Salvador Dali – The Ideal Surrealist Artist

Salvador Dali, Dream Caused By the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944)

Dali, a Surrealist painter of the twentieth century, needs no lengthy introduction for one to easily recognize his bizarre, dreamlike, “surreal”, imagery that truly defined him as an artist. Instead of a boring history lesson on Salvador Dali, I prefer to explore the ideology behind his works and explore their possible meanings. With this particular painting we again see a painting that right off the bat looks crazy and weird, something only the subconscious or dream world could create. Dali is arguably the most famous artist creating these types of works, for he held nothing back when it came to unleashing the automatic. Sigmund Freud was a large inspiration for Dali’s dreamscape paintings and although we may never involve ourselves so deeply into psychoanalysis, I believe the surrealist ideal doesn’t require us to do so in order to gain insight and take something from the painting. The ideal is that basically all facets of life are teetering between a balance of the real, the tangible, things that makes sense and also the intangible, the subconscious, dreams, the weird, wacky, and unexplainable. Without one or the other, life isn’t balanced. What is significant about this “balance” in my opinion is in the war torn times of the early twentieth century, when surrealism was developed, people needed balance, they needed stability to be comfortable. So the idea that surrealism or Dali’s paintings are a rejection of the normal or using nonsense to combat the normal is almost in my opinion correct. However I don’t believe the motive was to just turn everything into dream worlds and reject all that is normal like many see surrealism to be, I believe that his work was intended to be almost like a safe haven for those looking to escape the monotony of everyday life. I believe Salvador Dali is a genius and amazing surrealist artist because he was able to recreate the subconscious and the dream like places and by doing so he forces the viewer away from the “norm” even if it is just for a moment, to provide that balance.

Images from:

Joshua Hancock


The Surrealist Legacy

Although the “true end” of surrealism is hotly debated, most scholars agree that surrealism continues to be a significant and influential even into modern times. Expressed in such varied forms as art, theater, literature, film and even music, it is hard to determine just how Surrealism as a movement can ever truly “end”. That being said, the peak of the movement is considered by many to have occurred shortly after the split of 1929, and continued into the mid-1930’s, when Salvador Dali came into popularity.  It was during this time that exhibitions were held throughout Europe and Surrealist art really came into the public eye.  Once World War II began in the 1940’s, however, many artists fled Europe and many journals were disbanded.  Despite this breakdown in communications, many artists continued working in the Surreal style for years to come, and their work greatly influenced artists throughout the century.

from Mom and Pop Art, 1999

from Treehouse of Horror IV, October 1993

Paintings such as Magritte’s Son of Man and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory have come to characterize the Surrealist movement in many people’s minds, and have become famous to such a point that even the common man who claims to know nothing of art can recognize them. For instance, although your average joe may not be able to identify Rene Magritte as the creator of Son of Man, he will likely recognize the image from its references in pop culture. From Michael Jackson music videos to episodes of The Simpsons or Futurama, Surrealist art has left a legacy which will not soon be forgotten. The Simpsons, often known for including subtle academic humor in their shows have even gone further into the depths of Surrealism.  In one episode, Mom and Pop Art (1999) Homer falls asleep while in an art museum and finds himself in a world filled with melting clocks (The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali 1931), exploring the subconscious nature of Surreal art. While these works are nearly a century old, they have remained relevant throughout the generations when they are prominently featured in current pop culture.

Tim Burton, 1992

Surrealism has also bled into the movements in the “postmodern” era (present times).  For instance, present-day artist and cinematic genius Tim Burton recently held an exhibition of his work at MoMA in Los Angeles, where he was heralded as a forerunner of “Pop Surrealism”.  The term, coined in the 1970’s, refers to “lowbrow” cartoon-like imagery not typically associated with the fine arts, such as graphic novels (comics) and animated cartoons. His movies, including Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) are two popular examples of his dreamlike characters and landscapes.  One of the featured pieces of the 800-piece exhibition is the polaroid Untitled (A Christmas Photo).  This strange image of what appears to be a chihuahua with antlers is jarring in its dissonance.  The image of such a small dog with oversized elk antlers displays similar techniques to Surrealist painters like Rene Magritte who juxtaposed incongruous elements in order to create a surreal image.

Top: Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton (1988)
Bottom: The Red Tower, Giorgio De Chirico (1913)

To the right I have included a still from the movie Edward Scissorhands (1988) next to an early surreal landscape by Giorgio de Chirico, The Red Tower.  The two share a similar focal point technique which highlights the disproportionately sized building in the center.  These skewed dimensions are reminiscent of a dreamscape, bending space in an impossible manner although the objects around them appear to be “normal”.  This inversion of the Renaissance focal point technique which is used classically to convey depth is a hallmark of Surreal landscapes.




Landscapes and the focal point technique were often used by Salvador Dali.  In The Persistence of Memory (1931) and The First Days of Spring (1929), Dali employs a classical backdrop for his otherwise surreal subjects, causing the viewer to become somewhat disoriented.  In the latter, Dali also employs another common Surrealist trend: Collage.  In order to best achieve the skewed proportions of a dream, many artists would collage cut images over a painted backdrop, as we can see on the right.  This technique has persisted, as is evidenced by the movie poster for Time Bandits, an English movie released in 1981.  The plot involves a young boy with an incredible imagination who goes on a historical time-traveling adventure, and the cover art reflects the “trapdoors” which seem to take him through time and space.  When viewed side-by-side the similarities between the collaging techniques become apparent.  Both of the images have a seemingly realistic skyline, but the other elements are seemingly independent of one another, yet are arranged in collage to interact.  The image of the pirate ship atop the swimming man’s head is especially provocative of surrealist notions of the subconscious, inviting a mental adventure into lands unknown.

Left: Time Bandits, 1981
Right: The First Days of Spring, Salvador Dali 1929


All in all, it seems that although the Surrealist Movement has dwindled considerably, the art and techniques created, as well as the ideas which inspired them, are still relevant to society today, and will hopefully remain so for years to come.

“Surrealism, as many of us had conceived of it for years… I hope will be considered as having tried nothing better than to cast a conduction wire between the far too distant worlds of waking and sleep, exterior and interior reality, reason and madness, the assurance of knowledge and love, of life for life and the revolution”

– Andre Breton



Rene Magritte’s The Philosophy in the Bedroom


Rene Magritte, The Philosophy in the Bedroom (1962)

The Rene Magritte painting The Philosophy in the Bedroom is discussed in the brief but eloquent article Magritte: The Uncanny and the Image by Silvano Levy. Levy applies Freud’s theory of the uncanny to Magritte’s work in relation to the traditional Surrealist concept of the image. For clarification, in his writing on the matter, Freud defines the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The author defines the Surrealist concept of the image as “a correlation between elements which are apparently unrelated or even irreconcilable.” This is certainly not the case of the elements that comprise the image found in The Philosophy in the Bedroom. The night dress and the body underneath it are very much related, one suited exactly for the other, technically disqualifying it from being an orthodox Surrealist image according to Andre Breton’s first manifesto.

But, Levy argues that because of mixing the secret with the familiar and violating taboo, the elements of the painting are not separated by “objective distance” but rather by “subjective dissociation,” which causes shock associated with the uncanny and the realization of repressed parts of the psyche. Thus, “convention, rather than objective necessity, imposes a disjunction in the ordering of conscious reality.” Plainly put, the work seems to be orthodoxically Surrealist in its effect, if not in its method.

Perhaps, Levy’s exquisite and articulate explanation is only part of the experience evoked by viewing the painting. These sober and rigorous interpretations risk detracting from what I feel is a rather playful painting. Of course, the piece initially has a slightly jarring effect, but this shock is surely and immediately outweighed by wit. I’ve been looking at it for days and I still find it funny, if not altogether ridiculous. With that being said, Magritte, much to his compliment, leaves ample intellectual room for both pedantic rhetoric  and brash humor.

Freud, Sigmund. “The uncanny.” first published (1919): 339-76.

Levy, Silvano. “MAGRITTE: THE UNCANNY AND THE IMAGE.” French Studies Bulletin 13.46 (1993): 15-17.

Image courtesy of

Revolutionary Journals

La Révolution surréaliste and Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution were two very important periodicals for the Surrealist group around André Breton in Paris. Why were journals so important for the development of an artistic movement or group in the early 1920’s ?

They were the primary source of distribution the creative community could refer to. “The journal was a vehicle for promoting emerging styles, establishing new theories and creating a context for understanding new visual forms” (Hofmann 131). For the surrealists the periodicals provided a forum for their experiments with automatic writings, imagery and their dream interpretations. In addition, the form of a journal is ideal when trying to achieve a combination of a way of publishing images and texts alongside. Here they could be juxtaposed in an efficient way.  La Révolution surréaliste was published from 1924 until 1929, when the second Manifesto by Breton was published in its last issue and the split between Bataille and Breton took place (see the Division). Nevertheless, the journal had been very successful. It’s layout imitated the style of a scientific magazine named La Nature. This should identify the journal as not simply an aesthetic booklet, but a source of experimental research based on theoretical approaches inspired by people such as Freud and later Hegel, Marx and Trotsky.

Man Ray, monument à D.A.F. de Sade, 1933
published in LSASDLR

Furthermore, the format of a scientific paper gave the images contained in the journal an effect of evidence rather than being of pure aesthetic nature. Throughout it’s existence the journal was “consistently and incessantly scandalous and revolutionary”, it dealt with the darker sides of men’s psyches including suicide, death, violence, sexual perversion and anticlerical attitudes.

Breton was clearly the most important figure to start the movement and the Journal itself, emerging out of Littérature.




artstor  Image: 06_023_309   Call Number: G350HBS962 E966 A

cadavre exquis, André Breton, Valentine Hugo, Tristan Tzara? 1926

However, his prominent role as main and only director was only established after the fourth issue. After this, the journal contained more poems and illustrations then before and became more political at the same time. The later issues showed the surrealist invention of the game called “Le Cadavre exquis”. This exquisite Corpse is a drawing built of a collective participation on a folded paper. Every participant draws one body part without seeing what the others have already done before. In this way, a new surrealist being was created.    In the twelfth and last issue the second Manifesto was published which led to a re-naming of the journal to Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution. This journal, now completely under the reign of André Breton sympathizes with Communist Ideology.  Automatic writings virtually disappeared and very few dream recitals were published in it. What was more prominent were political and theoretical texts. Additionally, what is interesting, is that a discourse between Breton and Freud emerged in which Breton criticized Freud of not having referred to all his sources and Freud declares that he does not understand what the Surrealism is meant to be.  All in all, Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution had only six issues in between 1930 and 1933 and was less popular than the first version of the journal, which might be caused by its growing provocative outline. Many members explored the writings of the Marquis de Sade which had been brought to them by Guillaume Apollinaire. Sade’s work consisted of erotic writings which had a strong focus on pornography combined with philosophical thinking. Sexual fantasies, often violent,  were depicted and described, which served the Surrealists as inspiration.   The revolution the Surrealists were talking about or looking for was not only to be found in the breaking with bourgeois values and traditions, but also with the political system and imperialistic politics, which became more clear in the later journal.   Both periodicals however were platforms for new and different thoughts and lay the ground for the development of an international Surrealism.


Hofmann,  Irene E. . Documents of Dada and Surrealism: Dada and Surrealist Journals in the Mary Reynolds Collection. Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies Vol. 22, No. 2, Mary Reynolds and the Spirit of Surrealism (1996), pp. 130-149+197

Ades, Dawn.     Dada and surrealism reviewed /    [London] :   Arts Council of Great Britain,   1978.

Desiree Borsky

The First Surrealist Manifesto

The First Surrealist Manifesto (1924)

The manifesto demonstrates the huge influence the Dada movement had due to heavy use of absurdist humor that was popular during that time. The document begins by defining Surrealism as automatism in its purest state where an individual is free to express in any means the functioning of thought, and allowing the thought to take control without restricting it by any form of reason. The idea behind this method was so it could be easier to create different means of analyzing and interpreting human psyche. Breaking the traditional social norms of interpretation allows for different modes of consciousness to take shape. It contains many different applications of surrealist thought to different forms of literature and poetry, while emphasizing the fact that these concepts were free to be applied to any form of expression, and did not necessarily have to restricted and exclusive to art. Although Surrealism is most commonly associated with paintings and drawings, it could extend to many different types of expressions, which was one of the primary aims of Surrealism itself. As we can see from Matthew’s article, Breton’s optimistic assurance that surrealism “is what will be” clarifies that affirmation by confirming that the full flowering of surrealism is not to be sought in a statement like the Manifesto itself, but in the response it solicits. After all, Surrealism is all about the individual response to a certain stimuli and the manner in which it is interpreted through any means of expression. He concludes the Manifesto by stating that Surrealist thought and activity follows no strict plan or pattern, as it is all open to individual interpretation, and that at the end of the day, non-conforming is the name of the game. What made Surrealism so popular was the fact that an individual was free to interpret quite literally everything in whichever manner they felt most comfortable, or whichever manner resonated with them the most. There was no clear cut right or wrong way in which something could be interpreted, or expressed for that matter. The open ended nature of Surrealism further resonated with people due to the fact that it operated on a universal plane relative to it’s dreamy atmosphere. This near universality allowed for people, regardless of class, age, or gender, to find some form of connection with whatever it is they were looking at.

Full Reading:

Salvador Dali and the Second Surrealist Manifesto

Andre Breton, Manifeste du Surrealisme

As Surrealism developed over about a decade in the 1920’s, it explored new ways of representing the world and reality under the first surrealist manifesto. The majority of new “Surrealist” art was found mostly in poetry and writing, figured by some artists the best or only true way of representing the automatic subconscious. This idea however was rejected by many and thus painting, collage, etc. were also developed in the Surrealist aspect. Anything that represented the new, more automatic, basic, or unreasonable could fall under this Surrealist movement.

Surrealism progressively developed into the 1930’s. During this time the unique qualities and true beauty of surrealism were being understood.  Lautreamont provides a simile to the beauty of Surrealism, “Beautiful as the chance to encounter a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” “This un expecting, arbitrary beauty, these dumbfounding juxtapositions, are the very voice of Surrealism.” That is the beauty of Surrealism; to be able to view the randomness and ultimate imagery that the subconscious can provide, and to understand/accept that not everything is rational and that life is a wash of reality and fantasy. It’s now that Breton and a few others, came up with the Second Surrealist Manifesto, which “proceeds towards an evaluation of the Surrealist spirt.”. The beauty now being invoked by surrealism art was the focus, and that beauty was arguably explored the most by the new Surrealist artist of that time Salvador Dali.

Salvador Dali, Lugubrious Game (1929)

Dali, a spanish artist, formally became a Surrealist around 1929, which is also about the time when the second manifesto came about. Dali was known to be “deeply interested in insanity, hysteria, trance phenomena, every symptom of mania..”, which allowed him to steer Surrealism in this new direction where before others had only approached in the “most tentative fashion”. “He gives full rein to dreams and hallucinations which he represent in the most faithful and meticulous way.” Simply put Dali was willing to represent the extreme version of the First Surrealist Manifesto, the true subconscious with all its offensiveness, with all the immoral implications, something that either wasn’t excepted ten years earlier with the first manifesto or something that couldn’t be expected without this understanding of the ideology and beauty of the movement that the Second Manifesto brought about.

Images from:

In the Light of Surrealism
Georges Hugnet and Margaret Scolari
The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art , Vol. 4, No. 2/3, Dada and Surrealism: Essays by Georges Hugnet (Nov. – Dec., 1936), pp. 19-32
Joshua Hancock