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

Introduction to the surrealist movement

‘As Breton says, surrealism is not just an art movement. It is a way of thinking, a way of transforming existence.’ Watch former art student and Doctor Who actor Peter Capaldi explain surrealism in five minutes.

Surrealism was launched in Paris in 1924 by French poet André Breton with the publication of his Manifesto of Surrealism.

Breton was strongly influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud identified a deep layer of the human mind where memories and our most basic instincts are stored. He called this the unconscious, since most of the time we are not aware of it. The aim of surrealism was to reveal the unconscious and reconcile it with rational life. Surrealism also aimed at social and political revolution and for a time was affiliated to the Communist party.

Surrealism became an international movement, widely influencing art, literature and the cinema as well as social attitudes and behaviour. Surrealist groups formed around the globe including, in 1936, the British Surrealist group with artist Paul Nash and critic Herbet Read among its founding members.

Types of surrealism

There was no single style of surrealist art but two broad types can be seen.

René Magritte, 'The Future of Statues' 1937

Rene Magritte
The Future of Statues 1937

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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Joan Miró, 'Women and Bird in the Moonlight' 1949

Joan Miro
Women and Bird in the Moonlight 1949

© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • One was the oneiric (dream-like) work of Salvador Dalí, early Max Ernst, and René Magritte. (Freud believed that dreams revealed the workings of the unconscious, and his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams was central to surrealism).
  • The other was the automatism of later Max Ernst and Joan Miró. Automatism was the surrealist term for Freud’s technique of free association, which he also used to reveal the unconscious mind of his patients.

Surrealism in Tate’s collection

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  • Salvador Dalí, 'Lobster Telephone' 1936

    Salvador Dal
    Lobster Telephone 1936
    Plastic, painted plaster and mixed media
    object: 178 x 330 x 178 mm
    Purchased 1981 Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002

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  • Salvador Dalí, 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' 1937

    Salvador Dal
    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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • Dorothea Tanning, 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' 1943

    Dorothea Tanning
    Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943
    Oil on canvas
    support: 407 x 610 mm frame: 640 x 833 x 85 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1997 DACS, 2002

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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Further reading

Surrealism: Desire Unbound
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Modern in 2002, charted the varied paths of surrealist desire, ranging from the sublime to the transgressive. Read the room guide and see which works were on display.

Surrealist artists in focus

Joan Miró

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.

René Magritte

One-Night Museum
Blog by Darren Pih, co-curator of René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle, about Magritte’s iconic painting.

The Menaced Assassin
Curator Darren Pih tells us why The Menaced Assassin is one of his favourite Magritte paintings.

Surrealism in context

Curator Chris Stephens discusses what else was happening in the art world when surrealism was an established movement.

Other perspectives

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

Desmond Morris on Joan Miró
‘He was polite and reserved, the exact opposite to his paintings’. Zoologist and TV presenter Desmond Morris talks about meeting Miró…and his fascination for Congo the painting chimpanzee.

Surrealism and popular culture

Although not directly referencing popular culture, surrealism has had a huge influence on design and film.

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

Album graphic designer Storm Thorgerson discusses his love of Magritte and the artist’s influence on his work: ‘I think I took away from Magritte a love of oddity or oddness.’ 

Surrealism in detail

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. 

Related glossary terms

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