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In a revolution against a society ruled by rational thought, the Surrealists tapped into the “superior reality” of the subconscious.

Tapping the Subconscious: Automatism and Dreams

Discover how Surrealist artists tapped the creative potential of the subconscious mind.

Surrealist Objects and Assemblage

Discover how everyday objects, arranged unexpectedly, became triggers for unlocking the subconscious mind.

Surrealism and the Body

See how the Surrealists explored the human form and hidden desires.

Surrealist Landscapes

Discover how Surrealists explored the terrain of the subconscious mind in landscape paintings.

Many Surrealists produced objects and images with an insistently erotic dimension. This was driven, in part, by their interests in Freudian psychology and so-called “primitive” non-Western art, which they presumed to be untainted by modernist rationalism. Though these explorations of the human figure had a long tradition in the history of art, Surrealists went further, breaking taboos and shocking viewers in their depiction of mutilated, dismembered, or distorted bodies. In the 1930s, such visions may have had particular resonance given the still-pervasive sight of World War I veterans—many left limbless or using prosthetics—and the specter of a second World War on the horizon.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

Questions & Activities

  1. Shake-N-Make a Creature

    Create your own creature using the laws of chance. Gather a variety of images of living things (humans, plants, and animals) from magazines or newspapers.

    Cut out arms, legs, heads, eyes, tails, wings, and other body parts. Put them inside a bag and shake them up. Without looking into the bag, pull out body parts until you’ve assembled a life-like figure. Paste your composite being to a piece of paper.

    Give your creature a name. Is it more humanoid, or more plant- or animal-like?