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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.

Landscapes—images of natural scenery—remained a popular subject at the height of the Surrealist movement in the 1920s. In the decades preceding Surrealism, the genre had undergone radical transformations as artists broke free from straight representational landscapes, using non-naturalistic colors and experimental paint applications. Despite these innovations, most painters continued to paint from the natural world.

Surrealist landscapes tapped into a different source for imagery: the subconscious mind. The landscapes shown here reflect the uncanny, sometimes elusive imagery of dreams, myth, and fantasy. At times lacking recognizable geological elements such as mountains, hills, or vistas, these works confound traditional expectations of the landscape genre, and propose that the interior world of the psyche is as complex and ripe for exploration as the world beyond our bodies.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

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.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

The visual portrayal of someone or something.

A state of mind or emotion, a pervading impression.

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

A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

Questions & Activities

  1. Postcards from Paintings

    Look at The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), The Persistence of Memory, and Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale. Imagine what it would be like to spend a day in each of these landscapes.

    Write “postcards” from each of the three locations. The postcards should include both a description of the places shown in the images and a description of the mood that is created by each location.

  2. Keep a Dream Journal

    Keep a dream journal for one week, writing down any images or scenes that you remember upon waking. Do any of the images from your dreams resemble real locations you have visited in the past? Do you understand the significance of these locations? At the end of the week, pick an image or scene from one of your dreams to write about further or to incorporate into a work of art.