A Description of the Surrealism Painting Style

by Maria Kielmas Google
Salvador Dali's bent watches are some of the most famous surrealist images.

Salvador Dali's bent watches are some of the most famous surrealist images.

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Surrealism was a European art movement that flourished from 1919 to 1939, between World Wars I and II. Its adherents believed that art was created in the unconscious mind. Surrealists did not have a single painting style but developed new techniques and ideas. Surrealism renewed itself in the United States in 1942, following an exhibition in New York in the “Art of This Century” gallery of American art collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979).


Surrealism’s roots lay in the anti-war and anti-art Dada movement that was founded during World War I in Zurich, Switzerland, and peaked between 1916 and 1922. Influenced by Dada, the French writer Andre Breton (1896-1966) founded surrealism in the 1920s, claiming that European culture had lost all meaning.


The original surrealists did not care for traditional art and believed that Europe’s culture, politics and social structures repressed peoples’ powers of creativity and imagination. Surrealism became a quasi-religious, dogmatic movement. Breton expelled many of its famous artists, such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, before 1939 as the movement ended in Europe.

Mechanical Imagery

The German painter Max Ernst (1891-1976) developed the technique of frottage, or rubbing pigment into a paper laid over a textured surface. This technique marks the beginning of surrealist painting. Ernst was a self-taught painter and former Dadaist who thought that true art lay in the imagination of those thought insane. He developed the grattage, or scraping, technique by scraping dry paint from a canvas. Austrian-Mexican artist Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959) developed the fumage, or smoking, technique in the 1930s from the random patterns made by moving a smoking candle on paper and canvas.

Verastic Surrealists

Spanish-Catalan painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) invented a “critical paranoia” technique that cultivated paranoid delusions. This approach gave rise to his hallucinatory images of half-humans, half-animals with telescoping legs and bent watches. Belgian artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967), a former wallpaper designer, fused a realistic technique with surreal imagery. Such images were metaphors that conveyed certain philosophical content. Verastic surrealists believed that unconscious images held a solution to the world’s problems.


Spanish-Catalan painter Joan Miro (1893-1983) and the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) developed an “automatic” drawing technique in which a pen moves across a paper without any sense of direction. These automatist painters did not believe that art had any interpretation. The technique survived the breakup of the surrealist movement during World War II. Armenian-American Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) carried this technique to New York, where it served as an inspiration for the abstract paintings of American artist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956).

About the Author

Based in London, Maria Kielmas worked in earthquake engineering and international petroleum exploration before entering journalism in 1986. She has written for the "Financial Times," "Barron's," "Christian Science Monitor," and "Rheinischer Merkur" as well as specialist publications on the energy and financial industries and the European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latin American regions. She has a Bachelor of Science in physics and geology from Manchester University and a Master of Science in marine geotechnics from the University of Wales School of Ocean Sciences.

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