Surrealism – Research Notes

In Paris, the poet André Breton had been influenced by some of the ideas of the Dadaist movement but he saw a need for more positive action in questioning the values of society. In 1924, he published the Surrealist Manifesto. The Surrealists shared some of the traits of Dadaism. They saw the bourgeoisie as the enemy and were against traditional approaches to art.

The main focus of Surrealism lay in poetry, philosophy and politics but it was the work of visual artists which introduced the movement to a wider audience. They were associated with the art of mediums, children, naïve painters and with primitive art. Some of the Dadaist artists became associated with the Surrealists including Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966), Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) and Max Ernst (1891-1976).

The Surrealist’s also had a focus on automatism and ways to bypass the conscious mind. They were interested in Freudian psychoanalysis and using dreams as subject matter though the aim was to transcribe the dream rather than interpret its meaning.

In using automatic techniques some artists, like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali (1904-1989), saw themselves as having a passive role, almost like mediums, when it came to accessing the unconscious mind. They did not, however, view this as access to the supernatural but rather a state of mind beyond immediate reality.

Max Ernst developed the technique of frottage as an equivalent to the literary approach of automatic writing. Frottage involves creating a rubbing of a textured surface and allowing the patterns to suggest ideas that can be further developed.

André Masson (1896-1987), used a technique of drawing with pen and ink but starting with no conscious idea of how the image would develop.

Collage, 1934 by Joan Miró [External Link – opens in new tab]

Joan Miró (1893-1983) used automatism to create looser, freer work compared to his earlier representational style. His approach was to use a combination of working unconsciously and then developing the work with a more conscious approach.

In Collage, from 1934, Miró uses ordinary materials including a background of sandpaper and corrugated cardboard and felt. Using gouache, he has added an elongated black, biomorphic shape stretching from the top to bottom of the support. To the left of this a patch of purple gouache has been scraped across the surface. On the right of the image is a rectangle of grey felt. Using items such as sandpaper, cardboard and felt was a feature of work created by Dadaists and Surrealists. The aim was to challenge more traditional approaches to art and show that art could be created by anyone, using anything.

The Mood of Now, 1928 by Yves Tanguy [External Link – opens in new tab]

In The Mood of Now, Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) has created a monochrome image which could be a seascape looking across an expanse of water or a no-man’s land from a war scene. Biomorphic shapes seem to grow or cut through the surface while loose, grey shapes of mist or smoke float across the surface. The subject matter could be based on a dream though not necessarily a direct representation of it. Surrealist work often had elements of what Freud called ‘dream work’. This includes having contrary elements side by side, the merging of objects or using objects which have a symbolic, often sexual, meaning.

Dali joined the Surrealist movement in 1929. His dream-based images were not merely a representation of what he had dreamt. Instead, he was more inclined to interpret his dreams and represent his current state of mind. His approach was seen by others in the movement as less a way to explore the unconscious mind than an attempt to publicise himself. This, along with his lack of interest in political matters, led to him leaving the movement in 1936.

With the start of the Second World War many of the artists involved with Surrealism dispersed. Breton, Ernst and Masson moved to New York and their continued activities influenced American artists who became associated with Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.

Related Posts

Automatism –

Dadaism –


Miró, J. (1934) Collage [Collage] At: (Accessed on 19.07.17)

Tanguy, Y. (1928) The Mood of Now [Painting] At: (Accessed: 19.07.17)


Ades, D. (1994) ‘Dada and Surrealism’ In: Stangos, N. (ed.) Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism. 3rd rev ed. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 110-137


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