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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.

Many Surrealist artists, especially in the 1930s, began arranging objects in combinations that challenged reason and summoned subconscious and poetic associations. The most easily obtained materials were found objects, or items cheaply purchased at flea markets. The mundane, mostly mass-produced objects found new resonances when arranged in unprecedented and provocative configurations. Surrealist leader André Breton believed that this new form of sculpture, called assemblage, had the power to puncture the thin veneer of reality, and tap into the subconscious mind. As Breton proclaimed: “To aid the systematic derangement of all the senses….it is my opinion that we must not hesitate to bewilder sensation…”1

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

André Breton, “Surrealist Situation of the Object” in Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 263

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists, led by André Breton, were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.

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.

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.

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

The shape or structure of an object.

A three-dimensional composition made from a variety of traditionally non-artistic materials and objects.

Questions & Activities

  1. Make a Shadow Box Assemblage

    Look at these four Joseph Cornell box assemblages from MoMA’s collection. How would you characterize the kinds of objects he used to create his shadowboxes? Everyday? Unusual? Personal?

    Find a shoe box or other container that will serve as the support for your shadowbox assemblage. Gather a variety of objects—they may be items with great personal meaning or other items you found or collected. Assemble them in a variety of ways to come up with a composition you like. If you choose, embellish your box with paint, collage, or decorations.

    Do the individual objects take on new meanings in this new arrangement? Taken as a whole, what story does your shadowbox tell? Give your assemblage a title and write a brief (50–100 words) label about your work. You may want to explain the meanings of particular elements and discuss why you chose your title, etc.