Art Term


A twentieth-century literary, philosophical and artistic movement that explored the workings of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and the revolutionary

Salvador Dalí, ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ 1937
Salvador Dalí
Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2018

Surrealism aimed to revolutionise human experience, rejecting a rational vision of life in favour of one that asserted the value of the unconscious and dreams. The movement’s poets and artists found magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional.

The word ‘surrealist’ (suggesting ‘beyond reality’) was coined by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in a play written in 1903 and performed in 1917. But it was André Breton, leader of a new grouping of poets and artists in Paris, who, in his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), defined surrealism as:

pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Many surrealist artists used automatic drawing or writing to unlock ideas and images from their unconscious minds, and others sought to depict dream worlds or hidden psychological tensions.

Attractive to writers, artists, photographers and filmmakers from around the world who shared this aggressive rejection of conventional artistic and moral values, surrealism quickly became an international movement. It exerted enormous impact on the cultural life of many countries in the interwar years and later.

Many argue that surrealism, as an identifiable cultural movement, ended with the death of Breton in 1966. Others believe that it remains a vital and relevant force today.

While ‘surreal’ is often used loosely to mean simply ‘strange’ or ‘dreamlike’, it is not to be confused with ‘surrealist’ which describes a substantial connection with the philosophy and manifestations of the surrealist movement.

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Selected artists in the collection

Selected artworks in the collection

Surrealism at Tate

Tate Modern Display

International Surrealism

See surrealist artworks made by the original Paris-based group and other international artists 

Free entry
Tate Britain Exhibition

Paul Nash

26 Oct 2016 – 5 Mar 2017

Uncover the surreal and mystical side of English landscapes through one of the most distinctive British painters

Tate Modern Exhibition

Surrealism: Desire Unbound

20 Sep 2001 – 1 Jan 2002
Surrealism: Desire Unbound, Tate Modern
Tate Modern Exhibition

Miró: The Ladder of Escape

14 Apr – 11 Sep 2011
Miró: The Ladder of Escape; past Tate Modern exhibition. First major retrospective in London for nearly 50 years. 14 April ...