What Is Surrealism and Why Is It Relevant? The Movement & Surreal Art Explained

NOTE: Skip The Personal Intro For The Information In The Other Parts Of This Post Or Read On……

My latest obsession for the last few months has been to dig deeper and uncover as much as I can about surrealism and understand surreal art. I’m not an art buff at all, I do enjoy looking at great works of art, purely from the aesthetic point of view, you know, to have something nice to look at whether at galleries or online, but I barely understood it. I didn’t know that there was so much to art that revealed worlds, ideas, philosophies, captured emotion and had so much depth and meaning.  Art, to me, has always been an expression of the soul and its way of capturing the artists’ way of thinking.

It all started after a conversation with my sister about politics(her thing) which then eventually led to a conversation about art as we debated on how to give our lives meaning and purpose by pursuing something in our lives that enriched the world and satisfied our souls and as I put it, “…That’s why I like music and the arts, they’re a true form of expression and freedom, freedom to create and articulate inner workings of the spirit & mind into something beautiful, money isn’t the ultimate goal, it’s just a by-product of exploring your inner creativity and it’s also a way of making something tangible out of a deeper connection with your soul and subconscious, you know which isn’t your mundane 9-5 number crunching, selling bullshit”

As soon as I said that(or something like that), she began to tell me about Surrealism in art and Salvador Dali. I was immediately fascinated and excited(as I usually am to learn something new), I didn’t know there was so much going on behind it and it as a movement and about the mercurial Dali and his life.  I had been to the Louvre in Paris when I was 18, I was an idiot, I didn’t understand anything at all, my friends and I made jokes the whole time about paintings and sculptures and were waiting for the tour to finish so we could get drunk on French beer and wine. Something that you can expect from an 18-year-old freshmen college student.

What Is Surrealism?

André Breton, founder of the Surrealism movement and leader of a new grouping of poets and artists in Paris, in his Surrealist Manifesto(1924), defined surrealism as:

“Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation i.e. the dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason and outside any aesthetic or moral concerns”

The First Dada Exhibition in Berlin 5th June 1920

A Brief History Of Surrealism

Founded by the poet André Breton in Paris in 1924, Surrealism was an artistic and literary movement. It proposed that the Enlightenment—the influential 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement that championed reason and individualism—had suppressed the superior qualities of the irrational, unconscious mind. Surrealism’s goal was to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism.

Breton had studied medicine and psychiatry and was well-versed in the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud. He was particularly interested in the idea that the unconscious mind—which produced dreams— as the source of artistic creativity. A devoted Marxist, Breton also intended Surrealism to be a revolutionary movement capable of unleashing the minds of the masses from the rational order of society. But how could they achieve this liberation of the human mind?

Automatism, a practice that is akin to free association or a stream of consciousness, gave the Surrealists the means to produce unconscious artwork.

Automatism: “A term from the field of psychology that denotes the separation between a person’s behaviour and his or her consciousness of it, which the Surrealists applied to techniques of writing and artmaking that they believed unlocked the creative forces of the unconscious. Many later artists—notably the Abstract Expressionists and Tachists—adopted the idea, resorting to chance, hallucination, hypnosis, and intoxication to guide their production.”(Source: Artsy)

Surrealism aimed to revolutionise human experience, rejecting a rational vision of life in favour of one that asserted the value of the unconscious and dreams. The movement’s poets and artists found magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional.

Its aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”(Source:Wiki)

Surrealism was meant to jolt the average citizen out of a normal chain of thought and awaken his/her subconscious with the hope that this would spark his/her mind to reject the rational and subjugated version of reality and the human experience and enable them to delve more into a deeper meaning of the subconscious.

The Dada movement or Dadaism was the influential movement that lead to the formation of the Surreal movement in post-WWI Europe.

“Dada or Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century, with early centers in Zürich, Switzerland, at the Cabaret Voltaire (circa 1916); New York Dada began circa 1915, and after 1920 Dada flourished in Paris. Developed in reaction to World War I, the Dada movement consisted of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. The art of the movement spanned visual, literary, and sound media, including collage, sound poetry, cut-up writing, and sculpture. Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.”

“Dada was a movement in which artists stated their disgust with the war and with life in general. These artists showed that European culture had lost meaning to them by creating pieces of “anti-art” or “nonart.” The idea was to go against traditional art and all for which it stood. “Dada” became the movement’s name as a baby-talk term to show their feeling of nonsense toward the art world (de la Croix 705). Art from this movement was often violent and had an attitude of combat or protest. One historian stated that, “Dada was born from what is hated” (de la Croix 706). Though the movement was started to emphasize nonconformity.

The Surrealist movement started in Europe in the 1920’s, after World War I with its nucleus in Paris. Its roots were found in Dada, but it was less violent and more artistically based. Surrealism was first the work of poets and writers.”(Source: Art History Archive)

The whole point of Surrealism was to break out of conventional ways of life and conventional patterns of thought into something beyond ordinary life and reality.
This perhaps drew me in the most, as you can see, I’ve always wanted to experience something beyond the ordinary, more in tune with the soul and subconscious as I’ve documented in my previous blog posts about reality and our perception: https://wordsforeveries.wordpress.com/2018/05/17/confluence-in-the-void-of-oneness-a-brief-delve-into-the-teachings-of-stephen-hawking-aldous-huxley-anil-seth-and-sri-aurobindo-to-explain-lifes-questionswestern-and-indian-thought/

Top Left: Paul Eluard, Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, Rene Clevel
Bottom Left: Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray

Artists and Icons Of Surrealism

“Though Surrealism is indeed most associated with such flamboyant and irreverent figures as Salvador Dalí, Breton recruited a wide group of artists and intellectuals already active in Paris to write for and exhibit under his banner.

Building on the anti-rational tradition of Dada, Surrealism counted among its members such major Dada figures as Tristan TzaraFrancis PicabiaJean ArpMax Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp. By 1924, this group was augmented by other artists and literary figures, including the writers Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, Georges Bataille, and Antonin Artaud; the painters Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy; the sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Meret Oppenheim; and the filmmakers René Clair, Jean Cocteau, and Luis Buñuel.


But Breton was notoriously fickle about who he admitted to the movement, and he had a habit of excommunicating members who he felt no longer shared his particular view of Surrealism. Desnos and Masson, for example, were tossed out of the group via Breton’s “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” in 1930 for their unwillingness to support his political aims. Bataille, whose Surrealist viewpoint differed considerably from Breton’s, went on to form his own influential splinter group, the College of Sociology, which published journals and held exhibitions throughout the 1930s.”(Source: Artsy)


salvador-dali-40389-2-402 (1)
Salvador Dali(1904-1989)

Salvador Dali

Perhaps the most revered proponent of Surrealism was without a doubt, Salvador Dali. “Salvador Dalí was born on May 11, 1904, in Figueres, Spain. From an early age Dalí was encouraged to practice his art, and he would eventually go on to study at an academy in Madrid. In the 1920s, he went to Paris and began interacting with artists such as PicassoMagritte and Miró, which led to Dalí’s first Surrealist phase. He is perhaps best known for his 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory, showing melting clocks in a landscape setting. The rise of fascist leader Francisco Franco in Spain led to the artist’s expulsion from the Surrealist movement, but that didn’t stop him from painting. Dalí died in Figueres in 1989.”(Source: Biography)

Read more about Dali’s life here: https://www.biography.com/people/salvador-dal-40389

Dali’s Most Famous Work Explained


dali persistence
Salvador Dali – Persistence Of Memory(1931)

Salvador Dali’s most famous painting is the Persistence Of Memory(1931) which show predominantly four clocks pictured in a desert with a slab on one side surrounded by the ocean and a cliff on the other side. Dali’s painting symbolizes a lot. For instance, the melting clocks signify a dream state(underpinning surrealism) where time quite literally melts away. In dreams, we have no concept of time and it flows in a strange manner, very incoherent and flowing strangely through images. The erratic passage of time in a dream is symbolised by the melting away of clocks. By painting the distorted melting clocks Dali aims to highlight the difference of how we keep time so tactfully while we are awake but in the dream-state time has no overriding power.

Some scholars, however, believe that “Dali’s melting clocks may symbolize Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking Theory of Relativity, a new and revolutionary idea back in the culture of the 1930s. Through the theory of relativity, Einstein proposed a new concept of time as being relative and complex–not something fixed and easily tracked with as crude a gadget as a pocket watch. In Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali shows the clocks melting away and thus losing their power and stability over the world around them. Through his melting clocks, Salvador Dali might be saying that simple machines like wall clocks and pocket watches are primitive, old-fashioned and even impotent in a post-Einstein world.”

“Salvador Dali uses sarcasm in the title of the clocks painting, Persistence of Memory to add a darker meaning to the painting. They are literally melting away, and thus seem anything but “persistent” in Dali’s depiction. Likewise, the ants eating away the face of the red clock also symbolizes the decaying and therefore impermanent nature of our arbitrary way of keeping time.

The desolate landscape where the clocks melt is also barren and infertile. Some art scholars notice the resemblance that this and other Salvador Dali landscapes have to his own beachfront hometown of Port Lligat. The possibly autobiographical meaning of the painting’s title Persistence of Memory could very well refer to Dali’s own memory of his own childhood surroundings. An autobiographical reading could account for the abandoned and uninhabited quality of the landscape in the painting, not visited since Dali’s childhood. One watch hangs on a tree branch like laundry left out on the line to dry; the branch is not flowering or covered in leaves and green, but is sapped and dried out. Dali painted The Persistence of Memory at the age of twenty-seven years old. If we are looking for the autobiographical meaning of Persistence of Memory, the clocks might be representative of his adolescence and are fading or melting away because Dali cannot remember them accurately now that so much time has passed.”(Source:Lego Menon)

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Why Does Surrealism Matter And Why Is It Relevant?

Surrealism is more and more relevant these days with our worlds revolving around our dependence on technology(for better or worse). It offers a delve into our own dreams and subconscious and makes us question and think about the nature of our world around us. The psychic realm of the subconscious and it’s revelations offer deeper insight and meaning to our everyday lives. Surrealism also helps in evoking that necessary detachment from the mundane routines and banal trials of everyday life to go deeper into the unseen or the only seen a dream. It provides a spark of curiosity for us to go deeper into ourselves and really connect with the inner workings of our minds and understand them which in turn helps us to connect with our souls, which is very much needed in this spiritual crisis. The fast-paced nature of our life is a mere incandescence in the scheme of the entire worlds we visit in our subconscious state and they often give us a glimpse on the power of the human mind. It also helps in people question everything around them and not accept what is merely presented on a platter. A deeper learning, curiosity and the questioning of our very fabric of reality and our subconscious will help us enrich our lives with purpose and present a world which is much more in tune with ourselves. No dream should go unquestioned and a deeper delve into our dreams could provide unknown breakthroughs. Surrealism could be the spark we need to elevate and awaken ourselves from the usual and ordinary perception.

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