Relating Freud's Theories to Surrealist Works of Art

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  • 0:01 Freud and Surrealism
  • 1:02 Dreams and the Unconcious
  • 2:46 Psychoanalysis
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the unconscious mind. And then you will explore surrealist art. And then a bit more of the unconscious. Discover the link between Freud's theories about the mind and surrealist art, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Freud and Surrealism

Hey, what does a psychoanalyst wear to work? A Freudian slip! Ah, Freud jokes. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose work with the unconscious mind established the field of psychoanalysis. In Freud's theories, the unconscious and conscious mind constantly interacted, and tensions between them created mental health issues. It was the job of the psychoanalyst to make the patient aware of their unconscious issues, which often related back to ideas of personal and sexual development.

So, things got pretty real pretty quick; and to many artists, this was pretty interesting. In 1924, a group of French artists published the First Surrealist Manifesto, which outlined the goals of a new artistic movement they called Surrealism. Surrealists believed in engaging the unconscious aspects of the mind and creativity, so they got along with Freud pretty well. And, the results, well, just take a look and see.

Dreams and the Unconscious

So, Freud believed that the human mind had both conscious and unconscious states, but that both were always active. This means that your mind is working in a way that you are not aware of, holding onto repressed memories and instincts that have been buried by time. The best way to access these is through dreams, where your unconscious and conscious minds interact. The surrealists were fascinated with the idea of dreams; they saw them as worlds of pure imaginative freedom. But dreams can also become nightmares, and especially if we think of dreams as the places where the conflicts of the unconscious become visible; there is a hint of foreboding here.

The Freudian idea of the dream was very influential on surrealists. Here's one of the most famous examples, The Persistence of Memory, painted by Salvador Dali in 1931. So, what do we see here? A vast, barren landscape featuring melting clocks. As a dream, this is fantastic and creative, but also deeply disturbing.

For the surrealists, the point of using dreams was not just to embrace artistic freedom, but to explore creativity in the unconscious mind, as well as exploring personal psychological issues. So, what is it then? A dream where time is dead, decaying. Does this represent the inability to detect passing time in a dream, a nightmare that will never expire, a fear that time will catch up to the dreamer, or something else entirely? The scene is deeply connected to Dali's personal psyche, and he painted it as a way to physically represent the irrational nature of the unconscious mind in a dream.


All right, so let's get back to Freud. So, according to Dr. Freud, psychological issues come from the conflict between the conscious and unconscious mind. But actually, there are three forces at work here. The id is composed of the basic, instinctual drives of a person - things like the need to eat, wants, desires, etc. The ego is the part of the mind that tries to accommodate the needs of the Id, but in a realistic way. This is where the conscious mind is located. So, your Id is hungry, and your Ego rationally decides to make a sandwich.

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