Art of the 20th Century

A Revolution in the Arts

Art Styles in 20th century Art Map

The Great Avant-garde Movements







Surrealism  (The Dream of Revolution)









see also:

Surrealism - 1924

EXPLORATION: Surrealist Art

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

Rene Magritte "Thought rendered visible"

Salvador Dali



Postscript: Legacies



The legacy of Surrealism is massive and complex: It includes writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, found objects, performances, art, film, graphics, and graffiti. It developed ideas that influenced later movements as varied as Abstract Expressionism, Art Brut, Performance, Neo-Dada, Pop, and Conceptual art. The thinking of modern philosophers, from Walter Benjamin to Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida, as well as psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, all came under the Surrealist spell.

Marcel Duchamp—who by 1920 had turned to machines and motion—coined the word most associated with the work of the American engineer-turned-artist, Alexander Calder. Duchamp christened the first 1932 exhibition of hand and motor driven abstract pieces "mobiles." The balanced forms were eventually engineered to move by the chance occurrence of wind, their biomorphic pieces derived from the basic pictorial vocabulary of artists such as Miro and Arp. Whether in small or large form, the shapes revealed a primordial level, marshaled into a suggested narrative—whether a lobster trap and fish, a child's toy, or some equally real monster of the unconscious mind. The gentle curves of Claes Oldenburg's soft Pop art sculptures from the 1960s and '70s evolved from a similar aesthetic in combination with Dadaist ideas.

One of the most important legacies of the Surrealist aesthetic was the abstract biomorph. As Dali well knew, it could evoke nature and fear simultaneously. And in the right minds and hands it could do far more. The English sculptor Henry Moore combined Surrealist ideas and abstraction with his love of the figure and pre-Columbian art in a lifelong development. His organic abstract figures of women and children are meant to resonate with an earthiness that is both physical and psychological.

The French-born sculptor Louise Bourgeois was exposed to Surrealist theory early in her career. First attracted to abstract totemic shapes, similar in inspiration to those of Louise Nevelson, Bourgeois always incorporated an air of psychological disturbance in her work. Still master of the biomorphic form into the 1980s, she turned more consistently in the 1990s to explorations of the psyche through powerfully evocative installations. Her 1994 Red Room (The Parents) continues the poignant rememberances of psychological states and primal moments. She lays open the privacy of the psyche by reminding us of the psychological resonance we share through everyday materials, scenes, and moments. Ironically, she seems to provide a far more concrete formation of the dream than the Surrealists could manage largely by what is suggested rather than objectified.

Kenny Scharf, tagged as a member of the New York East Village punk-rock scene of the 1980s along with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned the Surrealist biomorph into "fun art." It is also a synthesis of sophisticated art world theory and comic-book culture appropriation that, since the 1960s, has reached into popular culture to challenge a number of assumptions about the nature and experience of art.

The initial legacy of the Surrealists in the United States, however, came during their expatriated status during World War II, where they published articles, exhibited, and provided ideas. At the time when the Abstract Expressionists were searching for new ways to express their passions, Surrealist concerns for primitive mythology derived from the unconscious pointed the way for painters such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and others. Pollock's all-over compositions after 1947 are unthinkable without the Surrealist impetus behind automatism. Interestingly, Allan Kaprow, the founder of the spontaneous art events known as "Happenings," cited his shaping influence as the automatic and liberating gestures of Pollock. Breton called Gorky's 1944 The Liver is the Cock's Comb "marvelously unpremeditated" and "the great gateway open on to the analogical world."

Simultaneously in Europe—the 1940s and '50s— Surrealism provided England's Francis Bacon with the basis for one of the most disturbing uses of biomorphic imagery. His Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, exhibited in the painter's first exhibition in over a decade in 1945, gave full voice to human horror and repression. The same impulse developed in another direction drove the influential theories of Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut or "raw art." His love, and famous collection, of the art of untrained individuals, his repudiation of cultural values, and his reliance on the unconscious and the primitive derived in part from his friendships among the Surrealists. Dubuffet developed a handling of materials that paralleled World War II's destruction in Europe.

Yet another generation in America owed a less direct debt to the Surrealists. Robert Rauschenberg, who, with his colleague Jasper Johns, was seen in opposition to Abstract Expressionism and most associated with a new Dadaism, had been influenced directly by the tradition of the Surrealist object. Breton recognized the challenge they posed and asked both artists to exhibit with the Surrealists.

Building on these new and old traditions, the 1960s "junk" and "assemblage" artists reached back via Surrealism to the found object of Duchamp and Picasso. On occasion, with artists like Lee Bontecou, one also finds the echo of their powerful psychological concerns. In a series of untitled assemblages in the 1960s Bontecou turned the Freudian tables with an obsessive image of a face-vagina transposition, whose frightening zipper teeth held out the countervailing promise and independence of the feminist movement.


Claes Oldenburg


Henry Moore
Reclining Figure


Louise Bourgeois
Red Room (The Parents)


Louise Nevelson
Sky Cathedral


Kenny Scharf
Fun's Inside


Keith Haring


Jean-Michel Basquiat


Mark Rothko
Organge and Yellow



Barnett Newman


Jackson Pollock


Arshile Gorky
The Liver is the Cock's Comb

Gorky was considered the bridge between the expatriated Surrealists in
the United States and the emerging American Abstract Expressionists.
Praised by Breton for his vision, history has judged him more
Surrealist than Abstract Expressionist.


Allan Kaprow


Francis Bacon
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Bacon, an English painter, was one of the few older European artists admired
 by the emerging postwar generation because he seemed to register the
horror of the war in a fundamental form of terror.
The biomorph is Surrealist, the psyche his own.


Jean Dubuffet
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Robert Rauschenberg


Jasper Johns
Zero Nine


Lee Bontecou


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