Surrealism was a movement that took the artistic journey inwards. They were deeply inspired by Freud’s principles on the ‘inner world’, they saw the conscious mind, society and social dogma as a restrictive construct. Surrealists believed that our inner truth could only be discovered and expressed when we learned to surpass our conscious mind and draw on the pure power of the subconscious mind.

They believed that the subconscious held the core of our creative potential and primal human expression.  In their work, they strove to discover and explore the limits of natural human expression, potential and truth. To do this, they created brilliant artworks which were also seen as a weird dream, mind-bending, socially awkward, uncomfortable, and some may say a little crazy. Through film, painting, sculpture, books and other art forms, they opened themselves up and shared what they found with the world.

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Giving them permission to live freely.
This was a revolutionary movement that set the stage for many other movements to follow it. Photo Source: Unsplash

10 Characteristics And Ideas Of The Surrealist Style

    1. Surrealism was inspired by Sigmund Freud, his book the interpretation of dreams. The book presented the idea that dreams and the unconscious mind plays a pivotal role in emotion, desire, sex and violence. Although mostly repressed our inner worlds in all of their complexity can reveal the core of our humanity.
    2. Surrealist imagery is created from the imagination. Sur, which means above and realism come together to mean above reality. The surrealists dealt with and reproduced art that was inspired by everything above our conscious reality. Imagination, dreams, and spontaneous inspiration as provided by the subconscious.
    3. Surrealist image is very striking because it is not based on anything that you have seen before. This exclusivity makes it hard to define and at times, understand. The imagery is meant to confuse you and jolt you out of your comfort. A little like waking from a dream yourself.
    4. Surrealist imagery often has very autobiographical themes since it is created in the mind of the artist. The mind of the artist is feed by things that have happened or are happening in their lives.
    5. Artists often had reoccurring items in their images; For example, Dali had ants and eggs, Ernst had birds.
    6. As automatic writing is for the pen, Surrealism is for artistic expression (which also included auto writing) Surrealism is whatever allows you to suspend the conscious mind to allow the suspicious mind to express itself freely.
    7. The purpose of empowering the unconscious mind was to release pure imagination and overcome the repression of the conscious mind. Repression caused by, they believed, social conditioning and taboos which limited the natural flow of life and the imagination.
    8. Surrealism covered many art forms, including film, dance, literature, sculpture and architecture.
    9. Surrealists aimed to be bizarre, unexpected, irrational, poetic, unconventional and above freely unrestricted. They wanted to revolutionise the experience of the everyday person giving them permission to live freely.
    10. This was a revolutionary movement that set the stage for many other movements to follow it.
The unconscious mind plays a pivotal role in emotion
For Surrealists the subconscious held the core of our creative potential. Photo Source: Unsplash

One Of The Most Well Known Surrealist Artists


Salvador Dali is my favourite artist of all time, from the moment I saw his work in a gallery on a school trip was hooked. I love his recurrent themes that show up through his work, things like the ants, the eggs and the landscape which represents the town of Figueras where he was born. Let me tell you all about him.

Dali was born in Spain, in a small town called Figueras, which is between the French border and Barcelona. His family were well off, and he was loved dearly as, before his birth, his older brother also called Salvador had died. He was often told that he was his older brother back from the grave.

He had a strong personality from an early age and also showed an interest in art. His family encouraged him with drawing lessons, art school enrollment and exhibitions at home.

Now one of the most lovely things about Dali is that he was not just an artist that created art. But he also was a walking work of art, he dressed in clothing from the 19th century accompanied by knee-length britches, he kept his hair long and began growing his infamous moustache. His eccentric personality proceeded him and his work in most cases. He is famously quoted as saying “I myself am surrealism”.

Despite being curious to explore and discover new ways of seeing the world and art as a whole. He was expelled from university but not before being exposed to some of the greatest minds of the time. People such as Einstein, Calder Stravinsky and Freud. His expulsion freed him to travel, he visited Picasso in Paris and was impressed with his Cubist movement. He was studious and delved further into the psychoanalytic of Freud, metaphysical art by painters like Giorgio de Chirco and surrealist artists like Joan Miro.

He worked on refining his style to reinterpret perception, reality and experience. His first film ‘Un Chien Andalou’ ( an Andalusian dog) made with Luis Bunuel caused a shocking stir for its content. This film laid the foundation for Dali to join the surrealists in Paris and more importantly to meet his future wife Gala. Gala, who was a key source of Dali's inspiration was married at the time of their meeting, to another surrealist artist named Paul Eluard.

Throughout his life and work, Dali used techniques of illusion, cubism, realism, and automatic creation. Dali’s work was greatly autobiographical and symbolic. He believed that the subconscious minds of all humans echoed with repressed themes of sexuality, death and identity. He felt that his work could communicate with all humans on a subconscious level.

Top Artworks: The persistence of memory (1931), the great masturbator (1929), Christ of Saint John of the cross (1951), The Burning Giraffe (1937) Lobster telephone (1936)

Birthplace: Figueras, Spain

Lifeline: 1904 - 1989

Art Style: Surrealism,

Art Forms: Painting, sculpting, Film making

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Surrealists aimed to be bizarre
Surrealism covered many art forms, including film, dance, literature, sculpture and architecture. Photo Source: Unsplash

A Well Known Piece Of Surrealist Art

 'Metamorphosis Of Narcissus'

This is one of my personal favourites of Dali’s surrealist art. As the name indicates, this painting is about the greek legend of Narcissus. Narcissus was a hunter blessed with extraordinary beauty, and many fell in love with him. However, he had no interest in his would be suitors and treated people poorly. The god saw fit to teach him a lesson and so one day while gazing into a pond he fell in love with his own reflection. He couldn't break his gaze until one day he realised it was his own reflection. Brokenhearted, he committed suicide and was turned into a flower.

In the foreground of the image, your eyes are drawn to 2 figures that sit by the pond side by side. They look the same but are actually to symbolise, narcissus before and after his transformation. One figure is the man and the other a hand which holds an egg with a flower growing from a small crack.

The figure of the man on the left is almost abstract, he is sitting in contemplation looking into the pond which reflects his image. The colours are warm, yellows reds and browns cover the canvas perhaps to communicate the emotions of love, lust, happiness and life.  Behind this figure, we see what could be his rejects lovers squirming in a distraught state.

On the right side, the painting shows a stone hand holding an egg with a flower growing out of a crack on its surface. The flower is a daffodil and also knows as the Narcissus flower. The hand looks fossilised, and the once clear reflection is now muddied and clouded. The flower has black spots on its petals, suggesting it is wilting and no longer beautiful and pure. This side of the canvas uses a blue, grey and black palette suggesting death and sadness.

There is too much interesting symbolism to discuss in this article, but take a closer look at this iconic piece of work and see what you can see when you look deeper into it.

Artist: Dali
Date Painted: 1937
Size: 20 inches x 30 inches
Medium: Oil on canvas

Other Well-known Pieces

  1. Birthday by Dorothea Tanning
  2. Carnival of Harlequin by Joan Miro
  3. The human condition by Rene Magritte
  4. Mama, Papa is wounded by Yves Tanguy
  5. The accommodations of desire by Salvador Dali
  6. The palace at 4 a.m. by Alberto Giacometti
  7. Battle of fishes by Andre Masson
  8. Luncheon in fur by Meret Oppenheim
  9. The barbarians by Max Ernst
  10. Mannequin by Man Ray

The surrealism movement is a very interesting artistic movement as it asks us to look past our limitations and our superficial emotions. And invites us to delve deeper into the core of who we are as individuals and as human beings, leading us to the thread that connects us all.

It is expressive without being expressionism, created base on an impression without being impressionism, and it deals with psychoanalytical topics without being science. As you see the work, you must delve into your own inner world to understand it. Projecting and thus unlocking your own subconscious onto the canvas, creating new meaning for you as the viewer on a deeper level.

If you enjoyed this why not read about the Baroque art movement.  check out the Impressionists next or the Expressionists and how they painted differently or maybe about Pop artists who changed art forever

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