Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Surrealism
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. What is Surrealism?
  2. Origin of Surrealism
  3. Key Figures in Surrealism
  4. Surrealism in Literature
  5. Surrealism in Film
  6. Surrealism in Art
  7. Common Themes in Surrealism
  8. Influence of Surrealism on Contemporary Art
  9. How to Identify Surrealist Work
  10. Why Surrealism Matters

Ever stared at a painting, watched a movie or read a book and felt like you were in a dream? That's surrealism for you. This fascinating art movement, born in the early 20th century, continues to intrigue and inspire us even in the 21st century. In this blog, we'll dive deep into the definition of surrealism — where it came from, who were its main players, and how it has shaped different artistic fields, from literature and film to art. We'll also explore why it still matters today. So buckle up, let's begin this journey into the world of the strange, the bizarre, the surreal.

What is Surrealism?

At its core, the definition of surrealism is quite simple: it's all about unleashing the creative power of the unconscious mind. It's about breaking free from the chains of logic and reason, and letting your imagination run wild. Here are a few key features that help in understanding what surrealism is:

  • Irrationality: Surrealism often involves strange, unexpected combinations of elements that wouldn't normally go together. For example, think of a painting showing a clock melting like a piece of cheese, or a poem where the moon is a green apple.
  • Dream-like imagery: Surrealism draws heavily from our dreams, with their weird, sometimes scary, sometimes beautiful imagery. It's like a dream you can see when you're wide awake.
  • Automatic writing or drawing: This is a method where the artist or writer lets their hand move freely, without conscious control, to tap into the unconscious mind. You might be surprised at what comes out!

While the definition of surrealism may sound a bit strange, it's all about embracing the mystery and magic of the unconscious mind. So next time you see a surrealist work — be it a painting, a film, or a piece of writing — remember, it's not meant to be understood in the traditional sense. It's meant to be felt, experienced, and enjoyed on a deeper, subconscious level.

Origin of Surrealism

Now that we've got the definition of surrealism down, let's step back in time and visit the birthplace of this unique art movement. Surrealism didn't just pop out of nowhere — it has a rich, vibrant history that's worth exploring.

Surrealism was born out of the ashes of World War I in the 1920s. With much of Europe in chaos and despair, a group of poets and artists were looking for a new way to express the massive upheaval they were experiencing. They wanted to break away from the conventional norms and explore beyond the boundaries of reason. Enter surrealism.

It was officially launched in 1924 in Paris by a French poet named André Breton. He wrote the first "Surrealist Manifesto", setting out the movement's aims and principles. Breton was influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, especially his ideas about dreams and the unconscious mind.

From Paris, surrealism spread like wildfire across Europe and then to the rest of the world. It wasn't just an art movement — it was a revolution that challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of what was considered 'art'.

From its roots in the post-war chaos of the 1920s, surrealism has grown and evolved, shaping and being shaped by the changing times. And even though it's nearly a century old, it's still as relevant and powerful as ever. That's the magic of surrealism.

Key Figures in Surrealism

Alright, so we've covered the definition of surrealism and how it came to be. Now, let's meet some of the trailblazers who brought surrealism to life. These are the artists and writers who dared to dream, to break the rules, and to create something out of this world.

First up, we have André Breton, the founder of surrealism. A poet and a writer, Breton was the one who penned the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. His work laid the foundation for the movement and continues to inspire artists even today.

Then there's Salvador Dali, a name you've probably heard before. Dali was a Spanish painter known for his striking and bizarre images. His work, 'The Persistence of Memory', with those melting clocks, is one of the most iconic surrealist paintings. It's as if Dali took a dream and put it on a canvas.

Let's not forget Max Ernst, a German painter, sculptor, and poet. He was one of the first artists to explore the use of collage in non-traditional ways. His painting, 'Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale', is a perfect example of his unique style.

And of course, there's René Magritte, a Belgian artist whose witty and thought-provoking images challenge our perceptions of reality. His painting, 'The Treachery of Images', with a pipe and the words "this is not a pipe", makes you question what you see and know.

These are just a few of the many artists who have contributed to the world of surrealism. Each one of them brought something unique to the table, adding their own flavor to the mix. And that's the beauty of surrealism — it's a melting pot of dreams, ideas, and creativity.

Surrealism in Literature

Now that we've met some of the key figures in surrealism, let's take a journey into the realm of words. You might be wondering, how can the definition of surrealism apply to literature? Well, just like in visual arts, surrealism in literature is all about exploring the irrational, the dreamlike, and the fantastic.

André Breton, remember him? Not only did he pave the way for surrealism as a movement, but he also brought it to the world of literature. His book, 'Nadja', is often considered the first surrealist novel. It's a mix of reality and dream, a story that doesn't follow the normal rules of time and space.

Another noteworthy name is Louis Aragon, a poet and novelist. His book, 'Paris Peasant', is a surrealist take on the city of Paris. It's not your typical travel guide. Instead, Aragon presents the city as a dreamscape, full of magic and mystery.

Then there's Paul Éluard, whose poetry is a prime example of surrealism in literature. His poem, 'The Earth is Blue Like an Orange', uses strange, unexpected imagery to create a dreamlike atmosphere.

These writers and many others used surrealism as a tool to push the boundaries of literature. They created a world where anything is possible, where dreams and reality blend together. And in doing so, they gave us a new way to see and understand the world.

Surrealism in Film

When you think of surrealism, you might first picture strange and dreamlike paintings. But did you know that the world of cinema has its share of surreal moments too? Surrealism in film, like in literature and art, breaks away from reality to explore the irrational and the subconscious mind.

One of the landmark films in the history of surrealist cinema is 'Un Chien Andalou'. Created by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, this film is famous—or maybe infamous—for its shocking and bizarre imagery. Remember, surrealism is all about defying logic and embracing the unexpected!

Another noteworthy surrealist filmmaker is David Lynch. His films, like 'Mulholland Drive' and 'Eraserhead', are full of strange, dreamlike sequences that blur the lines between reality and fantasy. If you've ever been left feeling puzzled after watching a Lynch film, then you've experienced the essence of surrealist cinema.

Even today, the influence of surrealism is evident in many films. Directors like Christopher Nolan, with films like 'Inception', continue to push the boundaries of storytelling by exploring dreams, memory, and the subconscious mind.

So, next time you're watching a film that leaves you feeling a little puzzled, ask yourself: could this be surrealism? You might be surprised at how often the answer is yes.

Surrealism in Art

When it comes to understanding surrealism, art is often the first thing that comes to mind. And why wouldn't it? The world of surrealism is bursting with some truly mind-bending artworks that challenge our understanding of reality. But what does the definition of surrealism really mean in the context of visual art?

Well, let's start with the basics. Surrealism in art is all about expressing the workings of the subconscious mind. It's about going beyond the reality we see and delving into the reality we dream of. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it?

One of the best-known names in surrealist art is Salvador Dalí, and for good reason. Have you ever seen his painting 'The Persistence of Memory'? It's the one with the melting clocks. Dalí uses surreal imagery to represent time as something fluid and irrational—definitely not your everyday view of the world!

Then there's René Magritte, another big name in surrealism. His painting 'The Son of Man' shows a man in a suit with an apple floating in front of his face. It's a classic example of how surrealism uses strange and unexpected images to make us question our perceptions.

So the next time you're looking at a strange piece of art and scratching your head in confusion, remember: it might just be the artist's way of showing you a glimpse into the world of the subconscious.

Common Themes in Surrealism

Now that we've touched on the visual aspect of surrealism, let's explore some of the recurring themes that pop up in this fascinating genre. These common themes are a part of the definition of surrealism and help us to better understand the mindset of surrealist creators.

One of the most prevalent themes in surrealism is dreams. Surrealists were heavily influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, who believed that our dreams were a gateway to our subconscious mind. As a result, many surrealist works look like something straight out of a dream, with bizarre landscapes, fantastical creatures, and impossible scenarios.

Another common theme in surrealism is the juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an extraordinary context. This could be something as simple as a shoe in the middle of a desert, or as complex as a cityscape reflected in a teacup. It's all about taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar in order to challenge our preconceived notions of reality.

Lastly, many surrealist works are characterized by an element of surprise or shock. This could be through the use of unexpected imagery, disturbing elements, or even just the sheer absurdity of the situation. The aim here is not to unsettle, but to provoke thought and invite the viewer to look at the world from a different perspective.

So the next time you encounter a surreal piece of art, literature, or film, take a moment to look for these common themes. You might find that it gives you a whole new appreciation for the surreal!

Influence of Surrealism on Contemporary Art

After we've peeled back some layers of the definition of surrealism, let's shift our gaze to its impact on contemporary art. You may wonder: 'Did this curious genre leave a lasting mark?' The answer is a resounding yes.

Surrealism, with its dream-inspired visuals and thought-provoking themes, has significantly influenced modern art. One of the most apparent influences is the continued exploration of the subconscious. This concept, deeply rooted in surrealism, has been adopted and reimagined by many contemporary artists. Today, you'll see artworks that channel deep-seated emotions, inner fears, or hidden desires — a concept born in the surrealism era.

Another influence of surrealism on contemporary art is the element of surprise. Surrealist artists loved to shock their audience, and that love has not faded in today's art world. Modern artists often use unexpected elements or juxtapositions to create a sense of surprise or provoke a reaction, much like their surrealist predecessors did.

Finally, the surrealists' passion for challenging reality has become a staple in contemporary art. Many modern artists strive to distort our perception of reality, pushing us to question, ponder, and perceive our world differently. Whether it's through abstract shapes, distorted figures, or unlikely scenarios, the influence of surrealism is undeniable.

So, next time you stumble upon a piece of contemporary art that seems strange or thought-provoking, remember: it may have been inspired by the surrealists. Their legacy continues to spark creativity, challenge norms, and redefine the definition of art.

How to Identify Surrealist Work

Now that we've explored the definition of surrealism and its influence, you might be wondering: 'How can I spot surrealism in the wild?' Well, identifying surrealist work can be a bit like a treasure hunt, but here are some clues to guide you along the way.

Firstly, surrealism often explores the world of dreams and the subconscious. If you come across a piece that seems to defy logic, pulling elements from a dream or nightmare, you may be looking at a surrealist work. These pieces often blend reality with fantasy, creating a world that's both familiar and alien.

Secondly, surrealism loves the element of surprise. Surrealist works often include unexpected combinations of objects or ideas that you wouldn't usually see together. For example, a fish flying through the sky or a clock melting like cheese. If a piece of art leaves you scratching your head in surprise or confusion, it might just be surrealism.

Lastly, look for the exploration of the irrational and the bizarre. Surrealist artists were fascinated by the mysteries of the human mind and often depicted irrational scenes or nonsensical situations. If an artwork makes you question reality or ponder the mysteries of the mind, there's a good chance it's surrealism.

Remember, surrealism is all about challenging norms and pushing boundaries. So, don't be afraid to question, explore, and let your imagination run wild. After all, that's exactly what the surrealists would have wanted!

Why Surrealism Matters

So, we've made it all this way, but you might still be wondering, 'Why does surrealism matter?'. Well, let's get into it.

Surrealism, in its essence, encourages thinking outside the box. It dares us to question reality, to blur the lines of what we perceive as normal, and to delve into the depths of our subconscious minds. It pushes boundaries and breaks down conventions. And in a world that can often seem too rigid or formulaic, isn’t this refreshing?

Furthermore, surrealism has inspired countless artists, filmmakers, writers, and thinkers across the globe. It has left its mark on pop culture, advertising, and even our daily lives. Without surrealism, we might not have iconic works like Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" or Rene Magritte's "The Son of Man". Imagine a world without those melting clocks or that apple-faced man!

Finally, surrealism matters because it reminds us of the power of imagination. It shows us that art isn't just about replicating the world as we see it, but about creating new worlds, new visions, and new ways of thinking. It tells us that it's okay to dream, to be irrational, to be different.

So, the next time you see a surrealistic painting or read a surrealistic poem, take a moment to appreciate it. Remember, that piece of art is not just a collection of weird images or words. It's a testament to the boundless creativity of the human mind, a challenge to the status quo, and a celebration of the beautifully bizarre. Now isn't that something worth valuing?

If you enjoyed our Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Surrealism and want to dive deeper into the world of surreal art, don't miss the workshop 'Intro to Surreal Art' by Andrea Orejarena. This workshop will help you explore the fascinating world of surrealism and provide you with a solid foundation to create your own surreal art pieces.