Surrealism Is Born

After the publication of André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism, avant-garde artists used the new term “Surrealism” to define their artistic movement.

Summary of Event

When the young French writer and critic André Breton published his first Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969) in October, 1924, he did not merely provide a friendly group of writers and artists with a new theory for their new art, he also gave this art its name and thus fostered the birth of Surrealism. The painters Max Ernst, André Masson, Masson, André and Joan Miró readily accepted the theories outlined in Breton’s manifesto, and so did many of Breton’s writer friends, among whom Louis Aragon, Aragon, Louis Paul Éluard, and Philippe Soupault were very influential. [kw]Surrealism Is Born (Oct., 1924)
Art movements;Surrealism
Manifesto of Surrealism (Breton)
[g]France;Oct., 1924: Surrealism Is Born[06130]
[c]Arts;Oct., 1924: Surrealism Is Born[06130]
[c]Literature;Oct., 1924: Surrealism Is Born[06130]
Breton, André
Ernst, Max
Miró, Joan
Dalí, Salvador
Magritte, René
Tanguy, Yves

As Breton’s manifesto defined it, Surrealism sought to break down the boundary between dream and reality and to unite, in one picture or one text, the unconscious and the conscious. “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of associations hitherto neglected, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought,” Breton explained. To capture this new “surreality,” Breton and his friends strongly recommended “automatic,” instead of premeditated, painting and writing. Surrealist theory thus emphasized a revolution in both the form and content of art.

In the fall of 1924, a distinctive body of new art already existed for which Breton created his theory. The early works of Max Ernst, for example, exhibit many of the Surrealists’ ideas. By inviting the viewer to see an elephant in the form of a huge steel cauldron to which the artist has given legs and tusks, Ernst’s painting The Elephant of the Celebes (1921) Elephant of the Celebes, The (Ernst) traces how dreams create irrational analogies between different objects. Ernst’s depiction of a sky filled with fish shows in action the Surrealist principle of “conscious incongruous combination”: By placing objects in an impossible context, the picture encourages the viewer to transcend the limits reality imposes on relationships between objects.

André Breton.

Similar in theory, but quite different in its style, Joan Miró’s Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) (1923-1924) Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) (Miró) invites a viewer to follow dream logic and see the hills of Catalonia in the painter’s mere outline of pencil-thin, wavy lines; the hunter’s head can be discovered in a mustachioed, one-eyed triangle at the top left of the picture.

In literature, the field of Breton’s own experiments, 1924 saw the publication of two major Surrealist texts. Breton’s Les Pas perdus (the lost steps) Pas perdus, Les (Breton) reflects in its antinovelistic form and apparently random content the antirational convictions of its author. In Louis Aragon’s Une Vague de rêves (a wave of dreams), Vague de rěves, Une (Aragon) form and content focus on dreams and “automatic” unmediated writing.

Although the Surrealists initially defined it, their art had deep roots in earlier experiments with “antiart.” Like the Dadaists, Dadaism they rebelled against artistic tradition and conventional values. Both Dadaists and Surrealists were committed to experimenting with art. Surrealists, however, wanted art to have meaning and were ready for a theory to give coherence to their divergent goals. Breton’s manifesto filled this void. It was only with its publication, then, that Surrealism was truly born as a forceful movement with a clear sense of artistic identity.

Breton admitted freely that the term “Surrealism” was the invention of his deceased friend Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire, Guillaume Breton, however, insisted on his exclusive rights to the new word. Indeed, rival claims to the term literally died out: The three French magazines that used the word independently ceased publication by the spring of 1925. This left only the new review La Révolution Surréaliste, Révolution Surréaliste, La (journal) of which Breton quickly became the editor. Until 1929, when it was retitled, the journal served as an influential vehicle for disseminating Surrealist literature and theory. Beginning with its first issue—the cover of which was graced by an anonymous drawing of a fish bearing the word “SURRÉALISME” on its side—the magazine also carried illustrations by important Surrealists such as Max Ernst and André Masson.

Because of Breton’s forceful promotion of their work, more painters felt drawn to the movement, which had originally favored writers and poets. After a one-man show of Masson’s work in the Galérie Simon in Paris in 1924, the Surrealists staged their first major collective exhibition in the Galérie Pierre in Paris in 1925. At the exhibition, a wide audience reviewed works by the founding members of the Surrealist group, including Ernst, Masson, Miró, and Man Ray, and by such relative newcomers as Pierre Roy and Hans Arp. Also included were works by Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, who were not strictly Surrealists. Giorgio De Chirico’s early work was shown because of its initial influence on Surrealist painters, even though the Surrealists despised his current art.

A steady stream of exhibitions followed. The acquisition of the Surrealist Gallery, which opened on March 26, 1926, gave Surrealist painting a permanent exhibition space. Increasingly, international artists such as the Spaniard Salvador Dalí and the Belgian René Magritte joined the Surrealists, whose influence spread throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan. With Dalí and his fellow Spaniard Luis Buñuel, Surrealists turned to film; Dalí and Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou (1928; An Andalusian Dog) Andalusian Dog, An (film) became the first of several internationally acclaimed Surrealist films. The painters’ frequent exhibitions, together with the flourishing review La Révolution Surréaliste and the energetic mentorship of Breton, contributed to the strong and quick growth of Surrealism after its well-tended birth in 1924.


The energy and creativity of its founders helped to make Surrealism the most influential artistic movement between 1924 and World War II. In the field of the visual arts, the Surrealists’ fascination with the unconscious yielded a rather unexpected result, for even though they strove to discard realist modes of representation, they desired to convey the new meaning that their dream logic gave familiar objects. Consequently, despite techniques that pointed in a different direction, Surrealist painting reemphasized the object, and the idea of meaning, in art.

These divergent artistic aspirations, which would ultimately separate and lead to both abstract expressionism and neorealism, were powerfully unified in such Surrealist paintings as Yves Tanguy’s Genesis (1926). Genesis (Tanguy) In Tanguy’s painting, the background openly defies any notion of realist presentation: Painted in virtually the same pastel tones, sky and ground are separated only by a hovering, blue-black fog. In the midst of this dreamscape, however, grows a distinctly fernlike tree of knowledge, beyond which is a tightrope on which walks Eve, a naturalistically drawn woman.

To uncover the meaning that Tanguy invests in his objects, one must look at Freudian psychology, which Surrealism greatly helped to popularize. With Sigmund Freud, Freud, Sigmund the Surrealists shared a keen interest in the unconscious and the erotic. Tanguy and other Surrealists readily accepted the sexual connotations Freud saw in everyday objects and incorporated such ideas into their own art. Eve’s passage on the tightrope—a walk into adolescent sexuality—thus will lead her to a phallic tower of fog, out of which rises an outstretched palm holding a long nail (vagina and phallus); her route continues beneath the vaginal leaves of the tree to its terminus, the top of the phallic obelisk. A green snake and a black triangle complete the Freudian imagery on the fog-infested ground.

Whereas Freud used psychoanalysis to heal patients, however, the Surrealists were interested in the method alone. At the extreme, Dalí became fascinated with psychopathology and the sickness of the soul and developed his own branch of Surrealism. The famous melting watches of Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931) Persistence of Memory, The (Dalí) seek to capture the frame of mind of the individual paranoiac. His frightening Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War (1936) Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Dalí) reveals the collective horror of a nation, Spain, which was killing itself in civil war. Here, a violently deformed female torso is split in two, and while one hand squeezes an inflamed breast, a calcified leg presses bulging buttocks against spinal bones.

In the quest for the unconscious, Breton exhorted the Surrealists to experiment continuously with new techniques. Ironically, the idea of “automatic” writing and painting, which the Manifesto of Surrealism had called the key to Surrealism, soon proved a dead end. It was abandoned despite such isolated successes as Miró’s The Gentleman (1924), the major features of which appeared in the artist’s mind at the moment of painting.

Overall, the Surrealists created many techniques that entered the repertoire of contemporary art. Among these lasting inventions are Ernst’s collages, which, as in his The Hundred-Headed Woman (1929), create strange bird-people out of mixed-up illustrations cut from the pages of nineteenth century novels. Other innovations included Ernst’s frottage (the rubbing of canvas over natural objects) and grattage (the scraping of the canvas). Oscar Dominguez’s discovery of “decalcomania” (the spreading of black ink between two sheets of paper), first exhibited in the new Surrealist magazine Minotaure in 1936, quickly inspired other Surrealist painters.

Together, the goal of these techniques was to create accidental structures that the artist invests with a subjective meaning. For Masson’s Battle of Fishes (1927), Battle of Fishes (Masson) the artist spread glue randomly on his canvas. After pouring sand on the glue, he was left with a sandscape created by accident, which he turned into an ocean floor, the battle zone of his fish. The invitation of the unplanned became an important Surrealist legacy. It directly influenced the action painting of the American Jackson Pollock, who personally observed Max Ernst in the 1940’s.

Just as influential were the methods of Surrealist painters, such as Magritte, who painted their objects with often photographic precision but placed them in impossible contexts. Magritte’s The Human Condition, I (1943) offers a view of a window that is partially blocked by a painting that shows exactly the part of the landscape outside the window that the painting obscures. Magritte’s style, Verism, Verism became widely popular among the pop artists of the 1960’s; its appeal even reached the point that Magritte’s motifs were used for advertising posters.

Despite its powerful impact, Surrealism was persistently plagued by internal strife. Because Breton looked at the movement as an all-encompassing lifestyle, he took a personal interest in guarding its purity and expelled many offenders. His continuous development of Surrealist theory is linked to this control over the movement. Breton’s discussion of the visual arts, Le Surréalisme et la peinture (1928; Surrealism and painting), Surréalisme et la peinture, Le (Breton) which appeared in the same year as his novel Nadja (English translation, 1960), Nadja (Breton) was written to refute a rival’s idea that there was no Surrealist painting. Similarly, Breton’s Second Manifeste du surréalisme (1930; Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969) came on the heels of mass expulsions, including Masson’s.

The Surrealists’ relationship with the French communists was characterized by the former’s tenacious fight for artistic freedom. In Légitime Défense (1926; legitimate defense), Breton defended the Surrealists’ interest in dreams. Even though he would briefly join the communists—at one point, he renamed his magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution (Surrealism in the service of the revolution)—from 1930 on, he knew that Surrealist art remained incompatible with the dogma of Socialist Realism.

Pierre Roy’s Roy, Pierre painting Rural Electrification (1930) Rural Electrification (Roy) illustrates this difference. The work’s electric poles are relegated to the background, where they are literally dwarfed by four bamboo sticks and small scraps of paper, the artist’s childhood toys. By placing the subjective and personal over the communal and objective, Roy provided artists with an alternative to communist art.

After World War II, which caused most European Surrealists to flee to the United States after the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Surrealism, although still productive, lost its initial influence. The last great international Surrealist exhibitions were held in Chicago and Paris in 1947. After the deaths of many Surrealist artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, major retrospectives of their works opened in Europe and the United States. Since then, interest in their art has remained strong, and in 1992, a Magritte retrospective received a warm welcome upon opening in London. Arrival of the exhibition was also greeted eagerly in the United States, where European Surrealists had flourished late but had left strong traces. Art movements;Surrealism
Manifesto of Surrealism (Breton)

Further Reading

  • Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Concise introduction to these art movements discusses their international nature and the range of media employed. Also addresses the debates surrounding them, including issues of quality and attitudes toward women.
  • Jean, Marcel, ed. The Autobiography of Surrealism. New York: Viking Press, 1980. Anthology of writings by Surrealist painters and writers presents primary texts that shaped Surrealist art theory, which the artists took very seriously. Most selections are fine translations of crucial French texts. Richly illustrated with photos of the artists and their works. Includes bibliography.
  • _______. The History of Surrealist Painting. Translated by Simon Watson Taylor. New York: Grove Press, 1960. Definitive history of Surrealism up to the date of its publication. Includes reproductions of the most important Surrealist artworks (most in black and white, however) and photos of the artists themselves. Readable and extremely informative.
  • McShane, Megan. Genesis of a Revolution from Dada to Surrealism. New York: Parkstone Press, 2006. Describes the emergence of Surrealism and its relation to Dadaism, focusing on the common goals of the two movements. Includes more than one hundred illustrations.
  • Picon, Gaetan. Surrealists and Surrealism, 1919-1939. Translated by James Emmons. 1983. Reprint. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1996. Richly illustrated, detailed look at the development and growth of Surrealist art. Discusses many major Surrealist works and celebrates Surrealism’s impact on art and artists all over the world. Includes chronological survey, bibliography, and “dictionary-index” with a brief entry for each major surrealist artist.
  • Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. First full-length biography of Breton in English places the man and his work in the context of his times. Includes photographs, notes, and index.
  • Read, Herbert Edward. Surrealism. 1936. Reprint. New York: Praeger, 1971. The first serious academic discussion of Surrealism in English, written at the height of Surrealism’s artistic influence on modern art. Aimed at readers with some familiarity with art history. Intelligent, informative, and valuable for anyone interested in the origins and reception of the Surrealist movement.
  • Russell, John. Max Ernst. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1967. One of the most comprehensive surveys of Ernst’s work available for the general reader. Draws on interviews with Ernst to recount Ernst’s impact on the birth of Surrealism and his later conflict with Breton. Includes reproductions of most of Ernst’s major works, chronological survey of Ernst’s works, biographical notes, and useful bibliography.
  • Schneede, Uwe M. Surrealism. Translated by Maria Pelikan. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1974. Introductory survey aimed at a general audience. Presents forty-one discussions of individual Surrealist paintings (reproduced in color) and a concise but brief introductory text with black-and-white reproductions. Includes short chronology (1924-1971) and limited bibliography.

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