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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.

Influenced by the writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud, the literary, intellectual, and artistic movement called Surrealism sought a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind; and by extension, the rules of a society they saw as oppressive. Freud and other psychoanalysts used a variety of techniques to bring to the surface the subconscious thoughts of their patients. The Surrealists borrowed many of the same techniques to stimulate their writing and art, with the belief that the creativity that came from deep within a person’s subconscious could be more powerful and authentic than any product of conscious thought.

In psychology, “automatism” refers to involuntary actions and processes not under the control of the conscious mind—for example, dreaming, breathing, or a nervous tic. Automatism plays a role in Surrealists techniques such as spontaneous or automatic writing, painting, and drawing; free association of images and words; and collaborative creation though games like Exquisite Corpse. Surrealists were also deeply interested in interpreting dreams as conduits for unspoken feelings and desires. The works explored here did not begin with preconceived notions of a finished product; rather, they were provoked by dreams, or emerged from subconscious associations between images, text, and their meanings.

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

Paints composed of pigments ground to an extremely fine texture in an aqueous solution of gum Arabic or gum tragacanth. The absence of white fillers, such as those in gouache, creates a medium with luminous transparency.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

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.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

A technique that involves rubbing pencil, graphite, chalk, crayon, or another medium onto a sheet of paper that has been placed on top of a textured object or surface. The process causes the raised portions of the surface below to be translated to the sheet. The term is derived from the French frotter, which means “to rub.”

A game in which each participant takes turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper, folds it to conceal his or her contribution, then passes it to the next player for a further contribution. The game gained popularity in artistic circles during the 1920s, when it was adopted as a technique by artists of the Surrealist movement.

Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed to a supporting surface.

Strategies of writing or creating art that aimed to access the unconscious mind. The Surrealists, in particular, experimented with automatist techniques of writing, drawing, and painting.

Questions & Activities

  1. Free Associate

    Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts used a variety of techniques to discover the subconscious thoughts of their patients. The Surrealists used many of the same techniques to stimulate their writing and art. One of the best-known techniques is called “free association.”

    You will need a partner for this activity. Copy five of the following words onto a sheet of paper and read them to your partner one at a time. After you read each word, instruct your partner to respond immediately with the first word that comes to mind. Jot down their responses next to each word on the paper, then switch! Are any of these associations surprising?

    Feel free to come up with a new list of words for additional rounds.

    Round 1:
    Pine tree

    Round 2:

  2. Play Exquisite Corpse

    These instructions for playing Exquisite Corpse were originally published in a 1927 issue of the Surrealist journal La revolution Surrealiste. Play a round with your family or friends (ideally in groups of four). The instructions can be adapted to make drawings, collages, and poems.

    1. A piece of paper is folded into the same number of sections as there are participants.
    2. The paper is unfolded and given to the first player, who draws in the first space, spontaneously, leaving slight traces of lines extending into the next section. The player then folds the paper over to hide what he or she drew.
    3. Each player continues the drawings in their successive section, taking cues from the bits of lines that their predecessor left visible.
    4. When the last player has finished, the sheet is opened to reveal the full drawings.

    What was it like to draw or write without seeing the other sections? Are you pleased with the results? How do you think your drawings or poems would have differed if you’d had a chance to view the previous contributions?

    Share your work with others.

  3. Make and Inkblot Drawing

    In the days before ballpoint pens, people wrote using metal-tipped nib pens and bottles of ink. Sometimes the metal tips would leak, causing a messy inkblot. Psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud noticed that people would see pictures in these inkblot patterns; Freud became interested in them as tools for delving into his patients’ subconscious.

    Make your own “inkblot” using ink, paint, watercolor—even black coffee or dark tea, if those are more readily available. Drop a bit of your chosen stain in the middle of a sheet of paper. Fold the paper in the center, pressing the two halves together. Repeat this process enough times to create five to 10 inkblot drawings.

    Write down the images evoked by the inkblots. If you have friends or family nearby, show your inkblot drawings to them and ask what they see. How are your answers similar? How are they different? Are you surprised by the different associations people have for the same inkblots?

  4. Make a Frottage

    Max Ernst used frottage—rubbing atop materials as diverse as string, mesh, even crusty bread—as a way tapping into his subconscious. Find a sheet of paper and place it on a variety of textured surfaces. Rub the paper with a soft pencil or crayon.

    What associations with people, symbols, objects, or things from nature do the resulting textures conjure for you? Elaborate on your associations by outlining certain sections, adding new features and colors to the rubbings.

    When your picture is complete, share your work with others.