Art of the 20th Century

A Revolution in the Arts


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map



The Great Avant-garde Movements


Surrealist Art








Conquest of the marvellous


Surrealism and painting


Towards a revolutionary art


Across the world


The object


Festivals of the imagination


In the United States


Surrealist architecture


The post-war period




see also:

Surrealism - 1924

Max Ernst
"A Week of Kindness" (A surrealistic novel in collage)

Rene Magritte "Thought rendered visible"

Salvador Dali

Surrealism  "The Dream of Revolution"




From its very beginning, surrealism resisted all attempts to turn it into a doctrine. Instead of teaching a system, the surrealists set out, by means of appropriate actions and productions, to create new demands on reality. They set out to liberate the workings of the subconscious, disrupting conscious thought processes by the use of irrationality and enigma, and exploiting the artistic possibilities of terror and eroticism. In this way they created a new form of sensibility which had a profound influence on modern art, and which was able to meet an enormous range of personal requirements and to find expression in the greatest possible variety of creative processes. Surrealist artists and writers became international masters whose influence was so fertile that any study of them seems to lead right to the heart of the most important avant-garde work of our era.

Unlike romanticism, with which it has often been compared, surrealism was able to establish, between the language of the plastic arts and the language of poetry, a relationship which was not limited to the illustration of the one by the other. It set poetry at the centre of everything, and used art to make poetry into something which could be seen and touched. The surrealist painters and sculptors, moreover, were themselves poets.

Rene Magritte, two months before his death, wrote me a splendid letter in which he said : 'I conceive of the art of painting as the science of juxtaposing colours in such a way that their actual appearance disappears and lets a poetic image emerge. . . . There are no "subjects", no "themes" in my painting. It is a matter of imagining images whose poetry restores to what is known that which is absolutely unknown and unknowable.' If surrealist art avoided being literary, it was by invoking poetry as the opposite of literature, and because it was supported by poets, like Breton, Eluard and Aragon, who were well-informed collectors of art, and who encouraged its technical innovations.

The evolution of surrealism is merged almost completely with that of Andre Breton, its founder; although he did not invent the word, he made the fortune of the idea, whose purity he strove constantly to protect. To be a surrealist, one had first to be granted the title by Breton; no one ever raised a murmur of protest against this obligation, so self-evident did it seem. His manifestos, however personal in style, were emanations of the will which moved his companions of the moment. He was able to impose on those who approached him not only a discipline of action, but also, which is far more surprising, a discipline of dreaming.

However, an artist did not necessarily stop being a surrealist when, after having been a part of this common enterprise, he was driven by his individual development to withdraw from it. Any artist who worked with the surrealists acquired, and kept forever, principles and stimuli which he would never have found on his own; for everything, from the passionate diatribes about books down to the games the surrealists played, had the unconditional aim of maintaining the poetic climate.

From 1947 onwards, I myself was a member of the surrealist group ; my conversations with Breton and my contacts with other artists are my most valuable source of information.

To understand the surrealist artists one must be aware that they all believed that art was not an end in itself, but a method of creating an awareness of all that is most precious, most secret and most surprising in life. They wanted to be neither craftsmen nor aesthetes; they wanted only to be 'inspired ones' and gamblers. When I visited Francis Picabia in his Paris home in 1949, he showed me photograph albums which contained the memories of his past pleasures; he was prouder of these than of his paintings. As he once wrote: 'How little I care about my painting, if only the vital spirit, which is the art of celebrations, remains with me!' This sublime nonchalance cannot diminish the scope of a creative adventure which became a tragedy for so many: the surrealist revolt, despite its frequent use of humour, often reached the depths of despair. It is not difficult to conclude, it one opens one's mind to its works, that surrealism, the product of its century, transcends the limitations of dates and events; it is not so much a category of art as one of those living forces which imagination has always in reserve.





Joos de Momper
Giovanni Battista Braccelli
Rodolphe Bresdin

Augustin Lesage
Adolph Wolfli


Odilon Redon

Jean Ingres
Jupiter et Thetis

There are certain precursors whom the surrealists claimed as their own, and to whom they constantly paid homage in their periodicals and their exhibitions. Andre Breton said, in an interview towards the end of his life, 'Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe that it will survive me.' However, although the movement was based on the cult of the strange and the exaltation of the imaginary, we should avoid the common error of believing that all the masters of fantastic art, of mannerism and baroque, were its ancestors. Surrealism has no room for the fantastic when it is elaborated without inner need : it is not so much the description of the impossible as the evocation of the possible, supplemented by desire and dream. Thus, there are painters of strange universes who have no connection with it at all. For instance, Odilon Redon, in his charcoal drawings and etchings, created fantastic animalcules and nightmare landscapes with the avowed intention of putting 'the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible'; but the surrealists firmly refused to acknowledge any kinship with this artist, whom they considered insipid. Conversely, there are some works by classical painters which are undeniably surrealist in the ambiguity of their content or their execution. Ingres, for instance, in Jupiter and Thetis (1811, Aix-en-Provence, Musee Granet), produced the image of a regal couple which has all the enigmatic effulgence of the figures in the work of Paul Delvaux.

The surrealists assembled for their own use an 'ideal museum' made up of a small number of works which they admired. They did not wish to destroy existing libraries or art galleries, but merely to give them a thorough shaking-up, to sweep away hallowed glories, and to bring unappreciated geniuses into the full light. Surrealism is based on the belief that there are treasures hidden in the human mind. It was this that brought the surrealists to claim that in the cultural legacy of the past there remained undiscovered personalities and works which were to be preferred to the names and titles revered by official teaching.

If we consider only those forerunners of surrealism whom the surrealists themselves recognized as such, and whom they regarded as authorities, we find that they all fall into one or another of three groups : visionary art, primitive art and psycho-pathological art. It was this triple influence which gave birth to surrealism, which is in a sense a fusion of the principles behind each of these three forms of art.

Paolo Uccello was one of the great visionary artists, those who show objects not merely as they actually appear, but through the mind's eye. He was honoured by the surrealists for paintings like the Desecration of the Host (1465-7, Urbino, Galleria Nazionale). It was the lyricism of his conception that they consciously admired, and they were indifferent to the legend of 'Paolo the bird-lover', and to his mania for perspective. Uccello freed painting from the slavish imitation of nature by giving arbitrary colours to animals, houses and fields, and by arranging his figures as a function of a combination of converging lines. These means also allowed him to endow reality with a sense of irrationality.

Paolo Uccello
Miracle of the Desecrated Host


According to Vasari's account, another painter of the Italian Renaissance, Piero di Cosimo, would spend long periods in the contemplation of stains on a wall or clouds in the sky. In the stains or in the clouds he saw great processions, cities and magnificent landscapes, which he used as models. For a festival in Florence he organized a macabre masquerade which both terrified and delighted those who saw it. His powers of transfiguration enable him, in paintings like The Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths (London, National Gallery) and the Misfortunes of Silenus (Cambridge, Mass., Fogg Art Museum), to evoke the Dionysiac ecstasies of the Golden Age.

Piero di Cosimo
The Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths


Piero di Cosimo
The Misfortunes of Silenus
c. 1505-1510


The most important pre-surrealist visionary was Hieronymus Bosch, and it was on his example that the surrealists relied most. In The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain (Madrid, Prado) and the Temptation of St Antony (Lisbon, Museu Nacional), he parades an exhaustive repertoire of prodigies. There are wheeled dragons, fish with legs, hybrid demons, contortionists, living rocks, weird vegetables, birds larger than men, delirious processions and dizzy battles, people walking on their hands or vomiting frogs, rebel angels transformed into dragonilies. All these are part of the heritage of Gothic Art, but Bosch's meditative genius reinvents them and
offers an obsessive spectacle of the prodigality of nature, of humanity's feverish squandering of life, and of the universal triumph of unreason. There have been many attempts to explain the philosophical preoccupations which make
Bosch's painting, to an even greater degree than that of the elder Bruegel, something which remains a secret - in other words, by definition a surrealist form of painting.

Hieronymus Bosch
Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)
c. 1500


Hieronymus Bosch
Triptych of Haywain (detail)

Hieronymus Bosch
Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony (detail)


Albrecht Durer
The Sea Monster
c. 1498

Albrecht Altdorfer
The Battle of Alexander


There were more forerunners of surrealism among sixteenth-century German painters. Albrecht Durer's woodcuts and copper engravings gave episodes from the Apocalypse and various allegories the force of hypnagogic images. Albrecht Altdorfer, an architect at Regensburg in Bavaria, applied miniaturist techniques to his large painting The Victory of Alexander (1529, Munich, Alte Pinakothek), and by this method was able to make hundreds of warriors, lit by dawn in the heart of a mountain landscape, swarm over the canvas in a hallucinatory way. Matthias Grunewald, the greatest colourist of the German school, reached the heights of the fantastic in his Isenheim altarpiece, and did so through a very excess of realism. Hans Baldung Grien's frenzied imagination, shown in his linking of Pleasure and Death, and in his witches' sabbaths, compelled the intense attention of the surrealists.

Antoine Caron, the court painter of the Valois, whose job it was to commemorate the festivities of the court of Charles IX, has a place of honour in the surrealists' ideal museum. He painted two pictures of massacres, in particular the Massacre of the Triumvirs (1566, Paris, Musee du Louvre), in which the convulsions of the beheaded victims and the bloody rage of the soldiers contrast with the smiling calm of the statues and the harmony of the architecture to create a nightmare of cruelty. There is a strange quality, too, in other paintings by Caron, such as the Apotheosis of Semele and The Elephant Carousel, and also in his engravings for Le Livre de Philostrate, which had a great success during his lifetime.

Antoine Caron
An Allegory of the Triumph of Spring


Matthias Grunewald
Isenheim Altarpiece. The Temptation of St Antony
c. 1515

Hans Baldung Grien
Three Ages of the Woman and the Death



The 'double image' technique which some of the surrealists used to great effect was anticipated by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, official portrait painter to the Holy Roman Emperors, who lived at the Hapsburg court from 1560 to 1587. He was noted for his 'composite heads', in which he used assembled objects to make up allegories and portraits. He also painted Summer (1563, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), a figure composed of a pile of vegetables, fruit and flowers, and The Librarian, made up of a heap of books. Some of the minor Flemish masters, among them Joos de Momper, imitated Arcimboldo and painted anthropomorphic landscapes.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
The Librarian

Joos de Momper ( Flemish, 1564 -  1635)
Anthropomorphic Landscape

Joos de Momper
( Flemish, 1564 -  1635)
Anthropomorphic Landscape


Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624

 The figures who play instruments and dance in the fifty engravings in the series Bizarrie di varie Figure (1624), by the Florentine painter Giovanni Battista Braccelli, are made up of chains, drawers, springs and set-squares, rather like some of the drawings produced in the surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse.


Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624

Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624

Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624

Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624


Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Fussli), a Swiss-born painter who lived in England, liked to paint dreams in which a sleeping creature was surrounded by unreal figures; his most successful picture in this genre was The Nightmare (1782, Frankfurt, Goethe-Museum). His taste for tragic lighting effects and his fondness for fairy landscapes, where wyverns mingle with winged toads, redeem his over-literary inspiration : most of its subjects were drawn from Shakespeare. The poet-engraver William Blake was more openly a visionary. He had genuine hallucinations during which he saw into the future and conversed with angels and with the dead. In his visionary epics, illustrated with engravings, and in his illustrations to Dante, he expresses Chaos and the Forces of Good and Evil with frenetic brilliance.

Henry Fuseli
The Nightmare

William Blake
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman


Francisco de Goya
Thery Spruce Themselves Up

Goya's Proverbs are deeply surrealist, both in the spontaneity of line and in the originality of the subjects. He is surrealist, too, in other works where his merciless grip inflicts violent twists on reality, forcing it to bring forth monstrous truths. Charles Meryon, the romantic engraver, descends from Goya's line. From the time when he was first afflicted by the persecution mania which led to his detention in the Charenton asylum, his etchings of Paris were enlivened by disturbing apparitions in the sky. Typical of these is the aerial flotilla in his Ministry of the Marine (1865).

Rodolphe Bresdin, who lived an eccentric and miserable existence, made etchings containing extraordinary landscapes, with trees scaled like fish, contused jumbles of rocks, animals and skeletons, and glimpses of dreamlike buildings.

The great romantic poet Victor Hugo also made a contribution, through his drawings, to the development of free and imaginative art. Between 1848 and 1851, in the large studio he had set up in Paris, he did large drawings in which he used every kind of audacious technique to evoke castles on the Rhine and more or less sinister ruins. He used strange mixtures of ink and coffee, and made use of soot, carbon and sepia. Often he used a scraperboard technique. When he was in exile in Guernsey, he turned to chance methods, and created forms by folding a piece of paper on to which he had dropped an ink blot, or by placing a scrap of lace on a blot. On other occasions he chose to use crossed nibs which left blots and stains. A series of etchings made from his drawings, known as the Album Castel (1863), reveals his capacity for visual poetry.

Rodolphe Bresdin

(France, 1825-1885)

La Comédie de la Mort, 1854

Le Bon Samaritain, 1861

La Sainte Famille aux cerfs, 1871

Intérieur paysan à la chaste Suzanne, 1860


Arnold Bocklin, who was to be admired by both Chirico and Dali, was born in Basle, but lived for a long time in Italy, where he tried to discover the secret of the technique used in the mural paintings of Pompeii. While he was living in Florence, from 1872 to 1885, he painted the Island of the Dead (1880, Basle, Kunstmuseum), one of the masterworks of his style, which creates an atmosphere of muted unreality. Bocklin made a conscious effort to associate painting with poetry, both by attaching a great deal of importance to the content of the picture and by using shimmering colour.


Arnold Bocklin
The Isle of the Dead


Towards the end or the nineteenth century, some painters began to formulate demands which the surrealists later applauded. They admired Gauguin for his rebellion, and for his rejection of civilization for a wilder form of life; they admired Van Gogh, with whom Antonin Artaud identified himself in some impassioned pages; they admired Seurat, whose Neo-Impressionism they regarded as a 'pre-surrealism' which bathed everyday reality in a magic light; and they admired Charles Filiger, who was a painter of Gauguin's Pont-Aven group, living a hermit's life at Plougastel, whose plans for stained glass for an imaginary church have a spare, hieratic quality.

Paul Gauguin
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Georges Seurat
The Circus

Charles Filiger
Pouldu Landscape


This period was dominated by Gustaves Moreau, a master whom the surrealists rated second only to Hieronymus Bosch. A refined and learned teacher at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where his pupils included Rouault and Matisse, Moreau was a solitary whose contempt for modern life led him to shut himself up in his house in Montmartre (now his museum), and to spend his life evoking visions of Greece and the Orient. Moreau had a sense of visual splendour. Art, he said, should obey the principle of 'necessary richness' ; in other words, it should represent everything that is most sumptuous in the world. His watercolours, more so than his enormous paintings, blaze with enamels, jewels and embroideries, giving to Sirens, Chimaeras and other fabulous characters the luxurious brilliance of nostalgic visions.

Henri (le Douanier) Rousseau, too, was a notable forerunner of the surrealists, particularly in his exotic paintings, which always prompt the question as to whether he did them from imagination or from memory. In the Dialogue creole between Andre Breton and Andre Masson, the former remarks : 'A good question for an advanced examinationfor art critics (don't you think that they ought to be made to take examinations?) would be : "Does the painting of Rousseau prove that he knew the tropics or that he did not? ".'

Finally, very close to their own beginnings, surrealists in search of precedents came across the Norwegian Edvard Munch, who, although claiming to be an expressionist, goes far beyond expressionism in his paintings, where he gives mystical expression to love, to solitude and to primitive tears : such paintings as The Dance of Life (i899-1900, Oslo, Nasjonalgalleriet). They found also Alfred Kubin, who, at the time he published his novel Jenseits (1909), was painting virgin forests inhabited by extinct animals, and who set down his night dreams in pen drawings the moment he woke.

Gustaves Moreau
Hercules and the Hydra

Henri Rousseau
Unpleasant Surprise

Alfred Kubin
Every Night a Dream Visits Us


One thing which the majority of these visionary artists had in common was that they could develop their faculties only by starting from subjects from Graeco-Roman mythology, from the Bible or from daily life. What distinguishes them from the surrealists is that the latter wanted to invent their own mythology, or to draw it from sources which had hitherto remained untapped.

They sought this new stimulation from primitive art. They developed to the highest degree the interest that it is possible to feel in the creations of distant peoples. They were able to do this because they immediately made it a matter of love and not of mere curiosity. The cubists had wanted to make use of the plastic solution which was offered by African masks (Artistic Cultures of sub-Saharan Africa); the surrealists, on the other hand, tried to establish communication with the mind that had imposed the form of the mask. The first twentieth-century amateurs of what were called 'barbaric fetishes' were as willing to collect rubbishy tourist souvenirs as authentic pieces. In 1905 Vlaminck and Derain were wholly undiscriminating in the purchase of objects which sailors had brought back from Africa. The surrealists made their choices as genuine connoisseurs; some of them, indeed, were specialists in ethnography. In 1939, the surrealist Wolfgang Paalen visited British Columbia and Alaska, where he discovered some ancient witchdoctors' tombs. After an expedition to a little-known area of the state of Veracruz in Mexico, he published a treatise on Olmec art. The finest pieces shown at the exhibition of North American Indian art in the Museo Nacional in Mexico City in 1945 came from his collection. Although the surrealist painters were not all as expert as Paalen, they were on the whole well-informed amateurs of primitive art.


Melanesian art
Mask of a Kararau clan

Pueblo (Hopi) art
Katchina doll


They did, however, have a distinct preference for the art of Oceania as opposed to the art of Africa. This is not to suggest that they undervalued or systematically rejected the resources of Africa; this can be seen from Michel Leiris' fine work on the secret language of the Dogon ot West Africa and on the possession rites of the Gondar of Ethiopia. The fact is that surrealism merely accepted the principle that African art, because it was based on criteria of realism, was less capable of regenerating the plastic arts in the West than was Oceanic art, which was based on a poetic interpretation of the world. 'Oceania .. . what power that word will enjoy in the surrealist movement. It will be one of the lock-keepers who will open the floodgates of our hearts', Andre Breton acknowledged. The fascination with Oceanic art derived from a nostalgia for a 'lost world' : its signs suggested the possibility of a life of paradise. But it was a result, too, of the profusion and variety of its styles, with new revelations coming from every island. Tortoiseshell masks from the Torres Strait, basketwork masks from Sulka in New Britain, tree-fern sculptures from the New Hebrides, mother-of-pearl inlays from the Solomon Islands, monumental drums from Ambrym, Easter Island megaliths; in all these, an exuberance of imagination gives vitality to the decoration. What the surrealists loved in this art was the fact that conceptual representation was more important than perceptual. In the bark paintings from Arnhem Land in Australia, totemic animals and mythical figures, depicted with their entrails visible, show the need to paint what is known, what is believed, while making use of what is seen.

The time which many of the surrealists spent in America gave them the opportunity of discovering American Indian art, which moved them to the same enthusiasm as the art of Oceania. The traces of pre-Columbian civilizations, too, evoked a 'lost world', and they too were probed to give forth their meaning. Max Ernst and Andre Breton, particularly, were captivated by the myths and drawings of the North American tribes; for example by the Hopi of north-east Arizona, with the wall paintings in their kivas, underground temples, their initiation rituals which culminated in the 'night of mystery and terror', their cult of cloud-ancestors, and their supernatural guardians the Katchina, who were represented by dolls or by masked dancers.

Finally, 'psycho-pathological' art is a field of study which the surrealists were the first to turn to profit. Here there was an inexhaustible reservoir of authentic works, motivated neither by a desire to please, nor by material interest, nor by artistic ambition, but by the irrepressible need to pour out a message from the depths of the being. This category includes the paintings of mediums and the paintings of the mentally sick. The medium who was most admired was Helene Smith, the subject of Theodore Flournoy's book Des Indes a la planete Mars (1900). When she was in trance, Helene Smith described her adventures on Mars, spoke Martian, and drew and painted the plants, landscapes and houses which she had seen there. In 1912 a miner from the Pas-de-Calais, Augustin Lesage, in obedience to an inner voice, began to produce enormous decorative panels, which, despite the fact that he was an uneducated man, included examples of various Oriental styles; he believed himself to be in contact with spirits (including that of Leonardo da Vinci), who guided him in his choice of patterns and colours.

Augustin Lesage

(French, 1876-1954)

Composition symbolique, 1928

Symboles des pyramides, 1928


Signed, 1927


But the surrealists attached more importance to the evidence of the mentally deranged, who proved that the least cultured being possessed genius, once it abandoned itself to the promptings of the unconscious mind. Of all the mental patients they adopted, the one they appreciated the most was Adolph Wolfli. Wolfli's mother was a washerwoman and his father a mason. He himself worked as a labourer, and after a conviction for indecency took to drink and fell prey to schizophrenia. From the time of his hospitalization in 1895, when he was thirty-one, until his death in 1930 he painted tirelessly. At first he painted scenes of self-punishment, where he showed himself undergoing tortures, then he moved to scenes of grandeur in which he saw himself as a masked superman surrounded by winged goddesses and emblematic animals. His horror of blank space led him to overload his surfaces, filling his images with decorations and musical compositions. The rending violence of such masterpieces of psycho-pathological art strip naked the instinct which drives man to deform reality.

But, left to themselves, these precursors, illustrious or obscure, would not have been enough to impose a new scale of values. The realization that the lessons which they offered could be of value to modern art had to wait for the appearance of the surrealists, a group of creators who sought allies from the past to support their bid for the recognition of the absolute rights of the dream.

Adolph Wolfli

(Swiss, 1864-1930)

Drawing with Writing


General View of the Island Neveranger, 1911





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