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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 Surrealist artists, especially in the 1930s, began arranging objects in combinations that challenged reason and summoned subconscious and poetic associations. The most easily obtained materials were found objects, or items cheaply purchased at flea markets. The mundane, mostly mass-produced objects found new resonances when arranged in unprecedented and provocative configurations. Surrealist leader André Breton believed that this new form of sculpture, called assemblage, had the power to puncture the thin veneer of reality, and tap into the subconscious mind. As Breton proclaimed: “To aid the systematic derangement of all the senses….it is my opinion that we must not hesitate to bewilder sensation…”1

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

André Breton, “Surrealist Situation of the Object” in Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 263

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

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.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.

An object—often utilitarian, manufactured, or naturally occurring—that was not originally designed for an artistic purpose, but has been repurposed in an artistic context.

The shape or structure of an object.

A three-dimensional work of art made from combinations of materials including found objects or non-traditional art materials.

Questions & Activities

  1. Make a Shadow Box Assemblage

    Look at the Joseph Cornell box assemblages from MoMA’s collection. How would you characterize the kinds of objects he used to create his shadowboxes? Everyday? Unusual? Personal?

    Find a shoe box or other container that will serve as the support for your shadowbox assemblage. Gather a variety of objects—they may be items with great personal meaning or other items you found or collected. Assemble them in a variety of ways to come up with a composition you like. If you choose, embellish your box with paint, collage, or decorations.

    Do the individual objects take on new meanings in this new arrangement? Taken as a whole, what story does your shadowbox tell? Give your assemblage a title and write a brief (50–100 words) label about your work. You may want to explain the meanings of particular elements and discuss why you chose your title, etc.