Editor’s Note: Intro to Surrealism

by tigermanifesto

Meret Oppenheim. Object. Paris, 1936

Meret Oppenheim’s Object, a perfect representation of Surrealism.


I designed this post as a Cultural Discerner for the Third van Reken residential community at Calvin College. It is intended to help my floormates and I enjoy the Real/Surreal exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. However, I do not believe that this specificity should limit its usefulness for any other interested people. Therefore, I am writing this with a general audience in mind as well as with special attention to the content of Real/Surreal as far as I can perceive it.

History of Surrealism:

With that out of the way, we enter into a brief history of the movement known as Surrealism. As a child, I had an instant attraction to the unsettling juxtapositions and air of magic or fantasy found in Surrealist painting, but I know that this is not a universal attraction. If you are a more disinterested party, primarily encountering this art for more “useful” purposes (say, a class assignment) these are the essentials of the history of Surrealism:

1. The movement grew out of Europe in the late 1910s. This means that the big Event everyone was living through and processing was the First World War. Intellectuals, poets, and artists throughout Europe had, like all people on that continent, experienced in some way the staggering trauma of that war, which decimated the male population of Europe and much of its countryside. The first major founders of Surrealism–including poet André Breton, playwright Antonin Arnaud, and painter Max Ernst–created much of their creative philosophy in reaction to their interpretation of the First World War. What had been the cause of this Great War? Nationalism, an over-reliance on reason and technology, a disregard for the playful in favor of the mundane and mechanical. Thus, Surrealism emphasized the sub-rational, the whimsical, and a spirit of criticism and unsettledness. Where art movements like Futurism celebrated the onrush of technological progress and glorified the nation-state, Surrealism posited itself as a retreat into the mind, a recovery of something spiritual that modern men (emphasis very intentional) could recover after the devastation of the war.

2. Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, and the Surrealists were heavily influenced by this work and other Freudian texts. Dreaming and the uncanny parts of reality are major themes in Surreal art, of course, but arguably the most important contributions of Freud to Surrealism were intellectual and theoretical. The idea of free association, of not censoring the irrational to suit the moral or behavioral boundaries of society, is essential to all Surreal art. We’ll get to how that looks in practice in a moment, but I would encourage you to hold onto that idea. To a Surrealist, the conservative mores and rigorously “rehearsed” nature of society were oppressive and needed to be thrown off in order to unleash true creative potential and make art that matters. Another legacy of Freud’s is that Surrealists tend to eroticize everything. It should come as no surprise that Surrealists put naked women in many, many paintings of theirs. Gotta release those id urges.

3. Karl Marx provided the Surrealists with a political ideology around which to shape their ideas. This played into their belief that society should be radically reshaped along more humane grounds. Marxism offered them a framework for thinking about art that could stir the masses and overthrow the previously established norms of Western culture. Most European Surrealists were Communists–Dalí being the one major exception as far as I know–but were thankfully not influenced by any of the art being developed by Stalin’s propagandists.

4. After a manifesto defining the goals of the movement was signed in 1924, Surrealism took on some real force as an international artistic ideology. However, though it was in many ways a unique form, it had a direct antecedent in Dada, a movement that similarly embraced radical politics and the absurd. Dada is a fascinating and compelling strain of art in its own right, but I don’t have space to get into too many details. Suffice to say that Dada (which flourished from 1916 to the late 20s in Europe) largely invented anti-art, and celebrated destructive and irrational urges but was not nearly so influenced by psychoanalysis as Surrealism. It was more concerned with radical forms and offering a direct challenge to people’s tastes. Definitely look into Dada if you have the inclination.

5. There are a few other big influences for Surrealists. These include individual artists like Hieronymus Bosch, George de Chirico, and Pablo Picasso as well as strains of Cubism and Primitivism.

At first, Surrealists were uneasy about painting. The first members of the group were mainly writers, and it was thought that the meticulous nature of painting made it unsuitable for their goals. Gradually, however, more and more visual artists grew up around the manifesto and became the public face of the movement. Over the course of the next few decades, Surrealists produced many famous works of art in the face of an unstable European political situation in the 1920s and 30s.

Before, during, and after World War II, many Surrealist artists emigrated to the United States to salvage their lives and livelihoods. This collective of fleeing artists included one key figure named Arshile Gorky, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide and an enigma. His work was far more abstract and fragmented, not to mention expressive, than most of the more cerebral Surrealist art. That said, Surrealism had a direct influence on the evolution of Abstract Expressionist art, the manliest and most active abstract movement of its day. Jackson Pollack, the most famous of these Abstract painters, did Surrealist art in his early years before creating his drip-painting methods. In that way this artistic movement gave inspiration to later art but died out as an organized style soon after World War II. Popular art, especially in the psychedelic 60s (think the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour), would appropriate much of Surrealism’s aesthetics but usually in service of far less radical goals.

Examples of Paintings:

Autumn Afternoon

Giorgio de Chirico’s painting Autumn Afternoon distorts space and juxtaposes various historical styles to unsettling effect.

Magritte Menaced Assassin

René Magritte, the Belgian artist behind The Menaced Assassin (1927) also distorts space but charges the scene with eroticism and menace. One of his favorite motifs was a man in a suit and bowler hat, both safely middle-class and vaguely disturbing.

Joan Miro Dutch Interior

This might be my favorite Surrealist painting. One of the instincts Surrealists had was to find the Surreal in the childlike and naive. Joan Miro’s Dutch Interior (1) is based on an older painting called “Lute Player” but is far more abstract and freely composed and executed.


Male and Female

American artist Jackson Pollock composed this image before developing his style of Abstract Expressionist action painting. Miró is a touchstone, but the style is far less intellectual and more emotional and active.



Another American response to Surrealism, this image is far less fantastical in its conception than most European Surrealist images. That said, it still retains a fusion of familiar working or middle class situations and a nightmarish emotional atmosphere. Space itself looks deformed. This piece is in the show for the GRAM.

Delvaux The Great Sirens (1947)

Despite my enthusiasm for much of what Surrealism gave to the world, there are troubling aspects to it as well. For one, it tended to reduce women to either uncanny objects (female Surrealists, the few there were, often played with this trope) or dreamlike muses. Their Freudian psychology and male machismo did not help, as evidenced in this Classically inspired piece by Delvaux called “The Great Sirens” (1947).