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What did the surrealists attempt to capture in literature and art?

The surrealist movement emerged in the early 20th century as a reaction to the chaos and destruction of World War I. Surrealists sought to tap into the power of the unconscious mind and dreams to create art that captured the magical, irrational and imaginative aspects of life. Their work was highly symbolic, filled with strange juxtapositions and non-sequiturs that aimed to surprise and provoke. Surrealism had a major impact across all artistic mediums, from visual art and sculpture to film, poetry and prose.

Origins of Surrealism

Surrealism was officially launched as a movement with the publication of Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Breton, a French writer, defined surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.” Surrealists saw the unleashing of the unconscious mind as a revolutionary act in an increasingly rational and consumerist society.

Several precursors paved the way for surrealism’s emergence. The 1916 Dada art movement focused on absurdism and rejecting logic and reason. Many surrealists had participated in Dada and were influenced by its provocative spirit. Additionally, the work of Sigmund Freud was hugely impactful. His research on dreams, the unconscious and the psyche inspired surrealists to tap into their minds in new ways.

Surrealist Literature

Surrealist authors sought to write without conscious control, combining unlikely words and images into an unpredictable collage. Their writings often have dreamlike qualities, exploring subjects like desire, fantasy, madness and the facets of the mind unknown even to oneself.

Andre Breton

Andre Breton was the founder and key theoretician of Surrealism. His writings such as The Magnetic Fields (1920) and Soluble Fish (1924) used free association and automatic writing to access his unconscious.

Louis Aragon

Louis Aragon was a French poet and novelist who joined the Surrealists early on. His surrealist works include the collection The Libertine (1924) and the novel Paris Peasant (1926), which depicts a nighttime stroll in Paris through dreamlike vignettes.

Robert Desnos

French poet Robert Desnos wrote surrealistic poetry collected in books like Liberty or Love! (1927). Focused on love, dreams and the erotic, his poems are known for wild unexpected imagery conjuring the illogical nature of dreams.

Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington was a British Surrealist painter and writer. Her short stories and novels fuse fantasy, myth and imagination, such as The Hearing Trumpet (1976) about an elderly witch who uncovers a mystical otherworld.

Surrealist Art

Surrealist visual art aimed to bypass logical reason and aesthetics to tap into the magical imagery of dreams and the unconscious. Juxtaposing unexpected elements, their disorienting works provoke visceral reactions and new ways of seeing the world.

Giorgio de Chirico

Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico painted eerie cityscapes with shadows and architecture that create an illogical, dreamlike mood. His use of strange juxtapositions and perspectives was highly influential on the Surrealists.

Joan Miro

Spanish painter Joan Miro created biomorphic abstractions full of whimsical lines, shapes and symbols. Thriving in ambiguity, his works evoke the primitiveness of dreams and the unconscious through their cryptic shapes and childlike style.

Salvador Dali

As the most famous Surrealist, Salvador Dali created quintessential Surrealist paintings full of bizarre dream imagery. Melting clocks, burning giraffes and vast alien landscapes capture the illogic of dreams and subconscious desire.

Rene Magritte

Belgian artist Rene Magritte painted hyperrealist images with conceptual twists that reveal the strangeness underlying everyday objects and settings. Works like The Treachery of Images (a pipe titled “This is not a pipe”) convey the mystery of perception and the unconscious.

Frida Kahlo

Though not officially part of the movement, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo exemplified Surrealism in her fantastical, dreamlike self-portraits. Fusing reality, myths and symbols, she depicts her inner psyche and feminine experience in a surreal visual language.

Surrealist Cinema

Surrealist films capture the movement’s love of the fantastical and subconscious dreaming mind. Seeking to create film poems, they use loose nonlinear narratives, rich symbolic imagery and fantasy themes.

Un Chien Andalou

The 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, is one of the earliest and most influential Surrealist films. Full of disturbing, meaningless imagery like a sliced eyeball, it aimed to shock and provoke.

L’Âge d’Or

Luis Bunuel’s 1930 follow-up film with Dali, L’Âge d’Or, continued Surrealism in cinema with scenes like bishops thrown out windows intercut with a man looking for a rock to suck on.

Meshes of the Afternoon

The 1943 experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren explores a woman’s dreamlike descent into madness through a nonlinear symbolic narrative captured in startling imagery.

Surrealist Photography

Surrealist photographers carried the movement’s fascination with dreams and the unconscious mind into experimental street photography. Capturing unexpected moments and juxtapositions, their works have a genuine spontaneity and subjunctiveness.

Man Ray

American photographer Man Ray was active with the Dada and Surrealist circles in Paris. His photographs often manipulate objects into mysterious or ambiguous images, like his rayographs made by placing objects directly on photo paper.


Brassai captured eccentric Parisian characters and street scenes full of evocative shadows and textures. His eerie, dreamlike photography captures the surreal qualities hidden in everyday settings.

Philippe Halsman

Latvian-born photographer Philippe Halsman collaborated with Dali on strange photographs that brought Surrealist concepts to life, like Dali Atomicus depicting Dali jumping amidst flying cats and water.

Main Themes & Motifs

Despite the diversity of Surrealist work across mediums, certain themes and motifs recur frequently:

  • Dreams and the unconscious
  • Madness, hysteria and the irrational
  • Sexuality, desire and fantasy
  • The uncanny and mysterious
  • Humor and absurdism
  • Non-sequiturs and juxtapositions
  • Symbolism and metaphor
  • The automative and chance-based creative process

These core ideas and visual strategies underpin the Surrealists’ mission to unleash the imagination and give form to dreams and the unconscious mind in their work.

Surrealism’s Legacy

The Surrealists tapped into the radical potential of the unconscious mind and dreams in their work, revolutionizing literature, visual art, photography and film. Their innovations include:

  • New nonlinear, symbolic forms of storytelling and imagery
  • Conceptual twists that reveal the strangeness in everyday objects and experiences
  • Techniques like automatic writing and drawing to bypass conscious control
  • Rich visual languages of dreams and the subconscious
  • Ideas like the creative power of irrational juxtapositions and chance

Surrealism deeply impacted later movements like Abstract Expressionism, Pop art and Postmodernism. Its themes and visual strategies have continued to influence literature, art, fashion, advertising and pop culture. Nearly 100 years after surrealism’s birth, its pioneering explorations of dreams, desire and the unconscious still inspire artists across all mediums today.


The surrealist movement sought to unleash the imaginative and irrational powers of the unconscious mind in their creative work. Breaking from reason and logic, they tapped into dreams, desire, madness and fantasy to shock and provoke their audience. Their art, films, photographs and writings use visual languages of the subconscious and techniques like automatic creation to bypass aesthetic conventions and rational control. Core themes like sexuality, dreams, symbolism and the mysterious run throughout their diverse works across mediums, capturing the magical and uncanny qualities of the inner mind. With their revolutionary vision of art’s possibilities, the Surrealists opened new frontiers in literature, visual art and film that still impact creativity today. Their works provide a glimpse into the endless creative potential flowing under the surface of our psyches.