Melting clocks and floating fruits are important, yes, but there’s more to the Surrealist Movement than strange images plucked from a dream, and if you want to make Surrealist art, it helps to understand a little about how it came into existence and what it’s all about.
The movement was made popular by the visual arts and literature, but it extended across the arts and into social and political thought, as well. The Surrealists were officially a group in 1924 with the completion of the Manifeste du Surréalisme, written by poet Andre Breton. The manifesto was a proposal to free the mind and disrupt established ideals, something that felt urgent to the group at the close of World War I. Their thinking was that if the values and rationality of their European society lead them into war, maybe it was time to rethink these values. They felt it would be beneficial to embrace the irrational, rather than suppress it, and that perhaps valuing the unconscious was the key to a more balanced society.
The Big Picture
As serious as all that may be, a work of Surrealist art is meant to be fun, exciting, surprising, sometimes unsettling, strange, and often humorous. Most importantly, Surrealist works break free from conventions and challenge us to look at the world in a new way. But don’t feel intimidated! Anyone can create Surrealist art, no matter your skill level or artistic medium.
Creating Your Own Surrealist Art
That being said, there are specific techniques you can use that the Surrealists used in their work to achieve such lofty, fantastical, or just surreal ideas.
Symbolism is big for Surrealist art, and that’s because it’s all about the unconscious, which interprets and communicates information through symbols. When creating your painting (drawing, collage, etc.), try incorporating some of the archetypal images that occur in your dreams.
Juxtaposition can create that element of surprise that is key to a Surrealist artwork. Juxtaposition is the placement of two objects together—when one brings out something in, or suggests something about, the other. An example could be putting a butterfly and a pair of scissors side by side. They don’t belong together… or do they?
In our dreams, often we will find ourselves in unfamiliar places but with people that we know, or vice versa. Dislocation is often found in Surrealist art, also, and it is basically when an object is in a place it wouldn’t normally be in—like a cow in a hammock.
Then there’s scale. Playing around with scale, the relative sizing of objects, in your artwork will create the effect that something is off, and therefore it will feel more like a dreamscape than reality. A good place to look for inspiration when playing with scale, is at René Magritte’s paintings—his Personal Values (1952), in particular.
Transformation can be utilized in your art, as well. To demonstrate the transformation of an object or person in your painting from one thing to another—such as a young man into an old man, or a woman into a mermaid—will collapse time for the viewer, creating an image that transcends the way we experience our lives in sequence.
The double image is similar to transformation in the way it can distill into one image, what in reality would be found in several. Not only sequential states, but multiple disparate objects or people can be combined in one image, such as in Dalí’s The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1960-70), where the light and shadows of the busts of women create a second image of a bullfighter.
Often, getting started is the hardest part. I like to imagine the Surrealist gathered around exchanging their dreams and playing games that tap into their unconscious thought for that spark of inspiration. In fact, many of the exact games and exercises they employed are known, and I will share a few below so you can get started making your own Surrealist art! Enjoy!
By: Rae Quinn
“Art Term: Surrealism.” Tate.org.uk. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/surrealism Date Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
“Art Term: Dada.” Tate.org.uk. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/dada Date Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
[Excerpt from] Durozoi, Gérard. Trans. Alison Anderson. History of the Surrealist Movement. University of Chicago Press, 2002. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/174115.html Date Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
The links to The Surrealists’ Exercises: