Surrealism began in the 1920’s as an offshoot or extension of the Dada movement. Its founder was the French writer André Breton, a Dadaist and devotee of Sigmund Freud’s work with psychoanalysis.
André Breton decided (along with the Dadaists) that rational thought was at fault for the world’s problems and that change could only come about through the subconscious mind. He eventually wrote three Surrealist Manifestos and based the movement on the idea that ordinary things, such as objects, symbols, and images could have important meaning when created and viewed with the subconscious.
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These ideas, of course, led to a few new techniques in the world of art, such as automatic drawing (where you don’t think, you just draw lines and see what happens) and collaborative artwork (where the randomness of each member helps to limit logic or planning.) In addition, once the artwork was created it was completely open to interpretation by anyone, with no right or wrong meaning.
The interesting thing about Surrealism is that despite its emphasis on the subconscious, the movement also includes works that were obviously well-thought out and logically executed, with only the subject matter remaining surreal.
Salvador Dali is probably the most famous of those Surrealist painters. He’s known for his strange, eye-twisting landscapes filled with symbolic objects (like melting clocks) or fantastical beasts like the ones below:
It’s because of Dali that the Surrealist movement has most often been associated with crystal clear dreamlike imagery. Not all Surrealists painted so realistically as Dali—some Surrealists leaned more towards Cubism and others towards collage, yet all were accepted at Surrealist artists.
Surrealism lasted for several decades, losing momentum in the late 60’s and 70’s, but like many other modern art movements it never really ended.
Artists still follow Surrealist ideals today by using highly symbolic imagery to provoke thoughts and emotions from viewers. And because of Surrealism, I think people are more willing to give their own interpretation of what art means to them, too.