Surrealism was marked by the artists who sought to channel the unconscious into their work in order to unlock fully the power of the human imagination. Surrealist artists are marked by their disdain for rationalism and literary realism, which stems from a heavy influence from psychoanalysis. They deeply distrusted the rational mind and believed it actually repressed imagination by weighing it with taboos. Drawing on Karl Marx, they hoped the psyche also had the ability to reveal contradictions in the everyday lives of people and thus spur a revolution. Such emphasis on the sheer power of personal imagination places them in the similar class of thought as Romanticism, but unlike Romantics, they believed revelations could be found throughout everyday life and in the most mundane places.
The movement mainly originated in France, although some early strains of the movement can be traced to places all around the war. The 1930s and 1940s brought forth a surge of increasing desire for political upheaval within the artistic community. The Second World War spurred and aggravated even more fears that human civilization was in a state of crisis and collapse. As these Surrealists left Europe for the Americas, the ideas only spread further. However, after the war, the group’s ideas were becoming increasingly challenged by Existentialism -- a more rational although similarly individualistic school of thought. Abstract Expressionists later became inspired by Surrealism and incorporated some of their ideals, later becoming the dominant artistic movement representing unconscious technique.
Surrealism was defined by Andre Breton as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -verbally, by means of written word, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of thought.” In this quote, Breton proposes artists bypass reason and rationality through accessing their unconscious mind. This gave birth to the Surrealist technique, automatism, which allowed artists to tap into their unconscious selves and embrace chance when it comes to creating their art. Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams legitimized the importance of dreams and the unconscious, in many ways reinforcing the basics which Surrealism was founded upon.
One cannot really fully encapsulate and describe Surrealist imagery, despite its iconic nature. Surrealists relied heavily on their own recurring motifs from their unconscious selves. To say the least, this imagery coalesced itself in a variety of outlandish, confounding, and uncanny ways -- enough to surely push viewers out of their comforting assumptions. Despite this, nature can often be found throughout Surrealism, whether it be Ernst or Dali. Dali’s famous The Accommodations of Desire were a prime example of his ability to extract his bizarre dreams into art on a canvas. The narrative of the work stems from his many anxieties, most notably those born out of his affair with artist Paule Eluard’s wife, Gala Eluard. The art also combines a hyper realistic painting technique with a more experimental modern collaging technique, a true example of Surrealism in play.