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Surrealism - Art That Literally Captures Imagination


Surrealism - Art That Literally Captures Imagination
The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

A movement that started in the 1920s, Surrealism sought to tap into the unconscious mind, thus revealing a juxtaposition of irrational imageries. Surrealist imagery is one of the most distinct characteristics of Surrealism. Yet, when trying to define it, one finds themselves rather perplexed. Joan Miro’s inexplicit biomorphic images, Salvador Dali’s ants and eggs, and Max Ernst’s birds and own bird alter ego quickly come to mind.

Not only did it produce a fair amount of imageries as such, but it also spanned into politics and into the literary sphere, creating a strong archive of surrealist texts across the years. A key quote derived from the Surrealist movement is that of André Breton’s, a French writer and poet. He stated Surrealism as a “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of thought.” What Breton implied was how artists could disregard rational thinking by tapping into their unconscious mind. This further led to ‘automatism’ or ‘automatic writing’, where artists and writers put aside conscious thought and embraced chance through their practice.

The False Mirror, Rene Magritte, 1928. Oil on canvas. © 2017 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How does one define Surrealism?

As mentioned before, it’s a little tricky attempting to define Surrealism. It is expressed through art, literature, and politics. Interestingly, it was through World War I’s effect on Europe where individuals felt the need to contest rational thought, as they felt that conflict inherently stemmed from it. Materialistic values were derived from the middle and upper classes, and with that came the artists who objected it.

They were known as the Dadaists -  the artists who strived towards chaos and irrationality. They believed that through psychoanalysis were people then able to uncover and acknowledge their unconscious desires or apprehend the desires they did not know they even wanted. Through this mode of rejecting the conscious were they then able to manifest the unique artistic creativities that resided within them. Surrealism’s definition is thus stemmed from such - the belief that the rejection of the overly rational would lead to superior modes of creativity.

Characteristics of Surrealism

Automatic writing

Whilst automatic writing pertains to the literary side of Surrealism, its techniques seep into the process of art-making. It means to write whatever comes into your head. There’s even a conversation between writers Georges Bataille, André Breton and André Masson where they speak in this ‘automatic’ respect.

In art making, Surrealist artists adhered to this by going with the flow, including imagery in their works that sprung to their minds.


This references the connections that are made between the absurd, in the spaces between the thoughts and ideas that are formed in the subconscious. Surrealists enjoyed associating such thoughts with one another, regardless of how distinct they were.


The roots of Surrealism denote the productivity of rationality, from the effects of World War I to that of the middle and upper classes. Only be disregarding the irrational did Surrealists believe that individuals could then access the irrational, a completely different realm that exists mutually exclusive of the rational mind.

Being irrational is a huge part of Surrealist identity. For example, a clock might suddenly start melting, a man’s facial characteristics might assume that of an apple, and it might start raining men.

Dreams & Fantasies 

Through the imageries that were just mentioned can we easily derive the next characteristic of Surrealism - dreams & fantasies. Surrealists extract visuals from the unconscious mind to create art devoid of logical comprehension. Like how Impressionists seek inspiration from nature, Surrealists find theirs from this ‘psychic automatism’. They seek to channel this unconscious to unlock the power of their imagination, with this imagination derived from the dreamscapes they might encounter.

The Unconscious

A key factor of Surrealism is the unconscious, but what does tapping into it truly entail? It means to enter the repressed memories, our underlying unexplainable fears, and turn that potential into something creative.

This is where the crazy dissociative world of Surrealism comes into play. That anxiety-ridden dream where you’re in a fun house with a hundred mirrors and no escape; the ones with critters crawling all over you; that infamous one where you’re free-falling to your death. All such themes drove Surrealists to create the imageries and texts that came out of that movement. That, even after a wee bit of psychoanalysis, proves that sometimes we have no idea what we want or why our bodies behave that way. It is through this apprehension that we too can channel such Surrealist thought to create whatever it is we desire.


Famous Surrealist Artists and their Works


Salvador Dali

(Left) The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. 
(Right) Autumnal Cannibalism, 1936. Image courtesy of Tate Modern, London. 

Salvador Dali undoubtedly created the most important Surrealist painting in history. One only needs to think of Dali to associate him with dripping clocks in a barren landscape. ‘The Persistence of Memory’ reflects Ali’s subconscious, delineating the message that time, as we know it, is meaningless.

Dali’s striking and bizarre works have their roots derived from Renaissance masters. His repertoire also included that of film, sculpture, and photography, at times even across a range of media. Needless to say, Dali was incredibly imaginative and highly eccentric, with mannerisms sometimes overshadowing his works through his vivacious public actions.


Rene Magritte 

(Left) Son of Man, 1964. Private collection. 
(Right) The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929. Image courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

Another piece of iconic Surrealist art is Son of Man by Rene Magritte. He did this as a representation of himself in the style of a self-portrait, stating that “everything we see hides another thing”. It seeks to highlight how what is visible does not necessarily show the entire truth, and how the conflict might exist between the “visible that is hidden and the visible that is present”.

He also created a surreal artwork depicting a pipe, and underneath that inscribing “ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Which translated to “this is not a pipe”. He meant to highlight how even though he did paint a pipe, that we as viewers would not be seeing a real pipe but rather the image of one. This juxtaposition of representation is held close to Surrealists and their characteristics.


Giorgio de Chirico

(Left) The Red Tower, 1913. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim. 
(Right) The Song of Love, 1914. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. 

Giorgio de Chirico’s The Red Tower is just one of the enigmatic artworks that were created between 1911 to 1917 that went on to inspire a whole legacy of Surrealist painters, with every artist in this list crediting him as a source of inspiration. His works instill a certain hallucinatory feeling in viewers through certain entities such as its exaggerated shadows, in discrepancies with lighting, and the slight irrationality in perspective.

His most famous quote remarks how, “every object has two appearances: one, the current one, which we nearly always see and which is seen by people in general; the other, a spectral or metaphysical appearance beheld only by some individuals in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction, as in the case of certain bodies concealed by substances impenetrable by sunlight yet discernible, for instance, by x-ray or other powerful artificial means.”


Joan Miro 

(Left) The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), 1923-24. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. 
(Right) The Tilled Field (La terre labourée), 1923-24. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim. 

Joan Miro helmed a wide array of Surrealist works over the course of his practice, but the one that continues to stand out most is The Harlequin’s Carnival. Whilst filled with complex, visually indecipherable forms, this work is, in fact, an abstraction of Miro’s homeland in Catalonia, Spain. This work contains eerie imageries that seem to unnerve viewers through their organic nature, and teems with elements that seem to defy nature. It has also been said to be viewed as a commentary on Spain’s past and its political upheaval.

As mentioned before, Surrealism has the capacity to seep into the political, and Miro’s works do just that. Departing from his Parisian naturalist style, he ventured into surrealism and that of the avant-garde where he felt innovation was. Miro’s works are also viewed as a precursor to Abstract Expressionism, making him a dominant figure across the two movements.


Max Ernst

(Left) The Elephant Celebes, 1921. Image courtesy of the Tate, London. 
(Right) Europe After the Rain II, 1941. Image courtesy of Wadsworth Atheneum. 

Heavily mimicking de Chirico’s works is Ernst’s mechanical elephant. Entitled ‘The Elephant Celebes’, this 1921 work was Ernst’s first large work. Occasionally using found images, Ernst adds and removes elements in order to construct new narratives and realities. ‘The Elephant Celebes’ comes from a photograph of a Sundanese corn-bin, and is transformed by Ernst into a rather ominous monster.

Ernst’s innovative imageries through the exploration of his unconscious typically sought to mock social conventions. He was a soldier in World War I, which caused him to be highly critical of Western culture. This also fed into the disregard for rationality that stemmed from the period, thereby popularising the Surrealist art movement.


Yves Tanguy

(Left) Reply to Red, 1943. Image courtesy of MIA.
(Right) The Satin Tuning Fork, 1940. Image courtesy of the Met. 

Reply to Red by Yves Tanguy, created in 1943, was a product of Tanguy’s self-taught journey as an artist. He joined the Surrealist movement in his 20s in France, settled in the United States, and even married the American Surrealist painter Kay Sage in 1940.

Tanguy’s works are easily comparable to that of Dali’s and Miro’s, but he accredits the majority of his influence to Giorgio de Chirico. His prominent use of lines and color come with a certain aspect of photorealism, with symbolism at times reflecting his innate obsession with a childhood memory, hallucinations, and psychotic episodes. What set Tanguy apart from other Surrealist artists was perhaps the highly vivid depictions of his unconscious.


Surrealism in Asia

Surrealism has inherently developed in Europe during the 1920s. With Paris as its nucleus, the surrealism art movement brought many of the aforementioned names in this feature such as Dali, Breton, and Magritte. It hid in the corners of Europe, but at its peak, found its way to Asia.

Japanese Surrealist photography by Kansuke Yamamoto
(Left) ‘The Closed Room,’ 1959
(Right) ‘Work,’ 1956. 

Japan was the first to not only encounter but to also embrace surrealism. But why Japan? At this historical point in time, it was because of the Japanese artistic presence in Paris itself where we credit this encounter to - the entire Japanese artistic community was living in Paris. This “gave them the opportunity to “import” all the major European art movements that developed after World War I and introduce them to other Asian countries”. However, what the Japanese were most intrigued by were not the iconic Surrealist paintings but rather its photography and literature. This then surfaced across societies in Japan’s main cities. The Japanese government caught wind of this and prohibited all Surrealist movements a few years later due to how its leftist notions contradicted policies in which the Japanese Empire needed to adhere to in order to expand.

Jia Aili, The Memory of North Liucao Island, 2013-14. Image courtesy of Gagosian. 

Apart from Japan, the Surrealist movement never made too strong of an impression in other parts of Asia. The post-Cultural Revolution in China saw some Chinese contemporary painters take on characteristics of Surrealism, including that of Jia Aili and Zhang Xiaogang, but such artists were never wholly classified as Surrealist artists. It currently finds itself in and around Asia, such as in South Korea where Choi Soo Ang resides. Choi, born in 1975, is a hyperrealist and abstract surrealist sculptor.

Whilst its presence is not as pronounced is Asia, one consistent aspect of Surrealism that appears across Europe and Asia from the 1920s till now, is that of the unchained creativity and willingness to pursue the unconscious.


Surrealism on The Artling 

Decades on, Surrealism still exists as a popular genre across mediums. Artists continue to experiment with Surrealism, creating works that reference automatism, dabble with the unconscious, and play around with imagination. Here are some works by such artists who continue to further the legacy of Surrealism in our contemporary ecosystem: 


Interior and exterior NO.6


Hand in Hand 'NL' # 4

Semi-Functional Lost Fragments I


Beloved The Body Is Sublime Joy

Panic Room

A Place For Flying Practice

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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