At Large  June 18, 2021  Anna Claire Mauney

Art 101: What was Surrealism?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921. Oil on canvas. 125.4 x 107.9 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

Surrealism was one of many art styles that emerged after World War I as artists, alongside the rest of the world, struggled to digest an unprecedented degree of violence and loss.

Similar to the Dada movement, Surrealism aimed to undermine and question societal norms—particularly the logic and reason that seemed to dominate western discourse.

Surrealists worked in literary and philosophical spheres, but many of the artists—painters especially—in this group would go on to become household names. Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo, though she did not personally identify with the style, remain icons of Surrealism to this day.

The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. Copyright © 2021 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Salvador Dalí, Illumined Pleasures, 1929. Oil and collage on board. New York City, MoMA.

Though surreal is often used as a descriptor of, among many things, art—true Surrealist work adheres to the movement’s manifestations.

Generally speaking, Surrealists were concerned with the uncensored function of the brain. Many creatives in the group practiced automatic writing, the process of writing all one is thinking without any filtering or editing. Many artists approached their visual work in a similar way, laying down whatever came to mind at the moment. As a result, these paintings can often be unsettling, confusing, and deeply intimate.

Gift of Richard S. Zeisler Object number 530.1998 Copyright © 2021 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928. Oil on canvas. New York City, MoMA.

Members of the group also used their dreams—an unfiltered product of the unconscious mind—as inspiration and even subject matter. Surrealist painters in particular often set out to create visual experiences, images that might send the viewer down a path of psychological introspection. This tactic remains a cornerstone of Contemporary art.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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