To answer the question "What is Surrealism?" an art history student must understand that different art movements generally reflect a larger psychological movement of a culture. Surrealism is no exception, and, in the 1920s, there were many significant philosophical shifts in how people chose to perceive the world and themselves. Surrealism evolved out of the desire to capture that perception.
Surrealism embraced the idea that, if traditional art were an expression of the conscious mind, then the unconscious mind could also be captured. The results would not resemble reality, but they would be truer to the human unconscious. The movement extended into literature, psychology and philosophy as well.
Origins Of Surrealism
Andre Breton, a French writer, headed an anti-social group that wrote and published articles that rebelled against the artistic and philosophical traditions of the early 1900s. Taking many of their ideas from Dadaism (a European cultural movement that rejected current standards), the followers published many literary works, and Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. The philosophy was embraced across Europe and began appearing in paintings in the 1920s.
Surrealism In Art
Cubism, which showcased a deconstructive approach to painting and moved away from realistic representation, helped open the door to Surrealism. Many Surrealist artists were heavily influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
If traditional paintings reflected the world as it was seen, Surrealist paintings did the opposite-the Surrealist paintings are characterized by impossible scenes, illogical placement and juxtaposed order. Artists experimented with such techniques as stream of consciousness, free association and interpretation of dreams to open up the mind and attempt to capture it in a more permanent form. Surrealist paintings also reflected a time when the understanding of the human psyche was being explored-innovative ideas from Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and others presented the human mind in ways not before considered.
Some of the more famous Surrealist artists were Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy and Joan Miro. The Surrealist painting that most people recognize is Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" (1931), which features melting watches flowing over a barren landscape.