Surrealism (1920s-1940s)

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Periods and Styles in Western Art >

Surrealism is a style of modern art in which images are based on fantasy and the world of dreams. It flourished in Europe from the mid-1920's to well after the end of World War II (1939-45).

The stage was set for surrealism by an earlier movement known as dada. Dadaists were disillusioned with modern society after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. They wrote nonsense poetry and created nonsense art to express their belief that traditional values had become meaningless. Like dada, surrealism was also in conflict with social values, although the two movements differed greatly.

Surrealism first appeared about 1924 as a literary movement led by the French poet André Breton. Breton's writings caught the attention of many artists, including the German painter Max Ernst and the Spanish painter Salvador Dali. These artists created strange pictures consisting of totally unrelated objects, sometimes chosen by pure chance, placed against mysterious backgrounds. These were exciting works, at times giving the impression that the artists who created them were in touch with another world. What was the inspiration for such unusual paintings?

From its beginnings, surrealism was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that many important thoughts and feelings are buried deep in the unconscious mind. Surrealist artists tried to liberate these buried thoughts and feelings and use them as subjects for their art. They claimed that the images produced by this process were actually more real than images seen by the eye in everyday life. The surrealists wanted to fuse unconscious forces with everyday reality in order to produce a super-reality, or "surreality."

In order to reach this unconscious world, the surrealists analyzed their dreams and underwent hypnosis. They also used such techniques as doodling and automatic drawing, putting down on paper whatever images came into their minds. Another method developed by the surrealists is frottage, in which rubbings of wood or other rough surfaces produce unexpected shapes and textures.

Two different kinds of surrealist art emerged. Artists such as Dali, Belgium's René Magritte, and France's Yves Tanguy painted dreamlike images using a highly realistic technique. So meticulously painted are these works that they are sometimes called "hand-painted dream photographs." Other artists, such as Spanish painter Joan Miró, Swiss-born painter Paul Klee, and the French sculptor Jean Arp, did not use a realistic style. Their works often consist of abstract shapes that have no intended resemblance to familiar objects. In their freshness and vitality, these works resemble children's art.

Surrealism influenced much later art, especially the movement known as abstract expressionism. The American painter Jackson Pollock, for example, allowed chance to dictate where his dripping paints would fall on his canvas. Surrealism also found expression in the writings of Breton and others, in the architecture of Spain's Antonio Gaudí, and in the films of Spain's Luis Buñuel.

Howard E. Wooden
Director Emeritus, Wichita Museum of Art

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