André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto, illustrated by Max Ernst
André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, illustrated by Max Ernst
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Andre Breton, 1938
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Andre Breton, 1938

Surrealism was launched in Paris in 1924 by the poet André Breton, whose “Manifesto of Surrealism” was published in the new journal La Révolution Surréaliste.  Rooted in Dadaism’s embrace of the irrational, the Surrealists were deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious.  Freud proposed that human consciousness is governed by irrational impulses buried deep within our psyche – what he called the “unconscious.”   Through normal psychological development, we learn to control these unconscious impulses (this is the job of the Superego), and hence we are able to function like moral, rational human beings.  However, the Surrealists questioned the “rationality” of conscious thought  —  wasn’t it “rational” “normal” normal human beings that allowed World War I to happen?  The Surrealists therefore endeavored to liberate the unconscious, believing that it offered a state of innocence free from the corruption of “moral” society, and the path to a superior, higher form of reality — what Breton called “Surreality.”

Read André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism:

The Surrealist Movement (Shock of the New)

Dream Imagery
The question was, how do we gain access to the unconscious — since, according to Freud, the unconscious is by definition unconscious!  In his surrealist Manifesto,  André Breton suggested that dreams represent a reality superior to that which we normally call “reality.”  Free from the “reign of logic,” the Surrealists believed that dreams represent a realm of absolute freedom, outside of the repressive regime of logic”:

“ . . . why should I not grant to dreams what I occasionally refuse reality, that is, this value of certainty in itself . . . . Can’t the dream also be used in solving fundamental questions of life?” Many surrealist artists used their dreams as the basis for representing the alternative reality of dreams.”
Andre Breton

Get Surreal with Salvador Dali Part 1 of 2

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
Museum of Modern Art

Salvador Dali dedicated his career to painting what he called “hand painted photographs” of his dreams.  This small picture is based on a childhood memory of a doctor who asked Dali to show him (montrer) his tongue (langue); the words are similar to montre (watch) and languer (languid) — so Dali’s picture becomes a coded reference to this childhood experience.

Many things in this picture do not belong to the rational world of “sense.”  The landscape is impossibly stark, while the rectangular block on the left seems entirely out of place.  Watches melt and ooze, while flies and ants swarm them as if they were organic.  Most disturbing is the strange object in the foreground, which seems to “morph” before our very eyes:

“The monstrous fleshy creature draped across the paintings center is an approximation of Dalís own face in profile. . . . its long eyelashes seem insectlike or even sexual, as does what may or may not be a tongue oozing from its nose like a fat snail.”
Museum of Modern Art

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931 (Smarthistory)

The Dream Work:  Manifest and Latent Content
In “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud explained that we dream in “code.”   The “manifest content” is the conscious form of the dream (what we remember when we wake up), and the “latent content” is the repressed or hidden meaning.  There are several mechanisms by which the latent content of dreams is repressed, including condensation, where one object is made to stand for another (as in Dali’s melting watches), and displacement, where the emotional significance of an object is attached to an entirely different object (here is the source of “fetishism”).

Salvador Dali designed the dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.  In this sequence we learn that in dreams things are not always what they appear to be:

Dreams designed by Dali in Spellbound (1945)

Rene Magritte, The Key of Dreams, 1930
Private Collection

Rene Magritte’s The Key of Dreams is almost a textbook illustration of Freud’s concept of “manifest” and “latent” content.  Painted in an anonymous “sign-painter’s” style, the picture depicts common objects (an egg, a shoe, a hat, a candle, a glass, and a hammer), coupled with labels – however, the words do not align to the thing they seem to represent.  The shoe is labeled “la lune” (the moon), and the hat is labeled “la neige” (the snow).  In the world of “logic,” a shoe is a shoe and a hat is a hat, but in the world of dreams and the unconscious, they might very well be something else!

Rene Magritte, The Treachery (or Perfidy) of Images, 1928-29
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

In this work the artist coupled a realistic image of a briar pipe with the simple words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “this is not a pipe.”  On the one had it is a statement of the obvious (after all, this is not a pipe – it is a picture), yet it functions like a bombshell in the way it destabilizes our certainties about reality.  This is exactly what the Surrealists wanted us to do:  to question our “common sense” understanding, and to consider the possibility of other and alternate realities.

Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929 (Smarthistory)

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Biomorphic Abstraction and Psychic Automatism
The other method the Surrealists used to tap into the unconscious is called “psychic automatism,” which Breton defined as “the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns.”  Based on Freud’s method of “free association,” psychic automatism was a method of writing or drawing without preconception or conscious thought (kind of like doodling while talking on the phone).  By adopting an arbitrary, automatic method, the Surrealists endeavored to bypass the “censoring” apparatus of the conscious mind, thereby enabling the unconscious mind to express itself.

Joan Miró, Head of a Catalan Peasant 1925.  Tate Gallery
Joan Miró, Head of a Catalan Peasant 1925. Tate Gallery

The Spanish painter Joan Miró began to experiment with the technique of psychic automatism to create his paintings.  After arriving in Paris, he began to create pictures inhabited by fantastic creatures that seem to come from his imagination, rather than the observable world.  According to the artist:   ‘In 1925, I was drawing almost entirely from hallucinations’ (Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by Margit Rowell, London, 1987, p.208)

Typically, Miró would approach his canvas without any pre-existing idea (preconception), and just let his imagination run free (much like doodling while talking on the phone), and as images emerged, he would free-associate.  As the artist explained:

“Rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting and as I paint, the picture begins to assert itself . . . . The first stage is free, unconscious . . . . The second stage is carefully calculated”
Joan Miró

Joan Miró, The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), 1923-4
Museum of Modern Art

In this image, we can make out a stick figure hunter (similar to the Catalan peasant) smoking a pipe and brandishing a gun in one hand, and an animal in the other.  A barbecue is fired up on the right, while a beached sardine occupies the foreground (Miró said he was hungry when working on the picture):

“Miró stated that this work was inspired by the sight of a Catalan peasant out hunting, wearing his distinctive ‘barretina’ cap. This cap was regarded as a symbol of nationalism, and was probably included as a response to the Spanish government’s suppression of Catalan nationalism and specifically the Catalan language at the time. The other elements in the composition are more ambiguous: shapes which suggest two eyes and a beard might also be interpreted as two breasts and an area of pubic hair, generating a characteristically Surrealist element of sexual ambiguity. The wisps of hair also suggest roots, implying an intimacy between the peasant and the soil he works. In the upper left hand corner of the painting biomorphic forms appear to float freely in the pictorial space . . .”
Tate Gallery

Playful and anarchic, the picture’s ambiguous imagery invites multiple interpretations, engaging the viewer in a free-play of psychic associations and responses.

Surrealist Art – Joan Miró

Joan Miró, The Birth of the World, 1925Museum of Modern Art
Joan Miró, The Birth of the World, 1925
Museum of Modern Art

This large scale painting is completely abstract and non-referential, yet it seems to suggest a dramatic narrative as if taking place in a completely invented/imaginary world:

“Here Miró applied paint to an unevenly primed canvas in an unorthodox manner—pouring, brushing, and flinging—so that the paint soaked into the canvas in some places while resting on the surface in others. On top of this relatively uncontrolled application of paint, he added schematic lines and shapes planned in preparatory studies. The bird or kite, shooting star, balloon, and figure with white head may all seem somehow familiar, yet their association is illogical. Miró once said that The Birth of the World describes “a sort of genesis,” an amorphous beginning out of which life may take form.”
Museum of Modern Art

The Surrealist Object and the Uncanny
Inspired by Duchamp’s readymades, the Surrealists also experimented with creating “objects” that could elicit unexpected responses.  The effect is similar to what Freud called the “uncanny,” which refers to feelings of dread and uncertainty that can be produced by objects that are otherwise familiar:

“To give a concrete example: the mannequin is an example of something which appears to be familiar as a human figure, but is in fact lifeless and therefore a potential cause of dread as a result of this dissonance of not knowing at first glance whether we are looking at a human or a piece of plastic.”
Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” — Summary and Review


This is the effect that Surrealist objects have on us:  by creating  “cognitive dissonance” through their unexpected juxtapositions, they introduce a disturbing sense of unease by making the familiar seem strange and terrifying.

Man Ray, The Gift, c. 1958 (replica of 1921 original)
Museum of Modern Art

This object, made by the American photographer Man Ray on the very afternoon it was exhibited, consists of a commonplace iron to which the artist attached a row of tacks.  The juxtaposition is jarring, and activates a range of contradictory associations in the mind of the viewer:

“What do we make of Man Ray’s relatively simple, yet subversive act of presenting a modified household appliance as a work of art? The flatiron – intended to smooth wrinkles from fabric – has been rendered useless with the addition of a row of brass tacks. We are perhaps expected to react the way the store owner supposedly did when Man Ray purchased these items, by exclaiming, “But you’ll ruin the shirt if you put tacks there!”
Josh Rose, “Man Ray and The Gift,” Khan Academy

By rendering this basically iron with the addition of the tacks, Man Ray has not only “estranged” us from the familiar, but he has challenged us to examine our expectations:

“The flatiron, associated with social expectations of propriety and middle-class values, becomes a subversive attack on social expectations. Even if Man Ray’s tack-lined iron is no longer used for pressing clothes, the object resonates with ruinous, violent possibilities.
Josh Rose, “Man Ray and The Gift,” Khan Academy


Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjuener en Fourrure), 1936
Museum of Modern Art

Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup is one of the most memorable Surrealist objects.  The artist purchased a common cup, saucer, and spoon, and covered them in fur, resulting in a work that is simultaneously repulsive, threatening, and sexual:

“In addition to its sexual overtones, the work may stimulate feelings of discomfort and revulsion in the viewer at the idea of getting a mouthful of fur while drinking tea. Spector refers to this as “the thrill and repugnance at the idea of drinking tea not from hard, clean porcelain but from a fur-covered cup [which induces] an association with a perverse performance with the mouth.” All of these associations, orbiting as they do around issues of sex, transgression, and Freudian psychology, make it clear why this object was quickly hailed as the quintessential Surrealist creation.”
Alan Foljambe, “Meret Oppenheim and Breakfast in Fur – Surrealism for Breakfast,”, April 30 1010 

Listen to MOMA audio:

Women Surrealists
The Surrealist Movement attracted an unusually large number of women artists.  As one historian has noted, “No comparable movement outside specifically feminist organizations has had such a high proportion of active women participants.”[1]

[1] Robert Short, cited in Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women:  An International Anthology, University of Texas Press, 1998 <;

Listen to Whitney Chadwick on Women in Surrealism at SFMOMA:

Angels of Anarchy:  Women Artists and Surrealism (Manchester Art Gallery)

Frida Kahlo
One of the best-known women Surrealists was the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, wife of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.  Although she was friendly by André Breton, and was identified by him as a Surrealist artist, she did not identify with the surrealist interest in the unconscious.  As the artist explained:  “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t.  I never painted dreams.  I paint my own reality.”

Frieda Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931 (Smarthistory)

Kahlo used personal symbolism to explore autobiographical themes.  A tragic accident that left her crippled for life is a frequent reference in her work.

Frida Kahlo biography (1 of 6)

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944
Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, Mexico City

In this work, Kahlo depicts her damaged spine as a broken column, held in place by a medical brace.  Her pain is evoked through the nails driven into her body, the tears in her eyes, and the cracked terrain of the landscape in the background.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940
Museum of Modern Art

The artist’s difficult relationship with her husband Diego was also a theme in her pictures.  As she explained:  “I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down. The other accident is Diego (Rivera).”  This work was painted shortly after her divorce from Diego:

“As a painter of many self- portraits, she had often shown herself wearing a Mexican woman’s traditional dresses and flowing hair; now, in renunciation of Rivera, she painted herself short haired and in a man’s shirt, shoes, and oversized suit (presumably her former husband’s).”
Museum of Modern Art

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939
Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

This painting was also completed at the time of her divorce, and explores her conflicted feelings about her her own identity, and her relationship with her husband.  The figure on the left shows the artist dressed in proper European attire, denoting her European descent (her father who was a German Jewish immigrant).  The figure on the right shows the artist in a Mexican peasant dress, signaling not only her Mexican heritage, but also her involvement in the Mexican worker’s movement.  The Mexican Frida (the one that Diego loved) holds a cameo portrait of Diego, which is connected to her heart by an artery.  While this heart is whole, the European Frida’s heart is torn open, and she tries to stem the flow of blood with pincers.

Learn more at PBS:


Web Resources:

Surrealism (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History) 

Surrealism @ 

Surrealism @ Smarthistory 

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