Sample Art Essay Paper on Surrealism: Past, Present and Future


Surrealism as an art form advocates for thinking that diverts from the conventional approaches to thought. Surrealists focus on imagination and dreams as the influencers of art. This means that information and inspiration for surrealist art is acquired from both conscious and unconscious thought processes. The surrealist movement originated in the 1920s under the influences of psychoanalytical processes steered by psychologists such as Feud Sigmund. From Sigmund’s writings in the 1920s and the preceding Dadian movements, the movement was inspired into the new thought process. The movement has continued to transform through the years from description of the surrealist arts as dream and imagination driven to the present day consideration of surrealist art as any form of art that does not conform to the conventional arts. Getting visual surrealist arts, which was initially a challenge founded on the automatism of surrealism has since changed, with more visual art forms driven by surrealism emerging both in the film industry through to painting and other art forms. Through the description of two paintings from the earlier surrealist arts, the present essay endeavors to explore the history, characteristics and the transformations that have occurred in the surrealist movement from the 1920s.

The Surrealist Movement

Turkel (1) attributes the beginning of the surrealist movement to Andre Breton, whom he asserts began the surrealist movement as a reaction to the shortcomings of the art forms of previous times. The surrealist art forms combined the unconscious thoughts depicted through dreams with the more conscious thoughts evidenced through actual life experiences. The movement can therefore be said to have started as a resistance to the routine in the world at that time. Prendergast (448) describes the world as being routinized in terms of thought processes. This kind of routine is what informs most of the conventional and contemporary art forms, but also results in the kind of boredom that surrealism has been aiming at breaking in the past as well as in the contemporary times. Through surrealism, artists seek to explore self and to develop a deeper mental comprehension of the self through artistic creations (Turkel 2). This explains the consideration of surrealism as a way of exploring more of the world through imagination.

            Surrealism was and is still guided to some extent by the surrealist manifesto, developed by Breton in 1924. The goal of the manifesto was to aid artists in the expression of pure thought without the hindrance of reason and social prejudices through art forms. The goals of surrealism and the manifestation of the same in art forms have been easier to achieve especially with the incessant message that people especially those in art should explore more information than that available in the conscious world. The underlying argument is that there is far much more information in the realm of unconscious dreams than what can be obtained in realism (Turker 11). This not only gives the artists an opportunity for exploring their hidden desires but also provides the outside world with the deepest perception of the artist’s inner world. The world of imagination, uninhibited by moral inclinations or prejudices, reveals the idea that people would otherwise have wild, odd or fearsome thoughts and imaginations. Freud Sigmund, through his psychoanalytic writings, provided a premise for most of the earlier surrealists, who desired to pursue more than the normal art forms and deliverables.

According to the Art Story Contributors (par. 2), psychoanalysis is the greatest influence of surrealist artists. The main objective of surrealist artists is to unlock imagination as the inspiration behind art. Those who pursue surrealism as an art form therefore, are mostly those who have great disdain for the quintessential and for rationalism. They are under the powerful influence of Freud Sigmund’s psychoanalytic studies on dreams and imagination, and they hold the perception that dreams are valid indicators of human emotions and desires. This ties together with the idea presented by Turkel (2), that humans achieve mental self comprehension through surrealism. The assertions of both Turkel (3) and the Art Story Contributors (par. 2) correspond to the ideas shared by other authors such as Prendergast (447), that surrealism is founded on peoples unconscious thoughts and needs. Where artists are unable to otherwise express themselves due to the limitations of language and information constrained by conventional thought processes, it is possible to advocate for ideological change through surrealism.

            As various authors agree that surrealists express their emotions and desires through art, the Art Story Contributors (par. 4) expound on this through the addition of other thoughts expressed through surrealism including sexuality, fears and violence. This explains why surrealist art, besides expressing things beyond what can be easily perceived, also expands across several themes and several art forms. Surrealists mostly express the predominant thoughts in the unconscious at any given time. This means the imagination of a surrealist has to be fluid as well as accommodating of different perceptions. Time and space do not confine the imaginations of surrealists and the most popular art works by surrealist are those that provide the deepest sense of unsettling on the conventional mind. Art forms such as ‘the accommodation of desire’ by Salvador Dalis push journalistic accuracies beyond lucidity into the most bizarre realms. Similarly, other artworks by other surrealists provide a combination of incongruity and automatism in the delivered artworks. Turkel (3 -4) describes the automatism associated with surrealism through its impacts on the different art forms.

            From Turkel (3), automatism as a characteristic of surrealism is difficult to comprehend easily, due to its ambiguity in the contemporary and in the surreal art forms. According to Turkel, surrealism not only pushes the boundaries of the expected but also provides a uniqueness that calls for deeper reading. It is for this reason that for some time, it was difficult for artists to conceptualize the visual forms of surrealist arts. While it was easier to narrate the abstract thoughts verbally and in writing, expressing the same abstract thoughts in paintings, drawings and other pictorial forms was a key challenge in the early days of surrealism. This period of uncertainty was later overcome through bold artists such as Joan Miro, who managed to present visual arts in it various forms through surrealism (Turkel 4). Others such as Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico; Henri Rousseau and Gustavo Moreau were also influential in the growth of the surrealist movement through their works. Max Ernst in particular, produced frottage collages in the early days of visual surrealism. Giorgio de Chirico on the other hand, also contributed greatly to the development of surrealist ideas through his advocacy for the diversion from common to expanded imagination. Some quotes by de Chirico are still considered inspiring to upcoming surrealists and probably more influential to the art movement.

            Comparing the traditional to the modern surrealism, it is evident that perceptions about this art form from the consumers as well as the developers of surrealist art forms have changed to a large extent. While the underlying concept behind modern day surrealism is still expansion of imagination, the products of such thoughts have been defined differently in any of the art forms in which they occur. For instance, Schwartz (par. 10) opines that the definition of surrealism has changed to include all that which is considered odd, freaky or uncanny.  The word has undergone significant revolution from the mere consideration of surrealism as that which is outside the conscious to consideration as the definition of whatever things that are profane or carnivalesque in the art arena. As more people recognize the surrealist arts and their importance to the activation of the thought process, more people are also considering it to be akin to the elaboration of the hidden or repressed. This corresponds to the description given to the traditional surrealist arts by the Art Story Contributors (par. 2). The themes of surrealist arts have also changed significantly over the years, indicating a shift in the conscious and unconscious thought processes from the 1920s to the contemporary times. In Schwartz (par. 11), the traditional surrealist arts are described to have been more revolutionary and/ or romantic. The modern day surrealist art forms lean more towards technology and modernity. The shift has also been from nature to the more common urbanization and industrialization in the contemporary times. This is an indication that as much as surrealism pushes for a shift from the conscious to the unconscious though processes, the thought processes themselves change with changes in the ecosystem and thus result in changes in the outcomes of surrealist arts. Modern surrealists therefore produce arts that significantly deviate from those produced by the earlier surrealists.

Salvador Dalis

Salvador Dalis is one of the earlier and most recognized artists of the surrealist movement. According MOMA Learning (par. 2 – 3), Salvador Dalis was an ardent follower of Freud Sigmund’s studies on the validity of dreams as representations of the deepest desires and fears of people. His main objective through his work therefore, was to systemize the confusion that exists in the unknown realms of dreams. Various paintings by Dalis have found their way into major art museums across the world. One of these pictures is ‘the persistence of memory’ shown below. In the persistence of memory, Dalis attempts to deconstruct the significance of time on the achievements or decision making processes. Time is depicted as an insignificant factor in lifetime decisions and outcomes. The picture has been described by some authors as a self portrait due to the overriding depiction of conflicting temporal and spatial characteristics.

The Persistence of Memory, 1931 - Salvador Dali

Salvador Dalis (1931) – the persistence of memory (MOMA par. 2)

In Turkel (11), the author provides a brief description of the picture i.e. that it depicts the haziness of a sleeping man’s landscape. To some extent, this depicts the actual essence behind surrealism, which is founded on dreams and the unconscious. In most cases, dreams not only fail in their outlines, but also provide indistinguishable characteristics in terms of the elements depicted. Similarly, Dalis presents a spatial scope without boundaries. The superimposition of the outside landscape of mountains into the inside world of tables, sleeping areas and wall clocks presents exactly what is expected by the unhampered imagination driving surrealism. Furthermore, the central figure, which is not only indefinite in its formation but also unstructured in its appearance, depicts the unconscious mind and soul in dreams, which is not confined within the scope of the body. The theme of the picture therefore seems to be the boundless imagination that should characterize art. The kind of imagination that goes beyond spatial and temporal boundaries is depicted through the combination of melting wall clocks that show different times. This shows that the surreal mind is not only abstract in terms of position but also in terms of time. The surrealist is not inhibited by the limitations of time as time is not a constant variable in delivery. The time changes depending on the direction viewed and the objective of the decisions to be made.

The content of the picture is well enhanced through the combination of colors and shades used by Dalis. Contrary to the expectation in a dreaming concept, the artist uses a combination of dull yet not dark colors which depict an ending day. This helps to reinforce the perception of lack of inhibitions in the unconscious dream environment. The combination of white, brick red and dark brown colors portrays a kind of clarity that though hidden from the rational and conscious mind, may be clearly visible to the unconscious depending on the hidden desires and thoughts of the dreamer. Textures and shapes or lack of depth thereof also paint a peaceful outlook into the mind of the artist as well as the viewer. The picture is mostly smooth and even in spite of lack of spatial congruence in the spatial distributions. This also develops the perception that although the unconscious may present a combination of diverse elements united by spatial placement or lack of, the presentations are in most cases harmonious and can be continuous to some extent. This gives the idea that it is more important to consider the deeper values of the imagination, dream or expression of the hidden desires than to judge out of fear and necessity. The painting has been said to be a self portrait by many authors on surrealist art. As a self portrait, it not only answers questions about the dreamer’s state of mind, but also helps to comprehend the kind of harmony within the painter even in the unconscious.

Max Ernst

Another artist whose pieces have been widely recognized in surrealism is Max Ernst. The contributions of Max Ernst to surrealism, just like those of Salvador Dalis are attributed to his emphasis on imagination as the driver of art rather than rationality and consciousness. According to Turkel (11), Ernest is one of the earliest surrealists to be recognized for their contributions to the visual surrealism art form. During the break from the challenge in depicting visual art forms, Max managed to produce arts of various forms including collages, paintings and frottage.  One of the most popular arts by max Ernst is the ‘Celebes.’ This depiction of a huge metallic elephant, was painted during the First World War, and has been described as representative of the fears and danger that were characteristic of that particular time. Turkel (11) asserts that Ernst had lost his sister during this First World War and thus the fear and apprehension depicted by the Celebes could be a representation of the dark feelings that the painter had during that time. The picture depicted below encapsulates the unknown in the structure of the known or expected.

The Elephant Celebes.jpg

Celebes by Max Ernst 1921 (Turkel 11)

            The elephant depicted in the picture shows a combination of the lack of rationality and fear that cloud a period of war. Just like in the surrealist imagination process, the war drives people towards making irrational decisions. This however, is not founded on abhorrence of rationality and routine but on the fear associated with complacency and failure to act fast enough. During the First World War as in any other war, the combination of the routine or standard operating procedures associated with the disciplined forces and the unpredictability of war results in ambiguity and at times loss of the command direction. The shape of the elephant, clearly decipherable by the viewer, clouding all the other elements in the picture clearly defines this aspect of war. The irrationality is a result of the compound effects of fear and the harm experienced by others. Moreover, war is clearly associated with negative outcomes including death of loved ones and colleagues. As such, any individual going into war has that apprehension that would be difficult to explain verbally or to others who have not experienced war. In Ernst’s context, such apprehension could have been the hidden fear that drove him into the particular surrealist picture that he developed.

            The artist also used a combination of shapes and colors to clearly bring about the themes of apprehension and fear in the war. A white figure at the bottom right corner of the picture shows a decapitated human body. Just directly beneath the huge elephant, there is a blue figure that could be a limb while on the right side of the picture, there are metallic equipment which are most probably weapons for use in the war. Based on the arrangement of these elements in the picture and their coloration, it is easy for a viewer to oversee the tiny details that actually tell the story behind the picture while focusing on the metallic elephant, which is not meant to be the center of focus. The black coloration however, portrays a kind of foreboding, which draws the viewer towards the other elements. The combination of elements, colors and shapes in the picture therefore, portray the characteristics of surrealism and its role in depicting hidden fears and beliefs.


Surrealism as an art has undergone various changes from its inception in the 1920s. Through various visual forms of art, the surrealist movement has been able to make an impact on the world through its focus on imagination and unconscious thought processes. Most surrealists of early times were influenced by the writings of Freud Sigmund, which authenticated dreams as legitimate avenues for the depiction of in-depth human emotions and fears. Some of the most recognized surrealist artists in history include Max Ernst and Salvador Dalis, who played crucial roles, through their visual art forms such as Celebes and the persistence of memory respectively. In their art, these two artists, like others before and after them utilized a combination of shapes, forms and colors to bring about important themes at the different times of painting. It is through such artists that the surrealist movement has continued to grow through generations, in spite of changing ideologies, perceptions and the art outcomes.

Works Cited

MOMA Learning (2017). The persistence of memory by Salvador Dali. Retrieved from

Prendergast, Christopher. Everyday life: theories and practices from surrealism to the present. Oxford University Press, 2006 p. 448. Retrieved from

Schwartz, Sanford. Surrealism made fresh. The New York Review of Books, 2013. Retrieved from

Turkel, Dan G. (2009). The message of surrealist art: Automatism juxtaposition and dreams. European History AP. Retrieved from

The Art Story Contributors. Surrealism movement overview and analysis. The Art Story, 2017. Retrieved from