Surrealism was an artistic, intellectual, and literary movement led by poet Andre Breton from 1924 through World War II. The Surrealists sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of modern society by demolishing its backbone of rational thought. To do so, they attempted to tap into the “superior reality” of the subconscious mind. “Completely against the tide,” said Breton, “in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.”

Breton, a trained psychiatrist, along with French poets Louis Aragon (1897 – 1982), Paul Eluard (1895 – 1952), and Philippe Soupault (1897 – 1990), were influenced by the psychological theories and dream studies of Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) and the political ideas of Karl Marx (1818 – 1883). Using Freudian methods of free association, their poetry and prose drew upon the private world of the mind, traditionally restricted by reason and societal limitations, to produce surprising, unexpected imagery.

The visual artists who first worked with Surrealist techniques and imagery were the German Max Ernst (1891 – 1976), the Frenchman Andre Masson (1896 – 1987), the Spaniard Joan Miro(1893 – 1983), and the American Man Ray (1890 – 1976).

In 1922 Ernst moved to Paris, where the surrealists were gathering around Andre Breton. Ernst had already started doing more illusionistic paintings. Ernst was one of the first artists who apply Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams to investigate his deep psyche in order to explore the source of his own creativity. While turning inwards unto himself, Ernst was also tapping into the universal unconscious with its common dream imagery.

In 1927, the Belgian artist Rene Magritte (1898 – 1967) moved from Brussels to Paris and became a leading figure in the visual Surrealist movement. Influenced by de Chirico’s paintings between 1910 and 1920, Magritte painted erotically explicit objects juxtaposed in dreamlike surroundings. His work defined a split between the visual automatism fostered by Masson and Miro(and originally with words by Breton) and a new form of illusionistic Surrealism practiced by the Spaniard Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989), the Belgian Paul Delvaux (1897 – 1994), and the French-American Yves Tanguy (1900 – 1955).

The organized Surrealist movement in Europe dissolved with the onset of World War II. Breton, Dali, Ernst, Masson, and others, including the Chilean artist Matta (1911 – 2002), who first joined the Surrealists in 1937, left Europe for New York. The movement found renewal in the United States at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century, and the Julien Levy Gallery. In 1940, Breton organized the fourth International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City, which included the Mexicans Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) and Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957) (although neither artist officially joined the movement). Surrealism’s surprising imagery, deep symbolism, refined painting techniques, and disdain for convention influenced later generations of artists, including Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972) and Arshile Gorky (1904 – 1948), the latter whose work formed a continuum between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.