Surrealism was a movement which began in the 1920s of writers and artists (including Salvador Dalí and René Magritte), who experimented with ways of unleashing the subconscious imagination

What are the key points?

René Magritte, 'The Future of Statues' 1937
René Magritte The Future of Statues 1937 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
Joan Miro, 'Women and Bird in the Moonlight' 1949
Joan Miró Women and Bird in the Moonlight 1949 © Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • French poet André Breton launched this movement in Paris in 1924
  • It became an international movement including British surrealism which formed in 1936
  • They were strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) and his theories about the unconscious
  • The aim of surrealism was to reveal the unconscious and reconcile it with rational life
  • Key artists involved in the movement were Salvador DalíMax ErnstRené Magritte and Joan Miró
  • Two broad types of surrealism can be seen: the oneiric (dream-like imagery) and automatism (a process of making which unleashed the unconscious by drawing or writing without conscious thought)
  • Some (such as Max Ernst) used new techniques such as frottage and collage to create unusual imagery

 Watch former art student and Doctor Who actor Peter Capaldi explain surrealism in five minutes:

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  • René Magritte, 'The Reckless Sleeper' 1928
    René Magritte
    The Reckless Sleeper 1928
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1160 x 810 x 20 mm
    frame:1380 x 1027 x 100 mm
    Purchased 1969© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Salvador Dalí, 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' 1937
    Salvador Dalí
    Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937
    Oil on canvas
    support: 511 x 781 mm
    frame: 820 x 1092 x 85 mm
    Purchased 1979© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002
  • Max Ernst, 'Celebes' 1921
    Max Ernst
    Celebes 1921
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1254 x 1079 mm
    frame: 1397 x 1210 x 102 mm
    Purchased 1975© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Claude Cahun, 'I Extend My Arms' 1931 or 1932
    Claude Cahun
    I Extend My Arms 1931 or 1932
    Black and white photograph on paper
    210 x 156 mm
    Purchased 2007© The estate of Claude Cahun
  • Paul Nash, 'Flight of the Magnolia' 1944
    Paul Nash
    Flight of the Magnolia 1944
    Oil on canvas
    support: 511 x 762 x 22 mm
    frame: 687 x 942 x 85 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund and a group of donors 1999© Tate
  • Man Ray, 'Indestructible Object' 1923, remade 1933, editioned replica 1965
    Man Ray
    Indestructible Object 1923, remade 1933, editioned replica 1965
    Wooden metronome and photograph
    unconfirmed: 215 x 110 x 115 mm
    Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 2000© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Dorothea Tanning, 'Some Roses and Their Phantoms' 1952
    Dorothea Tanning
    Some Roses and Their Phantoms 1952
    Oil on canvas
    support: 763 x 1015 x 23 mm
    frame: 973 x 1225 x 82 mm
    Presented by the Tate Collectors Forum 2003© DACS, 2002
  • Ithell Colquhoun, 'Scylla' 1938
    Ithell Colquhoun
    Scylla 1938
  • Giorgio de Chirico, 'The Painter's Family' 1926
    Giorgio de Chirico
    The Painter's Family 1926
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1464 x 1149 mm
    frame: 1630 x 1320 x 80 mm
    Purchased 1951© DACS, 2002
  • Jean Arp (Hans Arp), 'Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest' 1932, cast circa 1953-8
    Jean Arp (Hans Arp)
    Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest 1932, cast circa 1953-8
    object: 90 x 222 x 154 mm
    object: 60 x 120 x 100 mm
    object: 65 x 55 x 93 mm
    Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1986© DACS, 2002
  • Paul Delvaux, 'Sleeping Venus' 1944
    Paul Delvaux
    Sleeping Venus 1944
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1727 x 1991 mm
    frame: 1770 x 2032 x 55 mm
    Presented by Baron Urvater 1957© Foundation P Delvaux - St Idesbald, Belgium/DACS, London 2002
  • Edward Wadsworth, 'The Beached Margin' 1937
    Edward Wadsworth
    The Beached Margin 1937
    Tempera on linen laid on wood
    support: 711 x 1016 mm
    Purchased 1938© Tate
  • Leonora Carrington, 'Do You Know My Aunt Eliza?' 1941
    Leonora Carrington
    Do You Know My Aunt Eliza? 1941
    Pen and ink on off-white wove paper
    support: 270 x 207 mm
    Purchased 2004© The estate of the artist, DACS, 2006

Who are the main artists?

Salvador Dalì (b. 1904 – d. 1989)

Dalì was a Spanish surrealist who painted dream-like scenes in a realistic style. He often repeated symbols in his work including melting clocks (passing of time), ants (death, decay) and eggs (hope, rebirth). He didn’t just paint, he also worked in film, sculpture and photography.

Salvador Dali, 'Lobster Telephone' 1936
Salvador Dalí
Lobster Telephone 1936
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002

Famous works

  • Lobster Telephone 1936 (a surrealist object which symbolises sex. Surrealists liked to remove objects from its expected context and create new meanings)
  • Un Chien Andalou 1929 (a film made with fellow surrealist Luis Buñuel that features the infamous image of an eye being cut by a razor)
  • Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 (a double image painting showing Dalì’s interest in illusions)

See Dalí’s work come to life in this film about Dalí’s collaboration with Disney.

Joan Miró (b. 1893 – d. 1983)

Joan Miró was a Spanish painter, who created imagery using automatic techniques. His style was child-like, simplifying familar things (such as animals, stars, body parts) into geometric shapes and abstract biomorphic forms. He used a limited colour palette which usually consisted of bold, primary colours.

Joan Miró, 'A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem)' 1938
Joan Miró
A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem) 1938
© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Famous works

Watch two of the curators of the 2011 Tate Modern exhibition Miró, Matthew Gale and Marko Daniel, select three of Miró’s artworks to explore up close.


Paul Nash (b.1889 – d.1946)

Paul Nash was a British surrealist and war artist who was most well-known for his landscape paintings. From 1928, he became particularly influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico because of his use of unexpected objects within mysterious landscapes.

Paul Nash, 'Landscape from a Dream' 1936-8
Paul Nash
Landscape from a Dream 1936–8
© Tate

Famous works 

  • Landscape from a Dream 1936–8 (a symbolic painting set firmly within the setting of a British landscape)
  • Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940–1 (this war-torn surrealist work was a response to seeing a wrecked aircraft at Cowley in Oxfordshire)
  • Flight of the Magnolia 1944 (one of his late works which is very dream-like, depicting a magnolia blossom in flight) 

In this short film, journalist Simon Grant explores the hidden emotion and love story behind Totes Meer.


Paul Nash 
26 October 2016 – 5 March 2017
This Tate Modern exhibition presents his major works from his early symbolist manner, through to the iconic works of the First World War, as well as his landscapes of the interwar period. 

How did surrealism progress?

Around the globe

Political upheveal from World War Two spread surrealists around the globe (notably in Belgium, Britain and the former Czechoslavakia). They widely influencing art, literature and the cinema as well as social attitudes and behaviour. The British Surrealist group formed in 1936 with artist Paul Nash and critic Herbet Read among its founding members. Soon after forming, they organised the First International Surrealist Exhibition in London which attracted huge public attention.

Other British Surrealist artists in the group included Eileen AgarJohn ArmstrongJohn BantingIthell ColquhounConroy MaddoxE.L.T. MesensJulian Trevelyan. In 1947 the British group merged with the French one.

Watch a short film about Leonora Carrington, a British artist who became central in the surrealist circles of France and New York. Featuring rare archive footage, this film follows Carrington’s cousin and journalist, Joanna Moorhead, exploring the artist’s story. 

Artist Wifredo Lam was closely associated with Pablo Picasso and members of the surrealist movement like André Breton. His work poetically addresses themes of social injustice, nature and spirituality.

Watch this short film in which the artist’s son recounts his father’s story and shares his memories.

Some surrealists migrated to America during World War Two. By the 1940s, the surrealist idea of revealing the unconscious greatly influenced a new movement, the abstract expressionists. They achieved the unconscious through abstraction using new techniques (rooted in automatism) rather than dream-like imagery.  

In popular culture

Despite not directly referencing popular culture, surrealism has had a great amount of influence on literature, design and cinema. The interviews, films and articles below explore its impact.

In this short film, album graphic designer Storm Thorgerson discusses his love of Rene Magritte and the artist’s influence on his work.

I think I took away from Magritte a love of oddity or oddness.
Storm Thorgerson 

The great collaborator
Read an interview with José Montes Baquer on his first impressions of Dalí when making a film with him in 1976.

Uncle Walt and Salvador
Roy Disney discusses Walt Disney and Dali’s working relationship and how they were both surrealists, fascinated with the theme of transformation.

The first pop star of painting
Artist Vincent Pécoil explores Dali’s profound influence on popular culture, from Vogue magazine cover and Chupa Chups sweet wrapper designs to his fascination with the world of cinema.

Lights, camera, … metamorphisis
British film scholar Ian Christie, discusses Dali’s lifelong obsession with film, including Un Chien Andalou 1929 and his dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound 1945.

What do the experts say?

These articles and conference recordings take an in depth look at surrealism.

Surrealism and film study day recordings
Watch specialists from the art and film worlds discuss Dali’s work in relation to the wider links between surrealism and film, in these video recordings of the 2007 Tate study day.

Becoming Machine: Surrealist Automatism and Some Contemporary Instances
This research article by David Lomas examines the history of automatism from the late nineteenth century to the present day, exploring the intersections between physiology, psychology, poetry and art.

Tate’s painting conservation studio examines Salvador Dalí’s Forgotten Horizon 1936
Get a closer look at Dalí’s Forgotten Horizon as the conservation team take us through infra red light and mircroscope analysis as a starting point for conserving paintings.

How can surrealism be explained to kids?

These blog posts, games and activites are a fun and simple way to introduce surrealism to kids, whether in the classroom or at home.

Joan Miró, 'Painting' 1927
Joan Miró
Painting 1927
© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

What is surrealism?
…and what has a lobster got to do with a telephone? This Tate Kids blog post answers these important questions and provides some surreal suggestions for artworks to create.

Who is Salvador Dali?
This homework help provides a quick insight into surrealism’s leading (and most eccentric) man.

Surreal Story
Get them creating surreal characters and writing quirky stories with this ‘how to’ consequences game.

Digital Kit: Re-Imagining Landscapes
Inspire kids to turn Tate artworks into their own digital surreal world with this step by step Photoshop (or Paint) activity. 

Related glossary terms

British surrealism, automatism, the uncanny, exquisite corpse, improvisation