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A century later, what does surrealism still have to offer us?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Casper Libero chapter.

The word “surrealism” is pretty self-explanatory: it comes from the word surreal, which means, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, “strange; not seeming real; like a dream”. Another definition provided is “strange, especially because of combining items that are never found together in reality”. And that’s exactly what surrealism does. 

However, not every art that combines unreal elements can be called surrealistic. In fact, surrealism is a specific art movement that started in Europe in the 20th century, between the World Wars (1918-1939). It is part of the so called “european vanguards” – or Avant-guards -, such as cubism, dadaism and futurism, that are innovative art concepts that were emerging against all kinds of established arts of the time.

As a vanguard, surrealism has defined political, intellectual and artistics principles. It was particularly disruptive from Realism, a previous art movement that had been around since the 19th century and valued rationality, scientific knowledge and description. From their perspective, art should represent the visible world the way it is, describing it perfectly and objectively, staying away from idealism. 

But this perspective wasn’t enough for the surrealists

The world had changed severely in the last decades since Europe was destroyed after World War I. On top of that, technology evolved, and new theories – that comprehended the unconscious – were developed. How can pure and objective reality be enough when Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is getting stronger and stronger?

Cásper Líbero´s art history professor Dr.Vanessa Bortulucce explains the changes of this new context: 

” A lot of things that couldn´t be seen in the beginning of the 20th century – before the war – were now visible. The way people looked at reality got more complex and sophisticated. They started wondering: ‘What am I really seeing in the world?’

Trying to fulfill these needs, and ambitioning to free man from rationalism and realism, surrealists proposed a new way of making art. Instead of describing reality objectively, they had a more subjective approach that embraced the unconscious, the mind, the dreams, the psychic and psychoanalysis. Their focus was beyond reality, and their paintings, sculptures, poems, books, movies, and so on were not at all attempting to mimic what we see and touch.


Just like our dreams, surrealistic art could mix all kinds of elements that are not commonly correlated. However, they didn’t just simply put together random and unreal things with no thought behind it. Their intention is to represent the unconscious part of reality that has been left out for so long, and, by doing that, relate with it more profoundly. 

Surrealism relates to reality. It is always a starting point for artists to position themselves, even if they are directly opposed to it. I think surrealism looks at reality differently, it expands and pluralizes its concept. It represents the visible world but also the introspective one. It’s like surrealism is flying over reality, seeing it from above, so they notice limits of the real, and, therefore, the problems of the excess of rationalization.

-Vanessa Bortulucce

After all, it is a movement that heavily criticizes war, reason, and elite groups, adds master Alexandre Ceistutis, history teacher:

Surrealism continued with the criticisms made by previous avant-grands, such as cubism and dadaism, regarding the post-war world. But while they focused on the deconstruction of the form and technique, surrealism focused on interpreting reality differently. It is a critical reflection about war and totalitarian regimens, as well as it is about the interiority of the individual, enlightened by new scientific approaches, especially freudian.” 

By no means surrealism is unrelated to reality. Its art revolves around it, although with a different method and perspective from realism, as it considers the mind. One may even say that surrealism is more real than reality itself. It relates to our own subjectiveness, facing all the tragedies of war. 

But making such complex critiques is not something that happens out of the blue, it has a whole intellectual process behind its realization.


The movement could never be as consolidated without the influence of another vanguard, Dadaism, that was created during the first World War, in 1916. Maybe you don´t recall it by name, but you probably have seen one of its most famous pieces: The porcelain urinal with the writing “R.Mutt 1917”. It’s called Fountain, by Marcel Duchamp, well-known Dada artist who was, at the time, criticized by many, who claimed his piece was not art.

Why can’t a urinal be art? Rethinking about its concept was exactly Dadaism´s core. The anarchist movement intended to destroy the established notion of art with irrationality and illogicality. Against common sense, they argued that art wasn’t necessarily supposed to have rational and intentional meaning. If life is guided by change and randomness, why can’t art be too? For them, nonsense is what actually gives sense and meaning to art.

The provocative and revolutionary aspect of Dadaism was crucial for the rising of surrealism, analises Dr.Bortulucce:

A lot of Surrealism comes from Dadaism. While the War was still happening Dada was already criticizing it and provocatively stating that the world was filled with absurdity rather than rationality. How can we claim to be rational when there´s war around us? They were already questioning rationality and scientificity. I would say that Dada was the trampolin for the rise of surrealism, it allowed it to also problematize the objective world.” 

It was not by chance that the writer of the Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton, was previously a Dadaist. His Manifesto was published in 1924 – 100 years ago! – and is assigned as the starting point of surrealism. Although it can´t be stated that the French writer invented the movement, his statement was definitely the most famous. It explained surrealism´s main principles, such as the valorization of dreams and illogicality – clearly influenced by Freud – and the search for freedom of thought and of the imagination.

He also stated his own theory, psychic automatism, that defended that art should be “Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” For Bretón, artists should express in their paintings exactly what they are imagining and thinking. It´s transcending the real and giving space for pure thought, and by that, reaching a “superior reality” of the unconscious. 

I see surrealism as a theory, a way of seeing the world. I wouldn’t say it´s a technique, because that would mean it involves materiality. We´re talking about a concept, an idea.”  Elucidates Vanessa.

These principles and ideas are pretty wide and malleable, which made surrealism reach all Europe and other continents, in countries like Spain, USA, Germany and Mexico. It’s a plural and fluid movement that was incorporated by a lot of artists, since they had the space to create their own approaches within surrealism. 

Alexandre Ceistutis considers that to be a key characteristic of surrealism:

At the same time that there are common aspects of the movement, the singularity of the self representation of each artist in their own pieces is really important. When we talk about Frida Kahlo, Miró, René Magritte, Dalí, and so on, we have to consider surrealism but also their personal interpretation and view on the inwardness of the human being.” He explains.

Catalan artist Salvador Dalí, arguably the most famous surrealist, is a great example of how the artists could consolidate their own style while using the fluid principles of surrealism. His work – that doesn’t include only paintings, and also literature, cinema, sculptures, and more – stands out for its originality and the recurrence of figures that were full of meaning, like the eggs, the melting clock, and elephants.

The egg for Dalí represents the recovery of the origin, of creativity, and how human beings can have hope in the most chaotic and fragile moments” Analyses Ceistutis.


There is not exactly a common agreement between historians in relation to the end of surrealism. Some consider it to be the death of André Breton, in 1966. But the movement didn´t end abruptly after the day he died. It was a process of dilution that happened throughout the 60s – not necessarily when Bretón passed.

In the 60s, criticism related to the world wars and totalitarian regimens, that were of big importance to surrealism, were fading. The world was going through new situations and sources of new artistics inspiration. Surrealism was getting weaker until it dissipated

Alexandre Ceistutis

It is, though, a movement of great influence and importance, which makes a lot of artists revisit it´s ideas nowadays. It’s the case of the american cinematographer David Lynch, that incorporated surrelist principles like the unconscious and the oniric in his notorious work.


Surrealism´s work is not restricted to its historical context. Its critics and theory continue to have relevance today, above all, it is a fluid movement. If we stop to think about it, we are still talking about some of the same things, especially with the rise of neo fascism and wars killing people all over the world. It’s on times like this that we have to remember our unconsciousness and own subjectiveness within ourselves.

I would say that the legacy of surrealism is letting feelings enter the conscious world, and transpositioning it in a dreamlike form. It shows how important it is to dream even in a world of tears, pain and destruction, and from that dream build a new reality. I believe it is a portrait of hope.” Avaluetes Ceistutis

Maybe, a century later, surrealism still has something to offer us.


The article above was edited by Malu Alcântara.

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Ana Caielli Barreiro

Casper Libero '26

Journalism student at Casper Libero that loves writing about music, politics and pop culture