If you’ve heard of surrealism before, it’s likely been in the context of art and, specifically, painting. But did you know that the surrealism movement went much further than the art world alone? 

We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about the surrealism era and how it came to transform the creative world in the early 20th century. We’ll talk in detail about what surrealism is, from the basic definition to how it looks in different artistic genres, complete with a few examples.

What Is Surrealism?

Let’s start with a surrealism definition. The word itself comes from a combination of two French words–sur meaning above and real meaning reality. It’s all about the unconscious mind and using that to discover your imagination and innermost thoughts. 

Surrealism’s focus is on stepping away from the world you can see in front of you and connecting with imaginary, fantasy, or dream-like ideas within your own head. In many surrealism art examples, you’ll see this reflected in the juxtaposition, or contrast, between the different subject matter. 

Ordinary objects may look different than how they would appear in real life, or they may be set among a strange or unusual background. This is done to enhance the “unreal” feeling for the viewer and represent everything that’s irrational and beyond the norm.

salvador dali
Source: wikiart
Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” is a notable work from the height of the surrealist movement.

Artists and writers, both past and present, who have worked under the surrealism movement often use techniques like free association or automatic writing in an attempt to free their psyche and find creativity in the hidden depths of the mind. Using these methods often leads to some interesting results, many of which have become key features and characteristics of surrealism more broadly.

Characteristics of Surrealism

Regardless of the art form that’s being used, fantasy and dream-like images (or descriptions, if we’re thinking about surrealist literature) have become a classic feature of surrealist work. This is often combined with seemingly illogical or unexpected representations of objects or scenes that we would be familiar with in their ordinary forms but that have been distorted almost to beyond the point of recognition.

Source: wikiart
Miro’s “Figures and Dog in Front of Sun” clearly shows how ordinary, recognizable images were transformed during this era.

When looking at surrealist work by visual artists, you’ll often come across collages or random combinations of cuttings placed together. This is often done to produce a random effect that allows the artist to create automatically, with no pre-planning or conscious thought. For many surrealist artists, this is known as absolute surrealism. 

The viewer sees abstract images arranged in a particular way that may suggest the depiction of particular objects or shapes, but they can’t be completely certain that what they think they’re looking at is actually the case. For viewers or readers of surrealist work, there is a constant need to question what is in front of you because you’re being asked to think beyond reality. This type of distortion can feel unsettling, but it’s a core characteristic of surrealism.

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In the Era of Surrealism

To fully understand the movement, we need to reflect on the surrealism time period and the prevailing ideas in society at the time. The world was recovering from the back of its first truly global war, the political philosophies of Karl Marx were spreading throughout Europe, and Sigmund Freud’s thoughts on psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind were being heavily discussed both inside and outside the scientific community.

The word “surrealism” was first used in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire, a French writer and poet, and followed quite naturally from the popular Dada movement in the early war years. Many in the creative community believed that conflict had been caused by excessive rational thought and values of the bourgeois, with thousands participating in protests that mocked the establishment. 

The desire to break from tradition and rebel against convention saw artists and writers form new ideas and ways to express themselves. In conjunction with Marx’s anti-capitalist ideals and a deeper psychoanalysis of those coming off the battlefields, a spark for a radically different approach to creativity was lit. 

The Surrealist Movement

Although we can trace the origins of the word “surrealism” back to the early 20th century, the practice of eye trickery and distorted objects in paintings can be found as far back as the 1500s.

Italian Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo often used “trompe l’oeil” effects (or “fool the eye”) in his work, making human faces from flowers, fish, or fruit. The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch also feature what we would now describe as surrealist characteristics, turning household objects and animals into monstrous creatures.

“Haywain” by Hieronymus Bosh
Source: wikiart
“Haywain” by Hieronymus Bosh, while not strictly part of the surrealist movement, was highly influential on later artists.

But the true surrealism era, where creatives made deliberate use of distortion techniques and fantastical imagery based on the depths of the mind, was at its peak between 1924 and 1939. Freud’s work on dream analysis and the unconscious around 1901 was highly influential in the surrealism movement, paving the way for artists to explore their imagination through deeper internal work.

Early followers of the surrealist movement were typically writers, with creatives like Breton, Aragon, and Soupault publishing the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. They continued to collect and distribute materials around sociological studies and dream analysis to their communities. 

What began as a literary movement, where writers and poets explored their imaginations with automatic or free writing, soon drew interest from visual artists working with new techniques like collage and decalcomania, where paint is splashed onto paper and then rubbed to create a textured surface.

As the surrealist movement continued to expand throughout the late 1920 and 1930s, artists and writers collaborated on projects, played games to enhance their imaginations, and discussed theories around surrealism. 

Although the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 halted this rapidly-growing change in the creative world, surrealist artists and writers continued to work as much as possible, with many notable creators producing surrealist work well into their later years in the 1960s and 1970s.

Surrealism Examples


The diversity among visual artists working under the surrealist movement was notable and widespread. The earliest works by artists like Max Ernst, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Man Ray were largely influenced by Dada tradition, where familiar objects were turned into satirical artworks that made no logical sense.

Later artists like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Paul Klee, and Méret Oppenheim were synonymous with developing new techniques and ideas around the irrational and subconscious mind. As a result, the movement broke down into two unique trends: biomorphic or abstract surrealism and figurative surrealism.

Max Ernst’s “Le Surréalisme et la peinture”
Source: wikiart
Max Ernst’s “Le Surréalisme et la peinture” is an attempt to capture the essence of the surrealist movement on canvas.

For figurative surrealists, their aim was to paint recognizable objects but to alter them slightly through alternative perspectives and angles, making their work appear fantasy or dream-like. Abstract surrealists, on the other hand, felt that their approach was more liberating. Their need to break free of all conventions saw them explore different media to create unrecognizable shapes and symbols that left the interpretation down to the audience.

“Piazza d’Italia” by Giorgio de Chirico
Source: wikiart
“Piazza d’Italia” by Giorgio de Chirico is an early example of surrealist art.

When looking at surrealism art examples, you’ll often see references made to something in the artist’s personal history or repeating themes. Ants and eggs feature heavily in Dalí’s work, whereas birds come up often in the paintings of Ernst. Efforts to induce hallucinations or falling into a dream state were common among the surrealists, in an attempt to connect more effectively with their minds and experience visions that they could then paint.


With the origins of the surrealist movement firmly rooted in literature, it’s hardly a surprise that much of the work produced in surrealism’s golden era were written pieces. From the outside looking in, it can be difficult to read some of these works due to their lack of organization and heavy focus on dreams and imaginary worlds. 

The aim of surrealism is to be unusual and shocking, which has led to the creation of complex characters and settings. Metaphors are frequently used, helping readers to see something that isn’t real, open up their minds, and move them away from conventional thoughts and societal influence.

wizard of oz
Source: wikimedia
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a wonderful story but, ultimately, the product of Dorothy’s imagination.

One of the most famous examples is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (warning: spoilers ahead). The novel is often thought of as a surrealist piece, largely because it’s centered around Dorothy’s dream in the aftermath of a tornado. It’s easy to forget that this is the whole basis of the story as you read about the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion, but as the plot wraps up, we’re reminded that none of it was real and that everything was from Dorothy’s imagination.

While the plot remains a critical part of any surrealist story, you’ll often find that these works have a more poetic and fantastical nature, straying from conventional linear arcs to nonlinear timelines and abstract ideas.

Surrealism Today

While surrealism as a movement ended around 1940, artists, writers, filmmakers, and photographers are still heavily influenced by this era. The use of dream imagery and automatic creative techniques are areas that creatives continue to explore, and the growing interest in mindfulness, meditation, and self-learning have all helped surrealism to become relevant in the modern world. 

So if you’ve ever thought about dabbling in surrealist techniques yourself, there’s nothing stopping you from giving it a try. After all, freedom and creativity are what this movement is all about. 

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Written by:

Holly Landis