In a revolution against a society ruled by rational thought, the Surrealists tapped into the “superior reality” of the subconscious.

Tapping the Subconscious: Automatism and Dreams

Discover how Surrealist artists tapped the creative potential of the subconscious mind.

Surrealist Objects and Assemblage

Discover how everyday objects, arranged unexpectedly, became triggers for unlocking the subconscious mind.

Surrealism and the Body

See how the Surrealists explored the human form and hidden desires.

Surrealist Landscapes

Discover how Surrealists explored the terrain of the subconscious mind in landscape paintings.

Surrealism was an artistic, intellectual, and literary movement led by poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. The Surrealists sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of modern society by demolishing its backbone of rational thought. To do so, they attempted to tap into the “superior reality” of the subconscious mind. “Completely against the tide,” said Breton, “in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.”1

Max Ernst. Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group. 1931

Cut-and-pasted gelatin silver prints, cut-and-pasted printed paper, pencil, and pencil frottage on paper, 19 3/4 x 13 1/4″ (50.1 x 33.6 cm). Purchase. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Many of the tenets of Surrealism, including an emphasis on automatism, experimental uses of language, and found objects, had been present to some degree in the Dada movement that preceded it. However, the Surrealists systematized these strategies within the framework of psychologist Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the subconscious mind. In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, Breton defined Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”2

Dada & Surrealism

While Dada was decentralized in terms of geography and leadership, the center of Surrealism was Paris, with Breton unequivocally at the helm. While Dada was in many ways an anarchic movement, the Surrealists were known for engaging in collective group actions.

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky). André Breton. 1931

Man Ray. André Breton. 1931.
Gelatin silver print (solarized), 11 1/2 x 8 3/4″ (29.2 x 22.3 cm). Gift of James Thrall Soby. © 2012 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

The Surrealist circle was relatively cohesive, but the individuals within it hailed from a variety of nations, and their artistic approaches were similarly diverse. They believed that automatic drawings unlocked the contents of the subconscious mind, while hyper-real landscape paintings conjured the uncanny imagery of dreams. Incongruous combinations of found objects combined in Surrealist assemblages revealed the fraught sexual and psychological forces they believed were hidden just beneath the surface of reality.

André Breton, as quoted in “Radio Interviews with André Parinaud (1913–1952)” in Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism (Paragon House English, 1993). 63
André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1969), 26

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

A public declaration, often political in nature, of a group or individual’s principles, beliefs, and intended courses of action.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

An object—often utilitarian, manufactured, or naturally occurring—that was not originally designed for an artistic purpose, but has been repurposed in an artistic context.

An artistic and literary movement formed in response to the disasters of World War I (1914–18) and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic, favoring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and irreverence. Dada artists experimented with a range of mediums, from collage and photomontage to everyday objects and performance, exploding typical concepts of how art should be made and viewed and what materials could be used. An international movement born in neutral Zurich and New York, Dada rapidly spread to Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Paris, and beyond.

Strategies of writing or creating art that aimed to access the unconscious mind. The Surrealists, in particular, experimented with automatist techniques of writing, drawing, and painting.

A three-dimensional work of art made from combinations of materials including found objects or non-traditional art materials.

Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).

Related Artists: Jean (Hans) Arp, Hans Bellmer, Cadavre Exquis with Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Marcel Jean, Wifredo Lam, René Magritte, Man Ray, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), André Masson, Joan Miró, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Meret Oppenheim, Yves Tanguy

Questions & Activities

  1. Write Your Manifesto

    Read. A manifesto is a public declaration, often political in nature, of a group or individual’s principles, beliefs, and intended courses of action. To begin this activity, read André Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).

    Write. Now it’s your turn. Compose your own one-page manifesto in the form of an essay or a poem. Your manifesto should include a series of statements that address your point of view on questions such as:

    What do you value?
    What inspires you?
    How would you describe your attitude or approach to creativity?
    What changes would you like to see in the world?

    It is helpful to begin the statements in your manifesto with actions such as:

    I am…
    I believe…
    I hope…
    I wish to change…
    I will…
    I will not…