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What is Surrealism?: An Amateur Guide to Art History

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 Millersville chapter.

What Was It?

Surrealism is one of the many famous artistic movements of the present age. You see these art pieces all the time and you may not even notice. Famous painters such as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Frida Kalo were all notable artists of the surrealist movement. When thinking of surrealism, most people think of strange, almost disturbing imagery, complex color palettes, and things that are meant to shock the eyes of those viewing said art. To truly understand the ideas behind surrealist works, we have to go back to its birth.

When Did It Start?

The start of the surrealist movement originated in Paris, France in the early 1920s after the horrific events of World War One. Countries were trying to recover, families were mourning losses, and there was an overall sense of impending doom and emptiness. This is where surrealism became the artistic movement that it is known as today. Surrealism initially got its roots from a previous artistic movement known as Dadaism. Dadaism was a movement of not only art pieces but also literature that sought to point out the absurdism of traditional society and art of the times. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Dadaism as, “a movement in art and literature based on deliberate irrationality and negation of traditional artistic values” (Wester). It is no coincidence that a lot of what surrealism is intended to imply is stemmed from these previous values.

What Was the Point?

Surrealism was meant to be a way to stray from the conscious mind and unlock the imagination within the subconscious. This was mainly inspired by the theories of Sigmund Freud and many artists took inspiration from his ideas on innate human desires and emotions. Surrealism was also a direct retaliation to the absurdism of WWI and the seemingly hopeless world they lived in. The artists of this movement saw the absurd methods of the first world war and believed it to be nothing but what it was; senseless killing. Like its predecessor dadaism, Surrealism was made to defy general reason and provoke confusion concerning society at the time. While many people believe that surrealist paintings have some underlining meaning, many of the pieces from surrealism do not have any particular meaning: they weren’t supposed to have meaning just like how surrealist artists saw no meaning in life. In many ways, the surrealist art movement was an artistic representation of depression and uncertainty.

Many surrealist paintings were also a projection of the artists’ dreams. Sigmund Freud, as noted before, had many theories on the meaning of dreams and how they connect to people’s utmost desires. While a lot is to be determined by the association of dreams and human consciousness, many artists created pieces depicting their dreams because they had no innate meaning. Their dreams were just interesting imagery made to shock viewers and record what happened in their subconscious minds. These paintings were made to combat the conventions of society and make the viewers confused. Taking this into account, when people try to find meaning and answers in surrealist pieces, the “meaning” they are searching for is just to give them more questions and not find answers. In the same way that you can not know the true meaning and answers to life.

Salvador Dali

The second painting I am going to be talking about is another one of Salvador Dali’s paintings known as “The Temptation of St. Anthony”. It doesn’t get any more surreal than this. This painting boasts grand buildings and animals with long, spider-like legs that give this painting an almost eerie feel. At the bottom of the painting is a man holding up a cross that is pointed at the animals. This painting goes back to the ideas of human desires as this piece has been said to represent the temptations of human sexuality. I also see this piece as a representation of the confusion and clash of religion against the subconscious and human desires. While this is what I perceive from this piece, I recommend that you look at the piece and perceive it how you see fit.

There are so many famous artists of this movement and I wanted to acknowledge one of my favorite artists and their works of this time. This artist being Salvador Dali. Many of you may know his piece “The Persistence of Memory” with the melting clocks and mountainous background. This piece, unlike many, does have an innate meaning. This being the idea of the flow of time. Three of the melting clocks could be considered as the clocks of the past, present, and future, while one of the clocks is turned upside down and is covered with ants. Ants are a huge part of many of Dali’s paintings and usually represent death and decay which can also be considered the end of the flow of time. I encourage everyone to look at this painting and see what you find as the meaning behind this piece and if it has any personal connections to you.

Final Thoughts

The surrealist art movement is one of the most significant movements in the history of art and literature. While there is no innate meaning to many of the pieces involved in this movement, I believe that is also a reason for you to try to find your own meaning. Art isn’t always something that the artist can define for you. Sometimes you have to come to those conclusions on your own. I hope you have a little more of an understanding of the significance of surrealism and have a new appreciation for art history.



Works Cited

Artincontext. “Surrealist Artists – A Look at the Most Famous Surrealist Painters.” Artincontext.org, 26 Apr. 2022, artincontext.org/surrealist-artists/.

“Dadaism Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Dadaism.

“Surrealism Movement Overview.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/movement/surrealism/.

Jackie Pento

Millersville '26

Hi! My name is Jackie and I am a freshman at Millersville University! I am passionate about music, art, and video games!