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WHAT IS…SURREALISM?

Posted 24 September 2014 by Kat

Why has an artist painted a massive sunflower at the top of some stairs? What has a lobster got in common with a telephone? Why paint a fish flying?

Dali (one of the most famous Surrealists) once wrote, ‘I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone’.

Salvador Dalí, Lobster Telephone 1936, © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2014

Salvador Dalí Lobster Telephone 1936, © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2014

A bit confused? Don’t worry, so are we.

Let’s start at the beginning. Surrealism began in the 1920s. It was all about experimenting with your imagination. Surrealists looked at Sigmund Freud for inspiration. He thought and wrote about the mind, memories and human instincts.

Surrealists liked to put objects together, that were not normally seen together! Like a starfish and a shoe in this painting below by Marcel Mariën. How about drawing a tree with a scarf on or a squirrel with a monocle?

Marcel Mariën, Star Dancer 1991 © DACS, 2014

Marcel Mariën, Star Dancer 1991 © DACS, 2014

There are mainly 2 types of Surrealist artworks. The first is about dreams. Here is Paul Nash’s Landscape from a Dream. What do you think about when you look at it? Does it look like your dreams?

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream 1936–8 © Tate

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream 1936–8 © Tate

If you were to draw your dream what would it look like? Maybe you could make the landscape of your dreams on My Imaginary City?

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 © DACS, 2014

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 © DACS, 2014

The painting above looks a bit like a nightmare! Surrealist artists liked looking at dark subjects and things that couldn’t be easily explained. That girl looks like she has had a bit of a shock! What do you think is happening in this painting? I wonder what that light is coming through the door?

The second type of Surrealist artwork is called ‘automatism’. This is about doing things automatically without thinking, like doodling on a page or word-association. For example, when I say ‘green’ what do you think about? Grass? Grapes?

Here’s Joan Miró’s The Great Carnivore. It’s like a big doodle which he then created a monster from! Have you ever drawn a scribble and then tried to find characters in it?

Joan Miró The Great Carnivore 1969 © Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014

Joan Miró The Great Carnivore 1969 © Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014

Quite a bit of Surrealist artwork uses collage, like this artwork by Sir Roland Penrose.

Sir Roland Penrose, Le Grand Jour 1938 © The estate of Sir Roland Penrose

Sir Roland Penrose, Le Grand Jour 1938 © The estate of Sir Roland Penrose

If you were to cut up a magazine and then place the different images together, what kind of story could you tell?

Do you like Surrealism? Which Surrealist artist is your favourite? Do you have any other questions about Surrealism? Let us know in the comments below.

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130 comments

  1. Room 16 says:

    Who invented surrealism? What is the picture about the sunflower about? Is surrealism the same as abstract art?

  2. Tate Kids says:

    Hi Room 16 – good questions! You might find this page useful: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/s/surrealism
    What do you think the sunflower picture is about?
    We also have a description of the artwork on the main Tate website too: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/tanning-eine-kleine-nachtmusik-t07346/text-summary
    Let us know if you have any other questions :)

  3. lily says:

    the blog is very good it gave me some great facts about surrealism. thanks alot!

  4. ruby says:

    Surrealism is really crazy there’s word ones interesting ones ones that really get your head round them and some are just out side the box that’s why I like surrealism

  5. hattie s says:

    Yes I think it’s awesome

  6. Alice says:

    its a lot of information that us kids can understand, this is the best site I have found

  7. mr moo moo says:

    lol

  8. john says:

    im confused

  9. Caitlan O says:

    Yes because you can draw anything you want to draw and its your chose what too draw so your not based on a certain topic

  10. sarah says:

    thanks you really helped me with my homework

  11. Richard says:

    So it is like that you are doing art that you think about or not think that comes out of your head like anything that could be random that it could be when you are asleep a dream,something like that,it is like a world that were you do what you want and you make this sort of picture that pops up.

  12. katesam says:

    really cool

  13. Anonymous says:

    Great website

  14. Arthur W says:

    Really helpful website. I will recommend it to friends. Shame that I only heard of it now. So amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Peter G says:

    10/10

  16. Anonymous says:

    What does Dada mean?

  17. Kat says:

    Hi there! You can find out more about Dada on the Tate website
    If you have any other questions do let us know!
    – Tate Kids

  18. Anonymous says:

    This is stupid, it does not tell me what Dada means!

  19. Suzzy says:

    Useful and interesting

  20. bob says:

    what is tate

  21. Ruby says:

    I think this so cool

  22. Alex nun says:

    Art is cool

  23. Marc says:

    Love this art

  24. onnonimus says:

    this it tots cray-cray

  25. so coooooool says:

    not really that cool

  26. paul pcs says:

    this website is cool for students

  27. paul pcs says:

    great learning about surrealism is showing people who cant draw any thing or don’t like to draw that is a type of art they can do.

    SURREALISM!!!!!!!!!

  28. Alex N says:

    I loveeeee art it is the best yolo

  29. Alex N says:

    What is Dada

  30. Zoe N says:

    love surrealism i need more info tho? what do people susjest? pleaze

  31. Some derpy person says:

    are you still answering questions still?

  32. Killer says:

    The star fish looks like a boss.

  33. Killer says:

    The star fish is a boss

  34. Foxface says:

    That starfish is a BOSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!#starfishboss

  35. jo says:

    um, why cant you tell us more direct facts, like, one line facts, for instance, if you were going to do abstract art, you would do this…

    1.it is a very unique type of art
    2.colours that clash are often used
    3.kadinsky was a famous abstract artist
    4.the abstract art movement started in the 1940’s in new York city.

    just sayin, it would be way more helpful. but, what you have got is brilliant, it helped me finish my project, thanks! cool website

  36. Albert the pig says:

    excellent!!!!

  37. mkeina b says:

    i think that is so good i wish i can do that his well

  38. Rob says:

    I like the intricate paintings of people in the piece by Dorothea Tanning. I want to learn how to draw and paint this well.

  39. MeMySelf I says:

    The starfish with the shoe can be looked into different things. When I saw it, I Thought it was a banana peel wearing a shoe. Starfish with shoe by Marcie Marein

  40. Paradise says:

    I would like to write a comment on Paul Nash’s painting of Landscape from a Dream.
    I liked the way he used different types of colours like Primary and Secondary and it was really good.

    Thank You!

  41. Birds Of Paradise says:

    I really liked the way the colors were painted to show that it was drawn in the morning. Its a very detailed and pretty painting of the ocean with the icy blue look and the shells representing the beach with sand. The painting is very interesting to look at and you can get mesmerized with the way the colors contrast and combine the other objects, tying them together.

  42. Jake and NedJona says:

    I liked the drawing of Paul Nash (Landscape of a Dream) because the colors were really pushing each other out, because for me the two colors red and blue are kind of like opposite colors so I really liked the color scheme. Also there was one thing that caught my attention. The crows look like they are drawing on the canvas because they are facing it and that is not something you would see in the real world. – Jake Phillips

    I looked at all drawings but Paul Nash’s drawing ( landscape of a dream ) interested me the most.I significantly like the fact you turned a beach into heaven. I personally hate the beach. But then you turned it onto a heaven, or a landscape of a dream. All the colors seemed to favor each other. One color pushed another 1 out making it look well. The fact that you draw your drawing first person made it extraordinary. However because its first person it turned into a still life which is not surrealism. – NedJona

  43. doctor octopuss says:

    Marcel Mariën, Star Dancer 1991 © DACS, 2014
    I liked the idea of the starfish wearing the high heels but I really did not like the bold blue background because the feeling is just right I think they should have been more ideas for the background and I think they should have done some more pictures like Sir Roland Penrose, Le Grand Jour 1938 © The estate of Sir Roland Penrose because i also liked that Surrealism drawing just because of the ideas and the drawing.I think Marcel Mariën, Star Dancer 1991 © DACS, 2014 should next time have more pictures and ideas.

  44. Anonymous says:

    I think the that the work of art that is by Marcel Mariën called the star dancer is interesting because i’ve not seen anything like it before.I think the the colours contrast well like the dark blue makes the starfish pop out also because the background is just one colour.I think when Marcel Mariën drew this he must have done something very creative or must have seen something interesting to come up with this idea.The high heel looks like it was slipped under the starfishes leg!

  45. Unknown says:

    I think that the picture made by Marcel Mariën because the starfish in the dark blue background in the beginning looks very ordinary and you think that it is most probably a starfish in the sea, but then you notice the heel and you that think that maybe the picture was not what you first thought it would be and you start to notice other details that go against what you first thought he picture as. The dark blue background looks like it has a grinded-like texture, which also goes against what I said before about the picture looking like a starfish in the sea.

  46. Garrett B says:

    Great surrealism

  47. mckim1213 says:

    I think that the drawing ‘landscape from a dream’ is the best because of the creativity which is in the drawing that was able to make the drawing make sense when it was weird.

  48. i am the best says:

    you are the best

  49. The one who misses his friend...... says:

    all the drawing here are all good but some of them aren’t making any sense. I think the starfish with a hill is a bit weird….

  50. onninni says:

    Very nice work

  51. bob says:

    who does surrealism

  52. the grey sparrow says:

    i found this wed site very usefull but it could f had a little bit more info and usefull things like dates and things like that but I got a few facts from it.

  53. Yazoo says:

    can you give me 15 quick facts about surrealism please? Thank you for your awesome website!

  54. ss says:

    weierd

  55. Harris says:

    Lol

  56. Epic guy says:

    How can the lobster picture be painted

  57. Someone :3 says:

    yes very good.

  58. Someone :3 says:

    AmAzInG.

  59. Anonymous says:

    Wow. I am becoming growingly inspired with the Surrealist Art Movement.

  60. jasmine :) says:

    thanks for helping me with my homework!! :)

  61. Abdul says:

    I learned a lot! I am going to recommend this site to all the surrealist kids in my life.

  62. Bob says:

    Thx alot
    Help me aton :)

  63. Isadora says:

    It was amazing! It helped me find loads of good facts for my biography about a really interesting surrealist named Leonora Carrington.

  64. Adele says:

    Hello it’s me nice PowerPoint very helpful thx

  65. georgia says:

    this helps me so much . I didn’t even no want surrealisim

  66. Harry says:

    This has helped me with my surrealism homework.

  67. gilda says:

    i like it
    no questions
    i wrote this because i like it

  68. Max G says:

    Thanks, this helped a lot with my homework.

  69. Max G says:

    :)

  70. Curly says:

    I STILL DO NOT GET WHAT SURREALISM ART IS…. HELP ME!!!!!!

    IT WAS WELL EASY TO UNDERSTAND THOUGH

  71. Amy says:

    More explanation and facts needed instead of all the questions. Maybe add some lists of surrealism artists to help with that aspect as well.

  72. Hayley says:

    I think these paintings a random… cool but random

  73. KOE says:

    THANK YOU A LOT FOR THIS

  74. Sally G says:

    It is rather unique and special. A peek into the unknown.

  75. Bob says:

    Hi

  76. Taila says:

    I like it !

  77. Bella S says:

    Thank you so much. This site really helped me to understand the basics of Surrealism. It was very helpful and I received an A+ for my homework assignment.

  78. art says:

    i need to know what surrealism is i’ve got a brief idea but i still don’t fully get it. can you expain it in a different way

  79. igotyesjams says:

    so its basically drawing/doodling something random that comes to your mind? or some surrealists might take a different approach and use the dark side. (which is what I’m most intrigued in) Thank you for this site, really helped me.

  80. Steven Speilberg says:

    Now i understand people enjoy artwork but honestly i am sitting here researching Dali and this is soooo boring and a waste of time i couldnt care less about this person or art in general i dont know why im typing this i guess its to pass the time. Sorry if it offended anyone im just really bored

  81. haloo says:

    it wasnt useful at all
    i think u need to work on it more to make it more interesint concise to the point

  82. Connor says:

    This was really use full thx

  83. Simon says:

    Eat you food

  84. shamaniel says:

    good facts

  85. Maninder says:

    Surrealism has a mind of its own kind

  86. Maninder says:

    It’s awesome
    I’m speechless ☺️☺️☹️☹️

  87. Maninder says:

    It’s awesome
    I’m speechless

  88. Els says:

    Was Alberto Giacometti a surrealist artist? Need help!!

  89. ??? says:

    cheers

  90. No One says:

    Cool

  91. Krishna says:

    Cool it is super

  92. Rachel says:

    These are amazing art works

  93. Rachel says:

    hi

  94. Elio says:

    Will u plz give me 3 things surrealist artist painted

  95. Georgie says:

    what influenced surrealism?

  96. Abbi b says:

    very useful website for all projects and well written

  97. asdf says:

    Solvador Dali is amazing!

  98. asdf says:

    dali is cool

  99. anna says:

    Have you got any more facts about the two types of surrealist art?

  100. adelaide says:

    this really help me with my homework, so thank you, I also really just enjoyed finding out about surrealism.

  101. tuppence says:

    is there a quicker way to sum up what it all means

  102. big daddy says:

    intrigued

  103. WOW says:

    WOW this is boring…

  104. Neve says:

    Hello

  105. Master of Balloons says:

    This is amazing

  106. Mitzi says:

    i really like it

  107. lol says:

    10/10

  108. lol says:

    great for homework

  109. Charlie says:

    What’s the most popular surealism painting?

  110. Unicorn says:

    Thanx!! This really helps with my homework…

  111. Wonder why says:

    What does surrealism have to do with drama

  112. Honey G says:

    What does surrealism have to do with drama

  113. luna says:

    Thanks, it helped me a lot with my homework!!

  114. luna says:

    thanks, this helped me a lot with my homework!!

  115. lol says:

    helps so much

  116. poo says:

    hi this is useful!

  117. daniel says:

    good thank you for this article well explaned

  118. sujit m says:

    I love surrealist painting.how I create this thinking my painting.

  119. lottie says:

    i just love art but i just don’t understand this ????????

  120. haley unicorn says:

    thanks helps soooooooooooooooooooo much

  121. noname says:

    thanks for the help

  122. Anonymous says:

    hi

  123. tommie says:

    really liked it ill like to see more

  124. rosie may says:

    loved it learnt lots of new things and helped me understand work at school. Thanks LOVE IT !!!!

  125. Cindy says:

    Really out of this world.

  126. Anonymous says:

    thank so muchv

  127. anonymous thing says:

    good for Alexander Calder homework!!

  128. Ally says:

    Thank you for the information, it helped me a lot

  129. I have questions says:

    My teacher told us to do a surrealism piece of art for homework though I don’t know what type it’s due tomorrow morning

  130. Kari says:

    Thank you! This is a great explanation to share in my art lesson. I’m a parent volunteer art teacher and appreciate your help in educating me so I can help educate my students.