Surrealism, an early-20th-century literary and artistic movement, aimed to liberate the emotions and desires of the subconscious from the rational mind and its socially-enforced norms and taboos. In order to break with the rational, surrealist poets and artists adopted fantastic, dream-like imagery, created surprising juxtapositions, and relied on chance. The French poet André Breton wrote the "Manifesto of Surrealism" in 1924, which defined the movement as "pure psychic automatism by which is intended to express... the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations ... Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream."

Informed by the symbolist movement of the 19th century and the immediate antecedent of dada, surrealist artists adopted various techniques to incorporate chance and remove the limitations of the conscious mind. Decalcomania was a method by which watercolor paints were pressed between two sheets of paper. Frottage was the child's technique of putting a piece of paper over a textured surface and rubbing it with a pencil [see an example of frottage in crayon by Max Ernst: 1951.112.6]. Similarly, "Exquisite Corpse" was a parlor game modified so that a player would make a drawing, fold the paper to conceal it, and pass it on to the next player for his or her contribution. These techniques allowed artists to distance themselves from the traditional subjects and conventions of art, and thus to open themselves to the hidden thoughts of the subconscious. Meanwhile, some surrealists adopted a precisely delineated, naturalistic style in order to create visions which approached but somehow contradicted reality. René Magritte's convincing illusions are perhaps the best example of this [1981.9].

Surrealism has had a major impact on both the art world and popular visual culture. Its influences are evident in Pop art, Abstract Expressionism, and time-based media installations, and in contemporary film, music, and advertising.

Adapted from

  • Anne Bromberg, "Development of Abstraction," DMA Unpublished material, 1987.

  • "Seeing Contemporary Art," DMA Unpublished material, c. 1995.

  • DMA Unpublished material, n.d.

Related Multimedia

Gallery talk by Paulina Lopez, McDermott Intern for Visitor Engagement, DMA

Web Resources

  • MoMA Learning
    Explore different aspects of Surrealism through artists and works.

  • Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
    Learn more about the origins of surrealism and its evolution with visual arts.

  • MoMA
    View several examples of _decalcomania. _

  • The Art Institute of Chicago Art Access
    This activity uses a word game to practice one of the creative methods of Surrealist artists and look closely at works of art.

  • MOMA Learning
    See an example of a collaborative "Exquisite Corpse" drawing.

  • Tate
    Learn about Salvador Dalí, the famous surrealist painter, and his work with film.

  • YouTube
    See excerpts and a review of the experimental surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, from New York Times film critic A. O. Scott.