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A modern work in the style of surrealism. Objects on a dreamlike landscape.
Palacio de Congresos y Exposiciones (Madrid) 01 Kopie2
Mural by Joan Miró

Surrealism was an art and cultural movement which began in the early 1920s that developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Surrealist artists depicted unnerving, illogical scenes and developed techniques to allow the unconscious mind to express itself. Its aim was, according to leader André Breton, to "resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality", or surreality. It produced works of painting, writing, theatre, filmmaking, photography, and other media. Surrealism was influenced by the Dada movement of the 1910s.

The term "Surrealism" was first used in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917. The Surrealist movement officially established in October 1924, when French poet and critic André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto. Surrealist works have an element of surprise: unexpected items are placed next to each other for no clear reason. Many Surrealist artists and writers see their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost. The works are an artifact, and André Breton said that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement.

The most important center of the movement was Paris, France. From the 1920s it spread around the globe, impacting the visual arts, literature, film, and music of many countries and languages, as well as political thought and practice, philosophy, and social theory.


Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, André Masson, Joan Miró, René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp were some of the best-known surrealist artists.

Surrealist films

Early films by Surrealists include:

  • Entr'acte by René Clair (1924)
  • The Seashell and the Clergyman (French: La Coquille et le clergyman) by Germaine Dulac, scenario by Antonin Artaud (1928)
  • L'Étoile de mer by Man Ray (1928)
  • Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1929)
  • L'Âge d'Or by Buñuel and Dalí (1930)

Man Ray made the first surrealist film: Return to reason (1923). Luis Buñuel and Dali made two well-known surrealist films: Un chien andalou (1929) and L'Âge d'or (1930). Jean Cocteau made three films, known as the Orphic Trilogy: Le Sang d'un poète (1930), Orphée (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960), which includes a cameo appearance by Pablo Picasso.

Surrealist photography

Famous Surrealist photographers are the American Man Ray, the French/Hungarian Brassaï, French Claude Cahun and the Dutch Emiel van Moerkerken.

Surrealist theatre

Roger Vitrac's The Mysteries of Love (1927) and Victor, or The Children Take Over (1928) are often considered the best examples of Surrealist theatre, despite his expulsion from the movement in 1926. The plays were staged at the Theatre Alfred Jarry, the theatre Vitrac co-founded with Antonin Artaud, another early Surrealist who was expelled from the movement.

Golden age

Throughout the 1930s, Surrealism continued its cultural expansion. A Surrealist group developed in London. Another English Surrealist group developed in Birmingham and was known for its opposition to the London surrealists. The two groups would reconcile later in the decade.

Dalí and Magritte created the most widely recognized images of the movement. Dalí joined the group in 1929, and participated in the rapid establishment of the visual style between 1930 and 1935.

Surrealism as a visual movement had found a method: to expose psychological truth; stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance, to create a compelling image that was beyond ordinary formal organization, in order to evoke empathy from the viewer.

1931 was a year when several Surrealist painters produced works which marked turning points in their stylistic evolution: Magritte's Voice of Space (La Voix des airs) is an example of this process, where three large spheres representing bells hang above a landscape. Another Surrealist landscape from this same year is Yves Tanguy's Promontory Palace (Palais promontoire), with its molten forms and liquid shapes. Liquid shapes became the trademark of Dalí, particularly in his The Persistence of Memory, which features the image of watches that sag as if they were melting.

Between 1930 and 1933, the Surrealist Group in Paris issued the periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution as the successor of La Révolution surréaliste.

Although personal, political and professional tensions fragmented the Surrealist group, Magritte and Dalí continued to define its visual program in the arts. This program encompassed photography as well, as can be seen from a Man Ray self-portrait.

L'Ange du Foyeur
Max Ernst, L'Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surréalisme (1937), private collection

During the 1930s Peggy Guggenheim, an important American art collector, married Max Ernst and began promoting work by other Surrealists such as Yves Tanguy and the British artist John Tunnard.

Major exhibitions in the 1930s

  • 1936 – London International Surrealist Exhibition is organised in London by the art historian Herbert Read, with an introduction by André Breton.
  • 1936 – Museum of Modern Art in New York shows the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.
  • 1938 – A new Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme was held at the Beaux-arts Gallery, Paris, with more than 60 artists from different countries, and showed around 300 paintings, objects, collages, photographs and installations.

The Surrealists wanted to create an exhibition which in itself would be a creative act and called on Marcel Duchamp, Wolfgang Paalen, Man Ray and others to do so. At the exhibition's entrance Salvador Dalí placed his Rainy Taxi (an old taxi rigged to produce a steady drizzle of water down the inside of the windows, and a shark-headed creature in the driver's seat and a blond mannequin crawling with live snails in the back) greeted the patrons who were in full evening dress. Surrealist Street filled one side of the lobby with mannequins dressed by various Surrealists. Paalen and Duchamp designed the main hall to seem like cave with 1,200 coal bags suspended from the ceiling over a coal brazier with a single light bulb which provided the only lighting, as well as the floor covered with humid leaves and mud. The patrons were given flashlights with which to view the art. On the floor Wolfgang Paalen created a small lake with grasses and the aroma of roasting coffee filled the air. Much to the Surrealists' satisfaction the exhibition scandalized the viewers.

World War II and the Post War period

Indefinite Divisibility
Yves Tanguy Indefinite Divisibility, 1942, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

World War II created havoc for the European artists and writers that opposed Fascism and Nazism. Many important artists fled to North America and relative safety in the United States.

In 1939 Wolfgang Paalen was the first to leave Paris for the New World as exile. After a long trip through the forests of British Columbia, he settled in Mexico and founded his influential art-magazine Dyn. In 1940 Yves Tanguy married American Surrealist painter Kay Sage. In 1941, Breton went to the United States, where he co-founded the short-lived magazine VVV with Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and the American artist David Hare. However, it was the American poet, Charles Henri Ford, and his magazine View which offered Breton a channel for promoting Surrealism in the United States. The View special issue on Duchamp was crucial for the public understanding of Surrealism in America.

Though the war proved disruptive for Surrealism, the works continued. Many Surrealist artists continued to explore their vocabularies, including Magritte. His work became more realistic in its depiction of actual objects, while maintaining the element of juxtaposition, such as in 1951's Personal Values (Les Valeurs Personnelles) and 1954's Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières). Magritte continued to produce works which have entered artistic vocabulary, such as Castle in the Pyrenees (Le Château des Pyrénées), which refers back to Voix from 1931, in its suspension over a landscape.

Some figures from the Surrealist movement were expelled, but many new artists explicitly took up the Surrealist banner.

Breton returned to France after the War and began a new phase of Surrealist activity in Paris. He insisted that Surrealism was an ongoing revolt against the reduction of humanity to market relationships, religious gestures and misery and stressed the importance of liberating the human mind.

Major exhibitions of the 1940s, '50s and '60s

  • 1942 – First Papers of Surrealism – New York – The Surrealists again called on Duchamp to design an exhibition. This time he wove a 3-dimensional web of string throughout the rooms of the space, in some cases making it almost impossible to see the works. He made a secret arrangement with an associate's son to bring his friends to the opening of the show, so that when the finely dressed patrons arrived they found a dozen children in athletic clothes kicking and passing balls, and skipping rope. His design for the show's catalog included "found", rather than posed, photographs of the artists.
  • 1947 – International Surrealist Exhibition – Galerie Maeght, Paris
  • 1959 – International Surrealist Exhibition – Paris
  • 1960 – Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters' Domain – New York

Post-Breton Surrealism

In the 1960s, the artists and writers associated with the Situationist International were closely associated with Surrealism.

Surrealistic art also remains popular with museum patrons. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City held an exhibit, Two Private Eyes, in 1999, and in 2001 Tate Modern held an exhibition of Surrealist art that attracted over 170,000 visitors. In 2002 the Met in New York City held a show, Desire Unbound, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris a show called La Révolution surréaliste.

Surrealists groups and literary publications have continued to be active up to the present day, with groups such as the Chicago Surrealist Group, the Leeds Surrealist Group, and the Surrealist Group of Stockholm.

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