Surrealism is an artistic movement that has had a lasting impact on painting, sculpture, literature, photography and film. Surrealists—inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the unconscious—believed insanity was the breaking of the chains of logic, and they represented this idea in their art by creating imagery that was impossible in reality, juxtaposing unlikely forms onto unimaginable landscapes. Though it waned as an organized movement, Surrealism has never disappeared as a creative artistic principle.


Surrealism officially began with Dadaist writer André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist manifesto, but the movement formed as early as 1917, inspired by the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, who captured street locations with a hallucinatory quality.

After 1917, de Chirico abandoned that style, but his influence reached the Surrealists through German Dadaist Max Ernst. Ernst moved to Paris in 1922 as the Dada movement ended and was crucial to the beginning of Surrealism, especially because of his collage work at the time.

The disorientating illogic of Ernst’s collages fueled Breton’s imagination as he became more entrenched in Sigmund Freud’s ideas.


Breton and others, including Ernst, experimented with hypnotism as a means to access unconscious creativity, but the group decided the experiments were dangerous.

In 1923, painters Joan Miró and André Masson met and became involved with Breton. Influenced by Freud, Breton had experimented with automatism in writing to create words with no thought or planning. By 1924 Miró and Masson began their version with pen and ink.

In 1925, as a response to automatism, Ernst practiced frottage, using cracks in a floorboard as the surface underneath his drawing paper. He adapted the concept to oil painting, spreading pigments on a canvas and then scraping. Ernst’s 1927 painting Forest and Dove used this technique.

Miró adapted automatism to the first stage of creation in his paintings. He developed abstract coding as a personal Surrealist vocabulary which he repeated in his works. Miró was heavily influenced by outsider art, drawings by children and primitive art.


Other painters joined the movement in the 1920s. Yves Tanguy was a writer until the works of de Chirico inspired him to teach himself to paint in 1923. Tanguy specialized in infinity dreamscapes featuring ambiguous figures, as in 1927’s Mama, Papa Is Wounded!

Alberto Giacometti was a Swiss sculptor who met Masson in 1928. He was influenced by African and Egyptian art, which he combined with the dreamlike aesthetic to create bizarre, stylized figures.

Romanian painter Victor Brauner was introduced to the movement by Tanguy. Panned by Parisian critics. Brauner was fascinated by the occult. His 1931 painting Self-portrait with a Plucked Eye gain notoriety after he lost in his eye in a fight seven years later.


Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Illumined Pleasures, by Salvador Dali.

Spanish painter Salvador Dalí joined the Surrealist movement in 1928 and captured the attention of Sigmund Freud, who preferred his work to any other Surrealist.

Dalí’s paintings feature self-torturing psycho-sexual undertones depicting what Freud characterized as the unconscious manifesting within the conscious world. His paintings border on illusion, employing realistic draftsmanship that brought him long-lasting worldwide popularity.

One of his most famous paintings, 1931’s The Persistence of Time, features melting clocks draped on a desolate landscape.


Artepics / Alamy Stock Photo
Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images.

Belgium had its own influential Surrealist movement, which announced itself immediately following Breton’s manifesto. Camille Goemans, Marcel Lecomte, and Paul Nougé were the artists at the center.

Others joined, but it was painter René Magritte who captured the world’s imagination.

Magritte is best known for the wit of his imagery, some of which has achieved iconic status, like 1928’s The False Mirror, which incorporates a clouded sky into the close-up image of an eye, and 1929’s The Treachery of Images, a simple portrait of a pipe with words, in French, proclaiming that this is not a pipe.


Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo
Artist Meret Oppenheim holding her famed work, Object, in 1975.

A significant number of women were involved in Surrealism despite their dismissal by many critics and a tendency by male Surrealists to sideline them.

German artist Meret Oppenheim joined the Surrealists through Giacometti in 1932. A painter and sculptor, her most famous work is 1936’s Object, a sculpture of a teacup, saucer, and spoon all covered in fur.

Several women came to the movement through Max Ernst. Leonora Carrington was a young protege of Ernst’s who fell in with the Paris Surrealists in 1937. Ending up in Mexico in 1942, Carrington brought together occult ideas with personal history in both her literary and visual work, as with her 1937 painting Self  Portrait (The White Horse Inn).

Ernst’s fourth wife, American painter Dorothea Tanning, was an illustrator inspired to Surrealism after seeing a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Works like 1943’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik reveal the complexity of her visual concepts.

Spanish painter Remedios Varo fled her native country and ended up in Mexico in 1940. A close friend of Carrington, she worked as a commercial illustrator in Mexico, which is credited as being the key to her unique style, as well as her tendency to place herself in her paintings.


Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo
Detail of Frida Kahlo's, The Two Fridas, 1939.

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was part of the Mexican group of artists. Her paintings share similarities with Surrealist works and Breton proclaimed her a Surrealist, but Kahlo rejected the designation.

American painter Kay Sage was inspired by the work of de Chirico to pursue Surrealism while she lived in Paris in 1937. Shortly after, she met and was influenced by Tanguy, whom she later married in the United States. Sage’s work was characterized by a dark fascination with architecture and geometric shapes, notably scaffolding.


Photogram by Man Ray.
adoc-photos / Corbis via Getty Images
Photogram by Man Ray.

At the forefront of Photographic Surrealism was Philadelphia native Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitsky.

After moving to Paris in the 1920s, Ray specialized in Rayographs, his variation on photograms, which are made by exposing photographic paper to light with objects placed on it. Ray was also lauded for his fashion and portrait photography and pursued experimental filmmaking.

French photographer Maurice Tabard was brought into the movement by Magritte and Man Ray. He is noted for his use of techniques like double exposure and solarization in service of geometry. German photographer Hans Bellmer is best known for using his handmade, life-sized female dolls as photographic subjects.

Dora Maar’s creative accomplishments have been overshadowed by her affair with Pablo Picasso. The French-Croatian artist took portraits of her fellow Surrealists, as well as Picasso, but her most famous work, Portrait of Ubu, focuses on a baby armadillo.


The first Surrealist film was The Seashell and the Clergyman from 1928, directed by Germaine Dulac from a screenplay by Antonin Artaud. The most famous film, however, is Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, in 1929, which featured an iconic image of a woman’s eyeball being sliced by a razor blade.

Dalí collaborated with Buñuel on L’Age D’Or in 1930, during which their partnership ended. Dalí was later hired by Alfred Hitchcock to help create a Surrealist dream sequence in the 1945 film Spellbound.

Recent Surrealist filmmakers of acclaim include Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky and American painter and film director David Lynch.


Art in Time. By the Editors of Phaidon.
Art of the Western World. By Michael Wood.
History of Modern Art. By H.H. Arnason and Marla F. Prather.
History of Painting. By Sister Wendy Beckett and Patricia Wright.
Modern Art: Impressionism To Post-Modernism. Edited by David Britt.