What is Surrealism?

Is surrealism far removed from conceptual art or are the two subjects related? It’s hard to define anything in such black and white terms. Surrealism as an initial statement began as an artistic movement in the early 1920’s with anti-establishment, anarchic and communist roots. As a term it is hugely encompassing and be can be understood as a subject that seeks to explore the irrational and the illogical. It’s the ridiculous, the amusing, the mocking, it’s exactly as dreams are – absurd and bizarre, fantastical, it doesn’t make sense. By stepping into the unconscious, it takes from the subliminal and subconscious minds, bridging the gap between dreams/illusion and reality. Put in simple terms, it is an extension of the unconscious mind.

Far from being anti-conceptual, surrealism can be found in all facets of the artistic. Surrealism simply means ‘beyond the real’ or ‘on’ realism. It’s in everything, in particular in advertising, in fantasy art, in fiction; in magical realism. Duchamp’s urinal who many think is strictly in the conceptual category is founded in surrealist ideas, the urinal can be seen as a symbol of the absurd, a mocking gesture at the arts world, and if analysed in psychological terms, is the sort of thing that might appear in a dream if there was an overwhelming sense of the ridiculous.

Often surrealism is completely unrelated to its actual subject matter, for example in advertising we see products which connect to images in a loose way, often at the end, forming the caption of the sales point, i.e. several years ago, Cadbury’s chocolate used a gorilla playing drums to sell its product. It was hugely popular and saw sales surge in the weeks following its campaign. But what does a gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins Genesis have to do with chocolate? Nothing. The association is in the subliminal context. On the other hand, we can find more blatant connections, i.e. a beautiful woman placing a cigarette into her mouth and smoking it with orgasmic delight, was perhaps the best way of making the tobacco industry as wealthy as it is. Sex always sells – at which point it is necessary to say, that surrealism often sees women as uncanny and mysterious or blatant objects of desire, representations of which emerge from within a male heterosexual psyche.

As a movement some claim Surrealism is dead, disbanded at the end of World War II, then later in 1966, with the death of the founding figure, writer and poet, André Breton, the death of Surrealism as an organized movement was marked, and still later as a finale with Dali’s death in 1989 – the ideal was neatly tied up. But its influence is everywhere – it’s hard to shut up into a box, or to claim it and define it within a niche, as an early artistic/literary movement it was a hardened statement, but as part of art, culture and aesthetics, it is still very much alive.


Thomas Barbey – Very Sharp Left Turn


Dali Museum Florida


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