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Surrealism - Art That Captures The Imagination

ByThe Artling Team
Surrealism - Art That Captures The Imagination

René Magritte, Golconda (Golconde), 1953. Image courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. © C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

What is Surrealism?

Surrealism is an artistic, literary, and philosophical movement founded by French poet, André Breton in the early 20th century. In his Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, Breton posited that the primary aim of the Surrealist movement was ‘to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into absolute reality, a super-reality’. In the same lens as Dadaism, the Surrealists strongly opposed the oppressive rules of modern society, which they believed was fuelled by rationalism. Believing that the source of artistic creativity came from the unconscious mind, the Surrealists focused on exploring notions of the irrational and the subconscious as a means of breaking free from the rational order of society.  

Surrealist artists found strange beauty in portraying disregarded or found objects, the uncanny, the unconventional, and also enjoyed experimenting with language and ideas of automatism. The movement was also largely influenced by psychoanalytic theory, with Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and subconscious informing works by Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte.

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

The Rise of Surrealism

Surrealism quickly spread from Paris to its surrounding European countries during the late 1920s to early 30s. The International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936 was a defining moment for the movement in Britain, as it brought attention to now prominent surrealist artists, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore.

By the 1940s, Surrealism had spread to the United States. As the Second World War caused many to flee Europe, various surrealists who emigrated to America disseminated their ideas and theories to intellectuals and artists there. Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, and Dorothea Tanning were some of the key Surrealist artists who helped propel the avant garde movement in America.

After witnessing the barbarous and horrific events of WWII, artists used surrealism as an outlet to help them deal with what they experienced during the war. Surrealism allowed individuals to tap into their subconscious, and to process their internalised thoughts. For many, such explorations led to the creation of shocking, graphic and provocative imagery.

Dorothea Tanning, On Time Off Time, 1948. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Surrealism: Key Terms and Concepts

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 freely without conscious thought or interruption. There’s even a conversation between writers Georges Bataille, André Breton and André Masson where they speak in this ‘automatic’ respect.

In art making, automatism was adopted as an important part of the creative process by various artists, most notably used in the creation of Joan Miró’s paintings. Surrealist artists adhered to this by going with the flow, creating fantastical and 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.

Joan Miro, Birth of the World, 1925. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art


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.

Alberto Giacometti, Suspended Ball (Boule suspendue), 1930–1931. Image courtesy of Fondation Giacometti, Paris © Alberto Giacometti Estate / VEGAP, Bilbao, 2018

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.

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis or Narcissus, 1937. Image courtesy of Tate, © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2020

Impact and Influence of Surrealism

Surrealism has been and continues to be one of the most influential cultural movements of the 20th century. Its worldwide impact has taken force in multiple spheres of life, ranging from art and literature, to philosophy, politics and social theory. Surrealism has also played an integral role in the growth of the feminist art movement. Female artists such as, Claude Cahun, Louise Bourgeois and Meret Oppenheim employed Surrealist strategies in their work to explore the subordinate position of women as well as gender roles within society.

Artists today still employ key surrealist concepts in their works, exploring psychoanalytic theory, the uncanny, the unconscious, symbolic language and much more within their contemporary contexts.

Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Why Collect Surrealist Artwork?

There are many different types of artworks to explore and discover when it comes to the genre of Surrealism. Having had an immense influence on the art world for multiple decades, Surrealist works can vary stylistically.

Surrealist art is innovative and transformative, and can showcase fantastical, imagined worlds that provide the viewer with an escape from reality. What is special about Surrealist art is that it is a highly versatile genre that can be expressed through various mediums, such as: sculpture, film, painting, lithography, etching, photography, and much more. The wide-ranging explorations of this genre demonstrates why Surrealism continues to influence contemporary artists today. Surrealism evokes emotion through obscure, mesmerising and metaphorical ways - it presents a whole new perspective and innovative way of thinking, which is what has made the genre so widely collected.

How to Start Collecting Surrealist Artwork?

If you are interested in collecting a surrealist work of art, it is important to gather some research on some of your favourite artists from the genre in order to gauge what themes or imagery you’re interested in. There are a whole range of styles, mediums and formal elements to consider. It could be anything from the artist's bright use of colour, meticulous technique or outstanding subject matter that instantly catches your eye. 

Home featuring Surrealist Artworks

Image courtesy of Compass

Surrealist Art for Home Décor

Surrealist art can dramatically transform the atmosphere in a room and can certainly build character within a space. The ambiguity of surrealist art is what makes it so intriguing. If you are looking for a stand out piece that can create an instant ‘wow’ factor, hanging a surrealist work of art can definitely create this much-desired effect.

Suspended sculptures by surrealist artist Michal Trpák at Paul Crofts Studio, London

Image courtesy of Hufton + Crow. 

Surrealist Art for the Workspace

Including a Surrealist work of art in an office or corporate space can be extremely powerful. Many Surrealist pieces are ambiguous at first sight, but can reveal more information the more you look at it. Bringing a Surrealist artwork into a workspace should not feel like a daunting task. A striking image can enliven a room, create thought-provoking discussion, and brighten up the atmosphere.  

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. While it may not be possible for everyone to own a masterpiece, you can still own original surrealist artworks from the finest contemporary artists from all over the world on The Artling:


Doves - Agan Harahap (Available on The Artling)


Kuda dan Pemandangan - Agan Harahap (Available on The Artling)


Figure 017 - Yod (Available on The Artling)


Figure 015 - Yod (Available on The Artling)


The Earth Room II - Michael Vincent Manalo (Available on The Artling)


The Irregularites of Discernment - Michael Vincent Manalo (Available on The Artling)


Panic Room - Jee Young Lee (Available on The Artling)


Panic Room - Jee Young Lee (Available on The Artling)

We hope you enjoyed this art collector's guide to buying surrealist art. If you are keen on adding a surrealist art piece to your art collection, you can browse our curated collection of surrealist artworks. If you need additional assistance or have a specific requirement, you can chat with our expert art curators here.

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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