Glossary Home Movements


Surrealism refers to a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious, and fuse reality and pure imagination.

Proponents of the movement, which was as prominent, if not more, in the realm of visual arts as in literature, were fascinated by the idea that one could tap into their unconscious and channel it into their art. Their literature and art sometimes depicted surprising imagery juxtaposed against mundane, everyday settings, and entirely imagined narratives and scenes. The movement was started by André Breton in the 1920s in Paris in the wake of the First World War. He asserted that surrealism was a “revolutionary movement”.

Surrealism pronunciation: Ser-ree-ull-e-sum


Definition and Explanation of Surrealism

Surrealism refers to a cultural movement in Europe that become quite popular after the end of World War I. Commonly, the works of art and literature, as well as theatre, are known for their interestingly juxtaposed images. The painted scenes are often illogical, strange, and confusing. Surrealists caught to express the unconscious though their art and resolve the contradiction between dreams and reality. To create a “super-reality” or “surreality”. The works of surrealism, whether literary or in the realm of visual arts, usually had some element of surprise within them. At the time that the movement came into prominence, it was associated with communism and anarchism.


Why Do Writers Write Surrealist Literature?

Surrealism was used by writers in the 1900s as a way to push back against the standards of the pre-WWI period. It was a reaction, as was all of the modernism movement, to the norms of the past. Creatives were looking for a new way to understand their worlds, as they had been so utterly overturned during the years of the first world war. The traditional styles of writing and art-making did not seem sufficient or even appropriate for the job.


Examples of Surrealist Literature

Example #1 Freedom of Love by Andre Breton

Breton is cited as the originator of the literary surrealist movement. This poem is one of his best examples of the effect that irrationality and the unconscious had on writing. Take a look at these lines from the start of the poem:

My wife with the hair of a wood fire

With the thoughts of heat lightning

With the waist of an hourglass

With the waist of an otter in the teeth of a tiger

My wife with the lips of a cockade and of a bunch of stars of the last magnitude

Here, readers can spot Breton’s unusual imagery and thought-provoking juxtapositions. It is easy to take hours attempting to dig into what each line in this poem means. But, surrealist literary is more about the effect of the larger work. There may not be an explanation for each line and every strange image.


Example #2 A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud

‘A Season in Hell’ is a very long poem by the French poet Rimbaud. It is separated into several sections, each of which is more confusing and entrancing than the latter. Here are the first lines of the poem:

A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.

One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her galling.—And I roughed her up.

I armed myself against justice.

This piece falls more in the category of a prose poem in some sections than others. It as published in 1873 and is considered one of the most influential works written before the official start of the surrealist movement.


Example #3 A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka

A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka is an interesting example of surrealism that merges with Kafka’s interest in the absurd. The story is filled with strange, even bizarre events which transform the narrative into something that feels more like a dream, or a nightmare, than a real narrative. The doctor featured in the title experiences all manner of odd and disturbing things until he ends up in bed with a man whose body is decomposing while the man is still alive.


Surrealism in Art

It is likely that when you think about surrealism, the first thing that comes to mind is the work of Salvador Dali. He is, without a doubt the best-known of the surrealist visual artists, but he is certainly not the only artist whose work should be studied in connection to the movement.

In the art world, surrealism began with several new drawing techniques. These included automatism or automatic drawing where an artist sits down and draws whatever comes to mind without judgment or stopping to consider what comes next. André Masson’s automatic drawings are some of the most popular; they are often cited as the point at which surrealism broke away from Dada (due to their reflection of the unconscious mind). The first surrealist exhibition La Peinture Surrealiste was held in Paris in 1925. It includes the work of Paul Klee, Miró, and others.


Surrealism in Theatre

It is often overlooked, but surrealist theatre is an important part of the movement. The word was first used by Guillaume Apollinaire to describe his 1917 play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias. His works should be connected to other playwrights, such as Federico García Lorca, Antonin Artaud, and Roger Vitrac. These writers believed that theatre should be a mystical experience, one in which illusion was embraced.


Surrealism Synonyms

Some words that you might find connected to surrealism, or used in place of it, are: aberrant, abnormal, absurd, bizarre, unusual, strange, and odd.


Related Literary Terms

  • Literary Modernism – originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused on Europe and North America.
  • Analogy – an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
  • Figurative Language – figures of speech that are used to improve a piece of writing.
  • Magical Realism – a genre of fiction writing that is interested in imbuing the realistic modern world with magical, fantastical elements.
  • Metaphor – used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it without using “like” or “as.”


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