As a cultural and artistic movement, surrealism encompassed a variety of mediums, from painting and photography to writing, filmmaking, and theater. It had its roots in the dada art movement, which sought in part to reject the logic and reason of capitalist society in favor of nonsense and irrationality.
Surrealist artists, often influenced by dreams, sought to reveal the strangeness they saw flowing beneath everyday life. The movement’s leader, French writer André Breton, stated that the primary aim of surrealism was “to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.”
The surrealists had their detractors, of course, like any movement. Frida Kahlo, whose work has often been associated with the surrealist movement despite her objections, called the surrealists a “bunch of coocoo lunatics.” They were, it is true, an eccentric group, especially colorful figures such as Salvador Dalí. But the movement had — and continues to have — a massive impact on the visual arts, literature, film, and music.
The following quotes from some of the most famous surrealists help shed light on what the movement was all about, and why these artists sought to upend reality and present dreams and visions as a fundamental part of our lived experience.
The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.
— André Breton
André Breton was the co-founder and leader of the surrealist movement. The Frenchman was a writer and poet primarily, best known for books such as Nadja and L'Amour fou. He also wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto, in which he defined surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state.”
Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.
— Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí is the most famous of all the Surrealists, both for his bizarre but beautiful paintings and his larger-than-life character. His 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory” — with its sparse landscape and melting clocks — is one of the most recognizable works of the movement.
If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.
— René Magritte
René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist who also influenced pop art and minimalist art. Like other surrealist artists, he had a fondness for painting ordinary objects in an unusual context — he also had a peculiar obsession for painting men in bowler hats.
It’s the artists who do the dreaming for society.
— Méret Oppenheim
Méret Oppenheim rose to fame in 1936 with an exhibition of everyday objects arranged in surrealist fashion. Her most famous piece, “Object,” which resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, consists of a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with fur from a Chinese gazelle. Like much of her work, it examines themes of female sexuality and femininity.
The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later.
— Joan Miró
Joan Miró once famously declared he wanted to “assassinate” painting, an idea reflected in his subversive and radically new artistic forms. He combined abstract art with surrealist fantasy, in both his paintings and the numerous murals and sculptures he created for public spaces.
We do not wish to copy nature. We do not want to reproduce, we want to produce. We want to produce as a plant produces a fruit and does not itself reproduce.
— Jean Arp
Jean Arp was a transitional artist. He was one of the founders of dada before becoming an active participant in surrealism, which he later broke with to found the Abstraction-Création movement in Paris. He was a pioneer of randomness in art, and is best known for his biomorphic sculptures.
Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation.
— Max Ernst
Like Jean Arp, with whom he had a 50-year friendship, German painter Max Ernst was a pioneer in both the dada and surrealist movements. His traumatic experiences as a soldier in World War I made him see the modern world as irrational, something reflected in his paintings, sculptures and poems.
We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. Everything is transfixed, only the light moves.
— Leonora Carrington
Artist and writer Leonora Carrington was born in England but lived most of her life in Mexico City. Her surrealist paintings and novels often included elements of magical realism, with a strong focus on female sexuality and the role of women in the creative process.
I do not photograph nature. I photograph my visions.
— Man Ray
Man Ray was an American visual artist associated with both the dada and surrealist movements. While he saw himself primarily as a painter, he is more famous for his experimental photography, in which he used “camera-less” techniques (the use of photograms, which he called rayographs). The goal, as he put it, was to “make my photography automatic — to use my camera as I would a typewriter.”
Photo credit: Alpha Historica/ Alamy Stock Photo