What is surrealism?

The term “surrealism” was coined at the beginning of the 20th century by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire and later gave its name to an entire movement in art and literature.

Translated from the French, “surréalisme” means “above the real”, i.e. the real. The surreal describes something that is removed from any reality and appears unreal and dreamlike. The art movement of surrealism originated around 1920 in France. The artists and writers focused on the dreamlike, fantastic and “absurd” (meaning something absurd) – in other words, all those things that cannot be grasped by the human mind and its experience and which often slumber in the depths of the subconscious.

The French writer André Breton (1896-1966) and the German-born artist and sculptor Max Ernst (1891-1976) are considered the founders of the Surrealist movement. For the movement in Paris, intoxication, dreams and subconscious desires, wishes and suffering were the source of their artistic inspiration. The artists and writers wanted to break with common views and rules and expand human consciousness – that is why this art movement is considered “anarchistic” (lawless) and “revolutionary”, i.e. revolutionary. They rebelled against the bourgeois view of art and the “hypocritical” morality of the “bourgeoisie” – meaning the upper class of society. Surrealist art was always considered provocative, that is, challenging, rebellious and daring.

André Breton in Paris

Around André Breton, the Surrealist group was formed in Paris, which gradually included many well-known artists such as Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Paul Éluard, René Magritte and Joan Miró. The pioneer Breton wrote important theoretical writings on surrealism – in 1924 he published his “first surrealist manifesto”. In it, he also referred to psychoanalysis, which was founded by the Austrian doctor and psychologist Sigmund Freud and dealt intensively with the human soul life and subconsciously acting forces. The aim of the Surrealists was to use their art to uncover new levels of consciousness and to dissolve the contradictions between the phenomena of the “real world” and the dream worlds. Breton developed what is known as “Écriture automatique” (“automatic writing”), in which expressions, images and moods that come to mind or come over you spontaneously are simply reproduced without “censorship”. With this method, one writes down everything without thinking, without controlling and filtering one’s thoughts and without discarding “nonsense” by means of the mind.

  • Also pictures and other art forms should be created by the unconscious “speaking” and not the mind taking control.
  • In particular, the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) and the Belgian painter René Magritte (1898-1967) created expressive and dream-like pictures in which a new “super-reality” is created – by combining unusual or contradictory objects, themes and motifs.
  • In Dalí’s pictures, for example, melting clocks or burning giraffes appear again and again.

The world-famous Spanish-Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) is considered the representative of surrealist cinema.

“An Andalusian Dog”and “The Golden Age”

Together with Salvador Dalí, he created the films “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) and “The Golden Age” (1930), which are considered masterpieces of surrealist film today. In their time, however, they were regarded as scandalous and banned for decades. The films consist of partly incoherent and seemingly absurd scenes, which are always daring. For example, in the short film “An Andalusian dog” a man hurts a woman’s eye with a razor, which caused a sensation among the audience. In his film “I fight for you”, master director Alfred Hitchcock had Salvador Dalí create a dream scene in surrealistic style.

You may also like