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What Is_?Surrealism

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.


This introductory text provides a brief overview of Surrealism. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Originating in the 1920s, Surrealism is a twentieth century Avant-Garde art movement. It was an Interdisciplinary movement mostly associated with literature and the visual arts but also had manifestations in film and music. It was characteristed by experimentation and irreverence.

Surrealist artists emphasised the role of chance and play in the creation of their artworks. They were also interested in exploring the relationship between inner (psychological) and outer (lived) experience. Influenced by the emerging discipline of Psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, they used dreams and Free Association as techniques to gain access to the unconscious. Most of the Surrealists were based in Paris in the post-WWI period and many of them such as André Breton, Man Ray and Max Ernst had been involved in the international avant-garde movement Dada prior to becoming involved in Surrealism.

Who were the Surrealists?

Artists directly involved with the Surrealist movement:
André Breton was the leader of the Surrealist movement and author of the Surrealist Manifesto, 1924. Other members included Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Salvadore Dalí, René Magritte, André Masson, Joan Miró, Man Ray and Francis Picabia.

Artists associated with Surrealism:
Several artists such as Alberto Gioccometti, Dorothea Tanning, Georgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp and Meret Oppenheim had associations with the Surrealist movement but were not directly involved or were involved for a short period.

South America and Mexico:
Artists such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leonora Carrington, who were based in Mexico, are associated with Surrealism; however, their work is also seen to be influenced by a range of indigenous and local influences including folk art, mythology and Magical Realism.

What did they do?

The Surrealist movement involved many artists working in a variety of disciplines (literature and visual arts) and mediums (painting, sculpture, drawing, collage, printmaking). What they shared was an interest in experimentation in terms of using new materials and developing new ways of working. Some Surrealist painting and drawing such as the work of André Masson featured experimentation with the technique of Free Association in painting, which became known as Automatism. The Surrealists also experimented with techniques to merge images and texts. Works by artists such as Salvdor Dalí and René Magritte were influenced by dream interpretation. This form of painting, which was referred to as Oneiric, was more realistic in its rendering but included fantastical and magical elements.

Influence of Surrealism

Surrealism was influential on a wide range of artists and art movements such as Roberto Matta Achuarren, Arshile Gorky, Louise Bourgeois, Mark Rothko and many artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. The influence of Surrealism can also be seen in the work of several artists in IMMA’s Collection such as Alice Maher, Beverly Semmes, Paula Rego, F. E. McWilliam, Iran do Espírito Santo, Rebecca Horn and Colin Middleton among others.

Methodologies & Techniques

The Surrealists experimented with a variety of methodologies, materials and techniques.

Drawing on Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of free association, the Surrealists created poetry, prose, drawing and painting by using the first words or images which came to mind. In drawing and painting this involved letting the materials dictate the form of the work, using scribbling, poured paint and random and accidental mark making.

A form of arts practice where two or more artists, often from different disciplines, collaborate in the creation of an artwork.

Originating in the work of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso and known as Synthetic Cubism, collage refers to the construction of an artwork by assembling and gluing together materials such as textiles, paper and found objects.

Spreading gouache, ink or paint onto a smooth, non-absorbent surface such as ceramic or glass which is then pressed onto another surface such as paper or canvas.

The creation of a surface pattern by rubbing with pencil or charcoal on a piece of paper laid over a rough or textured surface such as wood grain.

Similar to frottage but uses paint instead of pencil or charcoal.

Relating to dreams – in the context of Surrealism the term refers to the use of dream material as subject matter in the work of artists such as Max Ernst and Salvadore Dalí.

Games such as Exquisite Corpse were used to bypass the conscious mind and also as a form of collaboration.


Reading List

Dawn Ades, Dada and Surrealism, London: Thames & Hudson, 1974.
Dawn Ades, Dada & Surrealism Reviewed, London: Hayward Gallery, 1978.
Dawn Ades, Leonora Carrington, Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2013.
Dawn Ades and Georges Sebbag, Surrealism and the Dream, Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2014.
Georges Bataille and Michael Richardson, The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, London: Verson, 2006.
David Bate, Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent, London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
Fiona Bradley, Surrealism, London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1997.
André Breton, Nadja, trans., Richard Howard, London: Grove Press, 1960.
André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1972.
Peter Bürger, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans., Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Mary Ann Caws, ed., Surrealism, Phaidon Press, 2010.
Salvadore Dalí, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, ed., Haim N. Finkelstein, trans., Haim N. Finkelstein,Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Briony Fer, David Batchelor and Paul Wood, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 1993.
Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans., James Strachey, London: Penguin Freud Library vol. 4, 1991.
Mathew Gale, Dada & Surrealism, London: Phaidon, 1997.
Charles Harrison and Paul Wood eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Cambridge MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, L’Amour fou: Surrealism and Photography, New York: Abbeville Press, 1986.
David Lomas, The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis and Subjectivity, New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2000.
Michael Lowy, Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia, Austin TX: Univ of Texas Press, 2009.
Natalya Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.
Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros: 1938-1968, Thames & Hudson, 2005.
Neil Matheson, ed., The Sources of Surrealism, Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2006.
William Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968.
Sidra Stich, ed., Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art, New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.




Fiona Loughnane, lecturer in modern and contemporary art in the Department of Visual Culture, NCAD, provides an essay What is Surrealism? Fiona’s essay includes examples of artists and artworks, some of which are included in IMMA’s Collection, highlighting the potential of IMMA’s exhibitions and Collection as resources for further investigation and enquiry into the subject of Surrealism.




What is Surrealism? Soundcloud




Important Notice


We would like to advise our visitors that our Main Reception area is closed for renovation from 22 April until mid-June.  A temporary reception is open on the ground floor next to the original main entrance. While we prepare to open our next exhibition Hilary Heron: A Retrospective on 24 May, there are two exhibitions to see Derry Film & Video Workshop and Self: Determination: Artists Commissions. IMMA’s gardens and café are open to the public.