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What is Surrealism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Surrealism is an artistic, philosophical, intellectual and political movement that aimed to break down the boundaries of rationalization to access the imaginative subconscious. It is a descendent of the Dadaism movement, which disregarded tradition and the use of conscious form in favor of the ridiculous. First gaining popularity in the 1920s and founded by Andre Breton, the approach relies on Freudian psychological concepts.

Guiding Principles

Proponents of surrealism believed that the subconscious was the best inspiration for art. They thought that the ideas and images within the subconscious mind was more “true” or “real” than the concepts or pictures the rational mind could create. Under this philosophy, even the ridiculous had extreme value and could provide better insights into a culture or a person’s desires, likes or fears.

A major reason why many people took issue with the movement was because it tossed away conventional ideas about what made sense and what was ugly. In fact, much of what advocates produced was designed to break rules in overt ways. The art and writing of the style often holds images or ideas that, under traditional modes of thought, are disturbing, shocking or disruptive.

Differing Viewpoints

Although all surrealists agreed that the subconscious was the key to accessing the imagination, not all of them agreed on how to view the subconscious mind. This led to some differing views and practical applications. Two schools developed, automatism and veristic surrealism.

Automatism was a form of writing in which a person holds a pencil or pen, tries to clear away conscious thoughts and then simply allows the pencil to flow. The technique eventually crossed over into visual art such as drawing and painting. It relies heavily on the free association and dream techniques of famed psychologist, Sigmund Freud. People who practiced automatism used abstractionism and didn’t worry about analyzing the meaning of images, believing that lack of form was a good way of rebelling against social and philosophical issues.

Veristic surrealists adopted Carl Jung’s belief in the universal subconscious, which was the theory that all people possess an innate knowledge and understanding of images. By looking at the images and identifying the metaphoric significance within them, these individuals hoped to access and understand subconscious behavior and thought. Writer and professor Joseph Campbell later did significant work on this topic, exploring the commonalities among different mythic structures and reoccurring symbols in myths.

Practitioners and Examples

Artist Pablo Picasso was a practitioner of automatism. His work lets go of traditional practices and results in a more primal form of art. Much of his work is based in his concept that children’s ingenuity can provide essential access to the inner mind.

Most writers who practiced surrealism were French poets who followed automatism, including Paul Eluard, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon. The works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also employ a stream of consciousness approach. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats advocated the use of automatism and showed an interest in the topic prior to the start of the movement.

Salvador Dalí is an example of an artist who followed the veristic school. He very much believed that art should be studied and mastered, and that expression of the unconscious would spring from metaphor. His work juxtaposes contrary or anachronistic images and derives more directly from Dadaism. He lent his skills not only to painting, but to film, as well, designing the dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. People now regard this sequence as one of the best examples of the style in film.

Contemporary Surrealism

Though surrealism gradually waned in interest and was replaced by the artistic philosophy of modernism, one does not have to look far to see examples in modern art and film. Miyazaki's 2005 film Howl’s Moving Castle places ridiculous and anachronistic images in front of background drawings of very realistic early 19th century English towns. Many children in primary grades are taught self-portraiture relying specifically on portraits by Picasso. In literature, magical realism in works by authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie contain elements of the style.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon310487 — On Dec 23, 2012

The 'subconscious' does not in fact exist - you need to substitute the word unconscious. People often make this error, and it gets repeated over and over. If you refer to any of the original literature by the Surrealists you will see that they only ever referred to the unconscious and conscious.

The term subconscious simply describes those processes that happen automatically, for example breathing and blinking. Their control is on the edge of consciousness or 'sub' conscious.

By anon75516 — On Apr 06, 2010

I think that there should be more information like the five top elements of surrealism or five important principal foundations. J

By anon68329 — On Mar 02, 2010

An informative article, though i thought it lacks the original deeper motives and effects of this movement, i.e., social destructive revolution, negation of beliefs, etc.

Also there need to be some examples regarding literary works, specifically plays and dramas, where the unrefined theories of this movement come to light when compared to proper reasoned shakespeare dramas, etc. Also,the importance of human psychology and thought which played the master role.

By anon25611 — On Jan 31, 2009

This information is great!! Helped me understand everything!! this is just a word of continuous praise. Bravo!

By conchobhair — On Mar 15, 2007

There should be some mention of what Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung's professions were, since they were not artists.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia...
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