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Art History: Surrealism

This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
Art History: Harlem Renaissance
Art History: Expressionism and Modern Pop Art
A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.
— Salvador Dalí.
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí

In this next part of our Art History series, we turn to Surrealism, a 20th-century cultural movement where artists created moving alternate realities.

The Surrealist Era

It all began with a manifesto. Gathered in the cafes of Paris, surrealists discussed the meaning of life, along with many foundational art-making techniques.

Obsessed, or just passionate, these artists shaped vivid worlds with photographic precision. Their subjects, composition, and colors were often a reflection of the things, people, and ideas that meant most to them.

So how do surrealists interpret life differently?

While it took on many forms, surrealism as a visual art form was hugely influential. It drew on collaborative philosophies that wanted to free people from false rationality and restrictive structures.

Galatea of the Spheres by Salvador Dali
Galatea of the Spheres by Salvador Dalí.

Hoping to revolutionize the human experience, Surrealists were often theatrical and dramatic. They incorporated creativity into their daily lives far beyond a canvas or paintbrush, and inspired others to discover new ways to bring art into their lives.

Let's take a look at the surrealist work from these incredible artists.

Salvador Dalí

For Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, creative expression was simply a lifestyle. From the clothes he wore to his iconic mustache, Dalí had an all-around grandiose personality.

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory
The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí

At an early age he was encouraged to create art, but it wasn't until he fell in love with Gala, friend and later wife, that he truly began to hone his craft.

His philosophies, though often described as daring yet manic, formed the evolution of his work. He believed in the idea of irrational knowledge and other theories which allowed him to tap into his subconscious in order to create phenomenal 2D pieces.

Basket of Bread by Salvador Dal
Basket of Bread by Salvador Dalí

Most widely recognized is his piece The Persistence of Memory, but he developed many more paintings with great expertise in his later years. Check out "The Elephants," for example, among many others.

The Elephants
The Elephants by Salvador Dalí

Max Ernst

German artist Max Ernst loved to explore his creativity. His paintings, illustrations, and sculptures depicted surreal scenes of turbulent relationships, the mental health condition, and modern culture.

The Elephant Celebes by Max Ernst
The Elephant Celebes by Max Ernst

He also developed many art techniques, include frottage, a method of rubbing pastel against a surface to produce a texture or pattern.

Among his most famous surrealist work are The Elephant Celebes and the Pietà or Revolution by Night, both heavily symbolic paintings made of oil and collage art.

Piet or Revolution by Night by Max Ernst
Pietà or Revolution by Night by Max Ernst

Frida Kahlo

Her paintings were a window to her pain. With over 140 pieces created over her lifetime, Frida Kahlo remains one of the biggest surrealist influences on modern art.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo

Artists know the power of creation, and Frida Kahlo was no different. The therapeutic qualities of creation effectively mix elements of stillness and creativity together to give artists a much-needed release from the world's problems. For Frida, this cathartic release was very necessary.

The Love Embrace of the Universe the Earth Mexico Myself Diego and Seor Xolotl
The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl by Frida Kahlo.

Battling polio at an early age as well as a devastating trolley accident, Kahlo encountered numerous tragedies throughout her lifetime. Her personal work became an autobiography of her life, depicting colorful scenes of Mexican culture, as well as inner pain and conflict.

Among her famous paintings is a divine collection of self-portraits. In The Two Fridas, she shows us this inner turmoil by painting two opposing self-portraits in traditional and modern Mexican-influenced attire. Devastated by her divorce, she effectively illustrates her pain to the viewer.

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo
The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo.


Life is what you make it. At least, that's how surrealists saw the world. Their wide range of culture and influence is a true testament to the evolution of art. And I hope you continue to learn more about these amazing timelines on your own.

For more stories about the Surrealist era, dive into the links below for further reading. And join me next month when we discuss Pop and Abstract art.

The following sources were also included in this article:

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