Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m., 1932, wood, glass, wire, and string, 63.5 x 71.8 x 40 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, NY) Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m., 1932, wood, glass, wire, and string, 63.5 x 71.8 x 40 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, NY) One of the most important and subversive movements of the 20th century, Surrealism flourished particularly in the 1920s and 1930s and provided a radical alternative to the rational and formal qualities of Cubism. Unlike Dada, from which in many ways it sprang, it emphasized the positive rather than the nihilistic.

Access to the subconscious

Surrealism sought access to the subconscious and to translate this flow of thought into terms of art. Originally a literary movement, it was famously defined by the poet André Breton in the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924): ‘SURREALISM, noun, masc. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express either verbally or in writing the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.’

A number of distinct strands can be discerned in the visual manifestation of Surrealism. Artists such as Max Ernst and André Masson favoured automatism in which conscious control is suppressed and the subconscious is allowed to take over. Conversely, Salvador Dali and René Magritte pursued an hallucinatory sense of super-reality in which the scenes depicted make no real sense. A third variation was the juxtaposition of unrelated items, setting up a startling unreality outside the bounds of normal reality. Common to all Surrealistic enterprises was a post-Freudian desire to set free and explore the imaginative and creative powers of the mind.

From Paris to New York

Surrealism was originally Paris based. Its influence spread through a number of journals and international exhibitions, the most important examples of the latter being the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London and the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, both held in 1936.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the center of Surrealist activity transferred to New York and by the end of the War the movement had lost its coherence. It has retained a potent influence, however, clearly evident in aspects of Abstract Expressionism and various other artistic manifestations of the second half of the 20th century.

Michael Clarke, Deborah Clarke, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, © 2012 Oxford University Press. Available at Oxford Art Online


Additional Resources:

Surrealism on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Surrealism from the Guggenheim Museum

Surrealism at The Museum of Modern Art, NY