism, while his signature style of biomorphic abstraction has had a strong influence on a number of other sculptors, notably Henry Moore.


Surrealist Art Techniques

Surrealists invented a number of techniques to produce random or chance images. A great deal of pioneering work in this area was done by the extraordinary German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet Max Ernst (1891-1976). A man of enormous creativity, Ernst first married an art-historian, then lived with the British-born surrealist painter Leonora Carrington; afterwards married and divorced the art-collector Peggy Guggenheim, before finally marrying another outstanding surrealist artist, Dorothea Tanning. He continued to produce innovative work until his death. His important works include "Forest and Dove" (1927), "La Femme 100 tetes" series (1930s), "The Entire City" (1935), and "Immortel" (1966) a glass chess-game.

An early member of both Dada and Surrealism, Ernst invented frottage (1925) - a technique of creating an image by placing a piece of paper over a rough surface, like grainy wood or stone, and rubbing the paper with a pencil or crayon until it acquires an impression of the surface quality of the substance beneath. vsn making an impression of a textured surface by placing a piece of thin material and rubbing it with (eg) a wax crayon - to procure images.

In addition, Ernst invented decalcomania, a technique in which paint is splashed onto paper, typically with a big brush, then - while still wet - covered with another sheet of paper, and rubbed together. This results in a range of weird forest-like patterns.

Ernst also pioneered the technique known as grattage. This involved laying a painted canvas over a textured surface (like wire-mesh or a floorboard) and scraping the paint away to produce an impression.

Around 1930, Ernst began a series of "collage novels" of which the most famous is "Une Semaine de Bonte" (A Week of Plenty). Cutting up and rearranging Victorian steel engravings, he produced bizzare fantasies out of the safe bourgeois world in which he had grown up.

Moving to New York during World War II, Ernst then began working with paint dripped from a swinging can, a method which may well have started Jackson Pollock on his method of action-painting.

Another surrealist technique was known as fumage (smoking). Pioneered by Wolfgang Paalen (1907-1959) during the late 1930s, it involved placing a candle under a sheet of paper to form patterns of soot. Moving the candle varied the patterns.

Automatic Drawing
Pioneered by Andre Masson, Joan Miro, and Paul Klee, the technique of automatic drawing involved allowing the line of a pen or other drawing instrument to rove at will without any conscious planning.

Automatic Painting
About 1926, Andre Masson began experimenting by placing sand and glue onto canvas, on which he then applied oil paint and made paintings based around the shapes that formed.

Abstract Expressionist Use of Surrealist Techniques

Although many European surrealists dabbled with several of these random-style "automatic" painting methods, most moved away from automatism by the early 1940s. However, their influence in America (to where many relocated during WWII) was profound. In New York for instance, European surrealists introduced their ideas to key opinion-formers like Leo Steinberg, Clement Greenberg and Peggy Guggenheim, as well as avant-garde artists - known as the New York School - such as Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Robert Motherwell (1915-91), Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and Robert Matta (1911-2002). The large-scale "action-painting" abstractions of Pollock in particular, contain a strong element of surrealistic automatism. For more details of this, see: Jackson Pollock's paintings (c.1940-56).


Surrealist Sculpture

Giacometti created masterpieces of surrealist culture such as "Woman With Her Throat Cut" (1932), a bronze construction of a dismembered female corpse and "The Invisible Object" (Hands Holding the Void) (1934). Both portrayed the body of the female as inhuman and dangerous. However, when he returned to a more classical style in the later 1930s, working from life models, he was expelled from the movement. Numerous other sculptors have experimented with surrealist styles, including Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and the Irish sculptor FE McWilliam.

Surrealist Photography

Man Ray was the first surrealist photographer. One of his best known works being "Enigma of Isadore Ducasse" (1920), now known only in his own photograph of a sewing machine wrapped in a blacket tied with string. He created it in homage to the poet Lautreamont (ie, Isadore Ducasse) whose pithy comment: "as beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table" became a defining comment on Surrealism's aesthetic philosophy. One of the greatest photographers of his day, highly skilled in darkroom manipulation, close-ups and unexpected juxtapositions, Man Ray worked successfully in the seemingly incompatible worlds of the Parisian avant-garde society and commercial photography. His photographs were published in both specialist and popular periodicals - from Vogue and Vanity Fair to La Surrealisme au service de la Revolution (1930-33) and La Revolution Surrealiste (1924-29). He invented several techniques such as solarization and rayographs, and his sitters included numerous famous artists such as James Joyce, Jean Cocteau and Meret Oppenheim. Other noteworthy exponents of surrealist-style photography included Hans Bellmer (1902-75), Brassai (1899-1984), Jacques-Andre Boiffard (1902-61) and Raoul Ubac (1909-85). See also: Is Photography Art?

Surrealist Film and Cinematography

Luis Bunuel, who worked on several projects with Dali, is probably the most famous surrealist film director, although Man Ray also produced numerous short avant-garde films.


Key collections of surrealist art are located in the following museums, among others.

Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, USA
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
Joan Miro Foundation, Barcelona
Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf
Salvador Dali Museum, St Petersburg, Florida
Tate Modern, London

The Legacy of Surrealism

The influence of Surrealism as a style of art can be found in a wide variety of modern and contemporary schools - notably, early Abstract Expressionism, Pop-Art and Conceptualism - and permeated nearly all contemporary art forms, including Assemblage, Installation and Performance. In addition, it anticipated many of the major concepts of postmodernist art. For example, some of the concepts of Damien Hirst and other Young British Artists would have fitted perfectly into the avant-garde surrealist idiom of Paris during the 1920s. The latest movement to borrow elements from the Surrealist idiom is Cynical Realism, a Chinese contemporary painting movement - led by Yue Minjun (b.1962) and Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958) - which emerged during the 1990s in Beijing.

• For post-1860 artworks, see Modern Art.
• For a list of schools and artist-groups, see Modern Art Movements.
• For more about 20th century French painting, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

© All rights reserved.