What is Surrealism? - Definition, Art & Characteristics

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Dorothea Lange: Biography, Photography & Migrant Mother

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 What Is Surrealism?
  • 1:04 The Surrealist Manifesto
  • 1:55 Art of Surrealism
  • 3:39 Surrealist Artists
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Surrealism isn't just a fun word to say or even just a style of art. It's actually a cultural movement as well. What do you know about Surrealism? Read on to become a Surrealism expert.

What Is Surrealism?

Although some may think Surrealism is just another art form, it's actually a cultural movement that was expressed through art, literature, and even politics. WWI had a profound effect on Europe, and many people believed that the conflict was a result of excessive rational thought and the materialistic values of the middle and upper classes. Artists of this belief were known as Dadaists, and they embraced chaos and the irrational. Surrealism developed out of this thought process in Europe in the 1920s. Surrealism also embraced the psychoanalytical idea of unconscious desires, or things we want that we don't know we want. The Surrealism movement focused on these ideas of chaos and unconscious desires in an effort to dig deep into the unconscious mind to find inspiration for political and artistic creativity. They believed this rejection of overly rational thought would lead to superior ideas and expressions. Sound interesting? Let's take a closer look.

The Surrealist Manifesto

The Surrealist Movement published two short documents called Surrealist Manifestos. Both were written by Andre Breton in 1924 and 1929. Andre Breton is considered the leader of the Surrealist movement, and he defined Surrealism as a pure state of mind that allows someone to express thoughts freely and without the encumbrance of rational thought and societal rules. He and the other Surrealists were trying to introduce more open, free-thinking concepts that would allow people, particularly artists, to be aware of themselves without influence from the outside world. Breton pushed artists to look into their unconscious minds for inspiration. Although Surrealism is defined by visual art, the movement originated with more focus on cultural thinking involving literary, political, and music elements.

Art of Surrealism

If you've ever seen visual art from the Surrealist period, you may be scratching your head and wondering what's going on. That's because Surrealist artists wanted to use art to show the inner workings of the mind, especially in regards to areas of sexuality or violence, which they considered to be frequently oppressed. In fact, artists often sought psychoanalysis to dig up deep, repressed feelings to use for inspiration. Take a look at this painting by Magritte. What do you think was going on in his unconscious mind? The reality is, Magritte and other Surrealist artists wanted to create work that made the viewer think. None of the art has a solid answer. In fact, Surrealist art has a few characteristics you may notice.

Example of Surrealism by Magritte
magritte example

Surrealist art often uses dream imagery to show the inner workings of the mind. Have you ever had a dream that your teeth were falling out or that you were flying? Surrealists used images like this in their art to create instinctive meanings the viewer would not need rational thought to understand.

Surrealists also used symbols as a method of telling a story. Symbols are objects that stand for ideas, events, or emotions. For example, a smile can be a symbol of happiness; an image of a heart can be a symbol for love.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Additional Activities

What is Surrealism? - Definition, Art & Characteristics

Creative Activities

1. One of the techniques for writing fiction practiced by the author of the Manifesto of Surrealism Andre Breton was a sort of free writing in which the writer allows thoughts to flow freely and simply records the words that come to mind. As you can imagine, this kind of unconscious creation can yield some unusual written manuscripts. Try this technique for yourself. On a blank, unlined piece of paper, allow your mind to have free reign as much as possible while your hand moves on the page. See what you produce this way. When you look at what you've written, see if some editing might create a viable composition.

2. One of the key visual artists of Surrealism was Salvador Dali. Dali's work makes effective use of dream imagery and images from the unconscious to portray ideas. Find a Dali painting or sculpture online or in an art book and see if you can translate the ideas depicted through a visual medium to a written form. Write a piece of flash fiction or a poem based on your observation.

Discussion Question

1. Discuss how the surrealist movement corresponded to the political climate and cultural milieu of the early twentieth century. What was happening that affected all of Western society? What factors might have applied to particular authors, artists, and musicians from specific countries like Spain, France, and the United States?

2. Some composers of classical music in the 1920's were influenced by the surrealist movement. Listen to a composition by one of these composers like Andre Souris or Erik Satie. What about the music reflects the power of the unconscious mind and hidden desires or emotions?

3. Visual artist and poet Max Ernst spanned the cultural movements of Dadaism and Surrealism. How are these two movements related? Discuss the change in Ernst's work regarding the transition from one movement to the other.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account