What is Surrealism

Surrealism, is an artistic movement stressing on the artists subconscious, where the artist focuses on their imagination, for imagery or to exploit unexpected juxtapositions. These juxtapositions are unexpected, because the appearance of the forms/subjects don’t look real, and oppose reality.

In surrealist artworks, the subjects look like out their out of reality, in fact some surrealist artworks are inspired by the artist’s dreams. It means the union of the conscious and the unconscious thoughts, as if a dream or a fantasy gets real, also known as surreal. The movement made artists find beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny subjects. The world surrealist suggests beyond reality, it’s a combination of both realism and imagination too.

What are the characteristics of Surrealism?

In Surrealism, the artist writes down their own thoughts without any stopping or structure, this is called automatic writing. The Juxtaposition of the forms in a surrealist painting is usually showing imagery to put irrelevant objects together. However, even though they may be irrelevant, Surrealists try to put association between the 2 objects of surrealism, using the unconscious, and rendering these associations with such Juxtapositions.

A key characteristic of Surrealism is that the artist relies on their unconscious, but reality and the conscious combines with this state of consciousness when the unconscious finds a way to express the reality and render it into the canvases that these artists make. Some artists may use Dreams and Fantasy to make an expression of the reality, and this can create a Dreamlike drawing that has meaning, whilst others depend on simply where their subconscious brings them, just like in automatism.

Many various techniques can be used like frottage, where the texture below the paper is imprinted onto the paper by implementing it using tools like the wax crayon. Automatic drawing is an example of simply drawing without any planning of the conscious, whilst automatic painting was drawing shapes around randomly formed shapes, which can be made by apply sand and glue onto the canvas.

Who are the Significant Artists of this art movement and their artistic style?

Salvador Dali (Dreamlike) – Salvador Dali was a significant surrealist, born in 11th of May, 1904 in Figueres (Girona), son of Salvador Dali Cusi hand Felipa Domenech Ferres. In 1908, Anna Maria, Salvador’s little sister was born, and Salvador got enrolled into the State Primary School, under the teacher Esteve Trayter. In 1910, he was enrolled into a Hispano-French school, to learn French, his future cultural vehicle.

In the 1920s, he got accepted to the San Fernando Academy in Madrid, then 4 years later, he got expelled as he didn’t want his artworks to be judged by examiners. He had experimented on futurism and cubism, on a trip to Paris, Andre Breton showed him Surrealism. In 1925, his first solo exhibition was held in Barcelona. After that, he returned to Catalonia, where his artworks become more bizarre and grotesque.

In 1938, Salvador was influenced by the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, when he had evolved his art style, and was expelled from Surrealism. In the 1940s, he teamed up with Alfred Hitchcock to create dream-like sequences for movies like Spellbound. In the 1950s, he created 19 canvases with themes of religion, history, and science, which he had called, “nuclear mysticism”. He loved the idea of geometry, DNA, divinity, and visual illusions. By the 60s, he was focusing on space and science, playing around with dimensions like immortality. In the 70s, his health had started declining and he died of heart failure on January 23, 1989.

A huge effect on Salvador’s artistic style was that his mother was a religious Catholic, and his father was an atheist, which showed how Salvador drew about real worlds combined with the imaginative thoughts and beliefs, kind of like what Surrealism really is. Within his meeting with Sigmund Freud, Salvador has used the Freudian theory, where he draws his dreams and hallucinations into rendered paintings.

Eroticism, death, and even decay are themes that occur across his paintings, as a part of his reflection of psychoanalysis theories, he had drawn his childhood memories deliberately as if to make an autobiography. He had shown easily interpreted imagery in his works as well. He was once part of Andre Bretons theory of automatism, but he drew misunderstandings together with his conscience. He draws landscapes beside the sea, similar to the one in his house at Figueres. His works were more dreamlike.

André Breton (Automatism) – André Breton was born on 19th of February, 1896, in Tinchebrady, Normandy, France. At a young age, he learned about medicine and psychiatry and studied mental illnesses. During World War 1, he worked in psychiatric wards in Nantes, whilst looking at the works of Sigmund Freud.

In 1916, he joined the Dadaist movement in France, with other artists like Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. He had major literature works too, wherein 1920, he wrote a book of literary “Surrealism”, titled “Les Champs magnetiques” (Magnetic Fields), which started surreal automatism writing. In 1924, he founded the Bureau of Surrealist research to start the movement of Surrealism. In 1935, at the “International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture”, he had gotten into an argument with other Surrealists, thus all Surrealists were banned from the Congress.

Along with World War 2, he had been into the medical corps for his country, the French. The Vichy Government disqualified his writings, so in 1941, André had escaped to the U.S, where from 1953 to 1958, he had penned numerous works, including literature, and also artworks, like “Manifestos of Surrealisms”. From 1959 to 1965, he made a display in Paris to showcase all of his works. André Breton had died at the age of 70, at Paris, on the 26th of September 1966.

André Breton’s artistic style included him focusing on collage and printmaking, sometimes focusing on combining texts and images. His ideology was to combine the unconscious with symbols to express oneself. He was focusing more on automatism too, where once the tool is on the canvas, it would never leave the canvas until the work is done, it’s like writing in cursive, where once the pencil is on the paper, it would only leave the paper once a word is written. The strokes of the tool are controlled by the unconscious of the artist.

When and Where did Surrealism start?

Surrealism originated in the late 1910s and the early 1920s, and it was officially brought up by Andre Bréton, who was a critic and poet, born in 1896 and died in 1966, when he had published the Manifesto of Surrealism.

What art movements came before and after Surrealism?

Before Surrealism, there were a few movements. A really good example is the Dada movements, which occurred around World War 1, and it defied reason, but unlike the Dada movement, Surrealism didn’t focus on negation but rather on positive expression. Surrealism was also an alternative to Cubism, because it had more freedom in terms of shapes and forms. Modern art, also done by Salvador Dali, had occurred after surrealism, it focused on projecting the subjects into the world based on the artist’s own perspective.

Why is Surrealism unique among other art movements?

What makes Surrealism different is that the artwork is more controlled by the unconscious mind, to see the creativity and imagination in its purest from one’s mind. Unlike Dadaism, it wasn’t anti-art, it wasn’t limited to negation, and expressing opinions with other factors like politics. Surrealism focused on one’s imagination, some artists can even use their dreams, but the artworks aren’t clear, the nature in the images don’t make sense, just like the nature of our unconscious and dreams.

Unlike fantasy, Surrealism has some reality in it, since it’s a combination of reality and the unconscious, and they express one mind, not just making up different images that would not exist in the real world. In surrealism, the images may sometimes feel incomplete, not full of much details, or variety, they keep themes limited to a few, but not too many, it’s like taking a photo of one’s mind, not what they simply imagine, or look at, but express by using the unconscious mind and the conscious real world.

How do Surrealist Artists utilise objects around them to create their artworks?

Surrealist artists use the objects around them in many ways. For example, Salvador Dali had used objects from his childhood memory to implement them into his artworks, it is possible that the landscape from his painting “The Persistence of Memory”, is part of a seaside in one of the places he lived in, like in Catalonia or Figueres. However, a reasonable explanation is that the objects around them can be used as stimuli for their subconscious thoughts, which the surrealist renders into the canvas. The essence or the opinion behind those objects is expressed by the unconscious, or the objects are simply combined from the perspective the artist wants to look at the artwork, like in the “Son of Man”.


The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali

Colour and Value: The artwork is based on natural colours, the colours are simply based on showing the audience what that object is, not add any expression into it. For example: the sky is coloured blue, simply to show that that’s the sky. The value in the colours is adjusted to where the sunlight is supposed to go to.

For example: the background is full of light colours, that’s more warm, just to show the sunlight reflecting off the cliff, the ocean, and most importantly the sky shows the sunrise/sunset. However, the tables are in darker colours, simply because not a lot of light is reaching there, and the colours start to get a bit more monochromatic there.

Line: The artwork uses lines appropriately, just to show what’s going on clearly. The clocks have more curved lines to show that they are not solid, and more of melting, whilst the table uses geometric, straight lines, to show that they’re rigid.

Shape: The shapes are used to make sure the audience knows what the objects are, but the shapes of the clocks don’t look rigid, just to signify that the clocks aren’t really rigid.

Texture: The painting feels smooth, as the painting simply wants to show a landscape and look realistic, so the painting style doesn’t require any special techniques to show other expressions.

Space: The objects aren’t compact together, the cliff and the ocean are far away, whilst the furniture and the clocks are moderately apart from each other.

Form: The form is 3D objects rendered in 2D forms, that may look real, but the state of the clocks is what sets the surrealism effect, it puts this image of non-solid clocks onto real solid objects, combining the thoughts of the unconscious with the conscious world where realities and memories are rendered. Its composition is full of a setting or rising sky, with a cliff to show a distance, and the living room furniture to show the location of the clocks. In addition to that, the clocks are the most symbolic part of this painting, and they are the only things that kind of add the surrealism effect, along with the fact that a living room is outside in the painting.

Contrast: The juxtaposition of the melting clock on the edge of the furniture shows how flexible the clock is, shows that the clock is melting. Salvador has used things like use to show some other effects too, like when you find an old decaying place, it’s covered with insects, nets, etc. It’s interesting how one of the clocks is covered with ants, which symbolizes that the clock may be old and decaying. That’s a very good technique that Salvador, where he leaves a trace of what’s happening as an object in the painting, like a clue in a crime scene. Salvador also added darkness, or shaded behind objects to show the shadows, and so the direction of where the light source is.

Repetition and Pattern: To put it simply, there aren’t really any patterns in the painting. There may be a repletion or pattern since only clocks melt, but not anything else, showing a symbol, but also a general rule in this painting.

Emphasis: In this painting, different colors are used to emphasize on some objects, like the cliff is colored yellow, and the orange clock simply stands out, and the positioning of the clock right beside the orange clock is attractive as it’s the only clock on the edge of something. All of these differences grab the audience’s attention very well, and these places show the overall topic of the painting.

Balance: The balance is shown clearly on the clocks, they show this sense of stability in the image, and they simply hang on the branch, or the sofa, or the edge of the furniture in a way that they look static, so they are all balanced and not moving.

Movement and Rhythm: If the clocks aren’t moving, then what else can move in this painting? Well, the sun seems to be rising or setting, which shows that the time is constantly changing in that world, maybe adding more importance to those clocks.

Unity: The sofa, branch and the other furniture work together to show the setting of an indoor room, possibly a living room, and together with the clocks, they can be used to show that the clocks are melting, as these pieces of furniture are places where the clocks can hang on.

Automatic Drawing – André Masson

Colour and Value: The colours are pretty much absent in the picture, this is basically a drawing with black colour, which may be useful as it is clearly visible against the white background, the drawing is monochromatic, and the values are simply dark, with a bright background.

Line: The lines are the most significant part of the picture, they are continuous across the whole picture, and they move in the direction that the subconscious takes the drawing to. The lines may have various thicknesses over time.

Shape: The shapes in this drawing are various, the shapes drawn may represent something, but doesn’t really show or clarify what that object is. This is like when we imagine, our thoughts can make us imagine objects, but we can’t truly think of something like we’re looking at it, the details are just enough to help the person know what that thought is about. For example: there is a hand that’s holding a ball in the upper left corner, and possibly a heart, right above the middle on the right-hand side.

Texture: There isn’t really a texture, since the shapes aren’t filled in, but the lines feel a bit smooth and abrasive at the same time, and if we were to fill some objects, they would feel more smooth and bumpy.

Space: In this drawing, everything, the lines, are so compact, the area on the paper is basically consumed, but there is still space left out on the outskirts of the drawing. It’s like the whole drawing is also one object, one shape that represents what the painting is all about.

Form: The drawing simply looks 2D and all the objects in this drawing are fully connected to each other, is simply one path, just one line. The composition of this whole drawing can be unraveled into one simple line, but it’s as if the line is tangled in a specific way to show smaller objects like hands in some places of the drawing.

Contrast: There isn’t really a special juxtaposition to change the appearance of the objects, some objects have more space around them just to make sure that they are more visible. The lines aren’t filled, and no objects are truly separated or filled with color, so objects can’t be placed to create a contrast/juxtaposition.

Repetition and Pattern: The drawing isn’t based on a repetition of any painting, the lines go off in the direction that the subconscious takes them, so no pattern can be made consciously, and it’s clearly not evident in this drawing.

Emphasis: The emphasis is only shown when there is uniqueness in the drawings. In this drawing, some objects aren’t crowded with lines, and they can easily go to the front and stand out. One thing that can add more emphasis to the objects in this drawing is recognizable shapes, like hands, and hearts, as the subconscious of the audience makes the audience more conscious about the existence of these recognizable figures.

Balance: The drawing is fully off-balance, nothing symmetrical, or any form that is truly clear and recognizable, or radial objects aren’t in the picture. The unconscious has taken the lines to any shape that wouldn’t have balance, and that’s usual, as the artist work harder to create symmetry, clarity, recognizable object, or radial object, so the conscious has a more significant role in making those object. However, this is a technique of automatic drawing, so such consciously-produced objects can’t be made.

Movement Rhythm: There aren’t any conscious decisions to show many events going in the image, so a movement or a rhythm is possible.

Unity: Everything in this image work together to create one shape, because it is important to know that this drawing is only one line, so everything in this drawing is technically in unity.
Compare and Contrast


In conclusion, artists may use objects around them to create visual illusions by having their subconscious make an opinion and project a dream or thought on the object. By rendering such an unconscious result to a piece of canvas, such visual illusions of dreams or fantasy can be seen in various artworks, such as in Surrealism.

The ideas and themes used by Surrealists truly depend on the artists themselves, but a common idea is kind of philosophical, like looking at immortality, life, memory, and time from various perspectives, similar to Salvador Dali, but also about immersing yourself into your own subconscious and rendering it to reality, similar to Andre Masson. Imagination, unconscious and conscious, are the 3 main ideas and themes behind Surrealism.

Surrealist artworks may changes over time, due to the new ideologies, and objects that may inspire them, just like in all types of art. However, for Surrealism, the change would also occur because of different ways of thinking, since thinking is made by the subconscious, therefore, in Surrealist artworks, where the unconscious and the conscious combine, changes definitely occur.

In Surrealism, the thoughts of an artist are more exploited, the expressions are more exposed, showing the personal and cultural beliefs that the artist has clearly. Their meanings can be altered based on the way symbols the objects in the artworks are interpreted, thus giving multiple meanings to the creative expression that comes from the roots of the artists’ minds.


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author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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