What Is Surrealism Art? Definition and Examples

Posted by Robert Lange on

What is Surrealism in art? It’s a movement that has its roots in Dadaism, and although similar in style, it is quite different in terms of messages. It focuses on positive elements of the world and freeing the unconscious parts of the mind. The members of this movement seek creative freedom and use various techniques, often combining many styles, so it is almost impossible to come up with an accurate definition of Surrealism art. Do you seek to learn more? Then we invite you to read on!

What Is Surrealism in Art? Definition

For starters, let’s take a look at the definition of Surrealism. It is an avant-garde literary and artistic movement that emerged in the early 20th century, particularly in the aftermath of World War I. Developed as a reaction against rationalism and the constraints of conventional artistic and societal norms, surrealism sought to explore the irrational and subconscious aspects of the human mind. The movement was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories, emphasizing the significance of dreams, the unconscious, and the unbridled imagination.

While it is impossible to define the techniques and certain features of Surrealism, as they simply vary depending on the artist, we can still find some key characteristics of this movement. These include:

      • Automatism – A technique involving spontaneous and uncontrolled actions, such as doodling or free association. This was done to bypass the rational mind and let the unconscious guide the artist.
      • Vivid, dreamlike imagery – Fantastical and dreamlike imagery is also a frequent element of Surrealist art, as artists sought to evoke a sense of mystery, ambiguity, and psychological tension.
      • Symbolism and metaphor – Powerful symbolism was often carved into the dreamlike imagery. Surrealism in art often conveyed additional, deeper meanings hidden in the visual surface of the works.
      • Absurdity and irrationality – Like Dadaism art, Surrealism art did reach a certain level of nonsense and irrationality, challenging social norms, yet without focusing so much on the negative as its predecessor.
      • Frottage and grattage – The former was a technique employed by Surrealist artists, which involved rubbing a soft pencil or crayon over a textured surface, leaving the remnants of the texture on the canvas, while the latter involved scraping the surface of the canvas to create a visual texture. Both had one aim: making an impression that the image is unfinished and inviting the viewers to explore what the missing details could be.

    The History of Surrealism

    Surrealism hasn’t emerged as a visual art movement at first. Instead, it was initially a literary movement. Similarly to Futurism, it all started with a manifesto – this time (in 1924), it was published by André Breton, a French poet and art critic, who was inspired by the studies of Sigmund Freud and the ideas of Karl Marx. At first, Surrealist writers weren’t interested in visual arts, as they believed it was impossible to recreate spontaneity and tap into the unconscious while sculpting or painting. 

    The first visual artists who embraced Surrealism were, among others, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Joan Miró. Many of these artists were former Dadaists who started experimenting with their art, seeking complete creative freedom, thus the diverse nature of the art pieces created in this movement.

    Before 1939 when World War II started, most prominent Surrealist artists moved to the US, where they created their works despite the events in Europe. After the war, some of them, for instance, Breton, moved back to the Old Continent. Yet, Surrealism was under a lot of criticism at the time, as it was believed to be too optimistic, especially considering the war that had just gone through the world. Therefore, Surrealism was slowly becoming less popular, and other post-war movements, like pop art, started taking its place.

    The Most Important Surrealist Artists and Their Works

    Who were the most influential Surrealist artists? What are the artworks in Surrealism that you need to know about? Here’s all this knowledge in a nutshell!

        • André Breton (1896-1966) – We have to mention Breton despite his not working in the visual arts. The founding father of Surrealism has created numerous works, from which Nadja definitely stands out. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel that blends reality and irrationality, just like Surrealism does.
        • Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) – Dalí is undoubtedly the most iconic artist of this movement and became a synonym of Surrealist imagery. It’s difficult to point out which of his pieces is most influential, but pieces like The Persistence of Memory definitely deserve your attention.
        • Max Ernst (1891-1976) – As one of the first Surrealist painters, and a former Dadaist, Ernst was an important figure in this artistic movement. His most famous work is titled The Elephant Celebes.

    The Elephant Celebes

    The Takeaway

    We hope that now you know what Surrealism is. This art movement has given birth to many masterpieces that are often still recognized by millions of people.

    You might also read: What is Abstract Art? Complete Guide

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