Movement, which began in the 1920s, of writers and artists who experimented with ways of unleashing the subconscious imagination

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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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  • 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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  • 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

    View the main page for this artwork

The movement 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.

There was no single style of surrealist art but two broad types can be seen. These are the oneiric (dream-like) work of Salvador Dalí, early Max Ernst, and René Magritte, and the automatism of later Max Ernst and Joan Miró. Freud believed that dreams revealed the workings of the unconscious, and his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams was central to surrealism. 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 had a huge influence on art, literature and the cinema as well as on social attitudes and behaviour.