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surrealism (sərēˈəlĭzəm), literary and art movement influenced by Freudianism and dedicated to the expression of imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and free of convention. The movement was founded (1924) in Paris by André Breton, with his Manifeste du surréalisme, but its ancestry is traced to the French poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and to the Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico. Many of its adherents had belonged to the Dada movement. In literature, surrealism was confined almost exclusively to France. Surrealist writers were interested in the associations and implications of words rather than their literal meanings; their works are thus extraordinarily difficult to read. Among the leading surrealist writers were Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and Jean Cocteau, the last noted particularly for his surreal films. In art the movement became dominant in the 1920s and 30s and was internationally practiced with many and varied forms of expression. Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy used dreamlike perception of space and dream-inspired symbols such as melting watches and huge metronomes. Max Ernst and René Magritte constructed fantastic imagery from startling combinations of incongruous elements of reality painted with photographic attention to detail. These artists have been labeled as verists because their paintings involve transformations of the real world. “Absolute” surrealism depends upon images derived from psychic automatism, the subconscious, or spontaneous thought. Works by Joan Miró and André Masson are in this vein. The movement survived but was greatly diminished after World War II.


See A. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (tr. 1969); L. Lippard, ed., Surrealists on Art (1970); R. Brandon, Surreal Lives (1999); studies by P. Waldberg (1966), W. S. Rubin (1969), S. Alexandrian (1970), H. S. Gershman (1969, repr. 1974), J. H. Matthews (1977), E. B. Henning (1979), A. Balakian (1987), H. Lewis (1988), and M. Nadeau (tr. 1967, repr. 1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a 20th-century avant-garde movement in the arts. Organized in France in the early 1920’s, with A. Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) as its theoretical basis, the surrealist movement held its first exhibit in Paris in 1925 and from 1924 to 1929 published its own journal, La Révolution surréaliste. Among the founders and chief exponents of surrealism were the writers L. Aragon, P. Soupault, P. Eluard, R. Desnos, A. Artaud, R. Vitrac, and T. Tzara; the painters M. Ernst, Man Ray, J. Arp, P. Roy, A. Masson, J. Miró, M. Duchamp, F. Picabia, Y. Tanguy, S. Dalí, and R. Magritte; and the filmmakers L. Buñuel and G. Dulac. Also associated for a time with surrealism were P. Picasso and P. Klee in painting, R. Clair and G. Sadoul in film, and J. Cocteau in film, poetry, and painting.

The surrealist movement, which traced its lineage from the Marquis de Sade and G. de Nerval through A. Rimbaud and Lautréamont to A. Jarry and G. Apollinaire, who introduced the term “surrealism,” grew out of dadaism and was influenced, in art, by the metaphysical painting of G. de Chirico. While maintaining the traditions of the romantic-anarchistic rebellion against bourgeois civilization’s timeworn spiritual values and the banal, arid rationalism that imbued them, the surrealist movement professed to have opened the way to a radical change in man’s pattern of thinking, and even in the structure of man’s social life, by freeing from the constraints of reason the desires and aspirations hidden in the human subconscious. Intuitionism, and particularly Freudianism, interpreted in this light, provided a philosophical basis for the surrealists’ attempts to banish reason from artistic thinking and creativity and give free rein to a chaos of subconscious “insights.” Surrealism, therefore, constituted an extreme example of the irrationalist crisis in Western culture. For it asked that one sink into the elemental world of infantile mindlessness, dreamlike visions, and delirium in the conviction that one could find in such a world a key to the occultic secrets of the universe. It held up as an exemplar the work of the artist who, acting as a kind of medium, records on canvas or paper, or transfers to the stage or cinema, in however bizarre or unnatural a combination, the myriad images conjured up from the spiritual “netherworld.”

In literature such notions led to the adoption of automatic writing as a model, especially in lyric poetry, a genre preferred by the surrealists. This meant that the writer should record the first words or fragments of speech and the most haunting, most vivid visions that occurred to him, no matter how strange and spectacular these might be both in and of themselves and in combination with each other. Similarly, in the theater, where A. Artaud served as surrealism’s theorist, and in film-making, primarily that of the avant-garde, the surrealists held that “true reality” could be perceived only through unbridled fantasy. Thus, fragments of a play or film were made to alternate alogically, and individual scenes and sequences, treated as independent entities, were arranged in a bizarre, eccentric manner. Metaphors were objectified, intended to free the viewer from his repressed complexes, whether erotic, sadistic, or neurotic.

In art the surrealists adopted the techniques of primitivism and sought to imitate the creative work of children and that of the insane. They separated discrete objects from their natural environment and gave them an independent aesthetic value either by divesting them of their real, or natural, function or by combining them in an unnatural manner with other objects—for example, in the form of a collage. The surrealists also sought to re-create in naturalistic, tangible form fantastic visions that either were remotely and dimly associated with the objective world or else interwove, in a pathological and repulsive manner, realistic yet organically incongruous natural elements.

The surrealist movement at first consisted of a fairly large and diverse group of eminent artists and writers, including Aragon, Eluard, Desnos, J. Prévert, and Picasso, who were attracted by its zeal and rebelliousness, its profound, tragic rejection of existing society, and, above all, its determination to find answers to age-old human problems. Through the methods and techniques of surrealism they hoped to discover, as if by inspiration, the “miraculous” in the familiar things of everyday life. Yet it soon became clear that, instead of effecting a real change in society, surrealism merely ended up substituting creative myths of its own and in its aesthetics destroying the significance and integrity of art. As a consequence, most true, revolutionary artists broke with the surrealist movement. The 1930’s were therefore a period of decline for surrealism, at least in literature. By the end of the decade, only the most doctrinaire adherents, led by Breton, who had openly turned toward mysticism, remained faithful to the movement and its principles. The ranks were now filled by latecomers, who fostered the tradition of trying to influence the viewer or reader by shocking him. Nevertheless, surrealism enjoyed wide popularity in the 1930’s. There were a large number of exhibits, often called “paranoiac mystifications” (the term used by Dalí to describe his own pictures), and new figures, such as the Belgian P. Delvaux, the Chilean R. Matta Echaurren, and the Swiss K. Seligmann, were drawn into the surrealist orbit.

In the 1940’s the center of surrealism moved to the USA, where Breton, Duchamp, Dalí, Tanguy, and others had emigrated. The “new wave” of surrealism on American soil found expression chiefly in the visual arts—in works marked by distorted fantasy, persistently pathological images, cheap posturing (frequently tinged with religion or politics), and pretentious mysticism.

After 1945 attempts to revive surrealism in France failed. Yet the techniques developed by the surrealists in the movement’s heyday left traces in French literature and have become part of the heritage of French painting, theater, film-making, and applied arts.

Surrealism has also found original expression in the artistic cultures of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Mexico, Japan, and other countries.


Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 4. Moscow, 1963.
Kulikova, 1. S. Siurrealizm v iskusslve. Moscow, 1970.
Andreev, L. G. Siurrealizm. Moscow, 1972.
Kaptereva, T. “Dadaizm i siurrealizm.” In Modernizm. Moscow, 1973.
Nadeau, M. Histoire du surréalisme. Paris, 1945.
Carrouges, M. A. Breton et les données fondamentales du surréalisme. Paris, 1967.
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E. GALIN (literature) and V. A. MARKOV

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a movement in art and literature in the 1920s, which developed esp from dada, characterized by the evocative juxtaposition of incongruous images in order to include unconscious and dream elements
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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