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

Eileen Agar
Angel of Anarchy (1936–40)

Surrealism aims to revolutionise human experience. It balances a rational vision of life with one that asserts the power of the unconscious and dreams. The movement’s artists find magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional. At the core of their work is the willingness to challenge imposed values and norms, and a search for freedom.

The word ‘surrealist’ (suggesting ‘beyond reality’) was coined by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the preface to a play 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 have used automatic drawing or writing to unlock ideas and images from their unconscious minds. Others have wanted to depict dream worlds or hidden psychological tensions. Surrealist artists have also drawn inspiration from mysticism, ancient cultures and Indigenous art and knowledges as a way of imagining alternative realities.

The movement’s aspiration towards the liberation of the mind as well as the liberation of artistic expressions has also meant seeking political freedom. In many instances, these artists have turned to political activism. In this way, the revolutionary concepts encouraged by Surrealism has led the movement to be seen as a way of life.

Since its inception, the ideas and art associated with Surrealism have been disseminated, embraced and re-imagined through international networks of exchange and collaboration. Surrealism's core ideas and themes have been adapted and deemed relevant to different historical, geographical and cultural contexts, enabling it to be expressed through plural voices.

However wide the influence of surrealist concerns has been on artists across the world, certain artists who have been assimilated to the movement have always refused to be defined as Surrealists.

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Selected artists in the collection

Selected artworks in the collection

Surrealism at Tate

  • Tate Modern

    Surrealism Beyond Borders

    24 Feb – 29 Aug 2022

    This landmark exhibition will rewrite the history of the revolutionary art movement

  • International Surrealism

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

  • Tate Britain

    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

    Surrealism: Desire Unbound

    20 Sep 2001 – 1 Jan 2002

    Surrealism: Desire Unbound, Tate Modern

  • Tate Modern

    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 - 11 September 2011