Surrealism – ‘Art for art’s sake’

“Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life.” G. de Chirico

The Surrealist movement was founded in Paris by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Disdaining rationalism and literary realism, and powerfully influenced by Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists believed the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighting it down with taboos. Influenced also by Karl Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution. Their emphasis on the power of the imagination puts them in the tradition of Romanticism, but unlike their forbears, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life. The Surrealist impulse to tap the subconscious mind, and their interests in myth and primitivism, went on to shape the Abstract Expressionists, and they remain influential today.

Key Ideas

– Surrealism has come to be seen as the most influential movement in twentieth century art. Figures like Salvador Dalí and Man Ray not only had an important influence on avant-garde art, but through their commercial work – in fashion photography, advertising and film – they brought the style to a huge popular audience. Following the demise of Minimalism in the 1960s, the movement’s influence also returned to art, and since the 1970s it has attracted considerable attention from art historians.
– Surrealism was officially founded in 1924, when André Breton wrote Le Manifeste du Surréalisme. In it, he defined Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.” In this, he proposed that artists should seek access to their unconscious mind in order to make art inspired by this realm.
– Initially a literary movement, many Surrealists were ambivalent about the possibilities of painting, however, the group’s leader, André Breton, later embraced and promoted painting. The work of Surrealist painters such as Joan Miró would be an important influence on the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s.


Though the Surrealist movement was officially founded in 1924, the term was first coined in 1917, when Guillaume Apollinaire used it in program notes for the ballet Parade, written by Pablo Picasso, Leonide Massine, Jean Cocteau, and Erik Satie. It began as a literary group strongly allied to the Dada movement, and emerged in the wake of the collapse of the group in Paris, when André Breton’s eagerness to bring purpose to the group clashed with Tristan Tzara’s anti-authoritarianism. Breton – who is occasionally described as the ‘Pope’ of Surrealism – would go on to be the most important figure in the movement, the impresario whose strong leadership gave it cohesion through its many reincarnations until his death in 1966.



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