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Design Trend Report: Surrealism

Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 16 min read

Surrealism is an art and design trend that creates jarring, fantastical illustrations and paintings dedicated to unleashing the expressions of the unconscious mind. As a result, it’s not just about art: it’s about reconciling the artist’s dreams with tangible reality to create a so-called absolute reality. As a design movement, it has left behind evocative imagery that comes straight out of adherents’ dreams and nightmares. As a pop-culture movement, it has impacted areas beyond design, such as literature, music, and film.
Surrealists enjoy challenging their audiences with scenes that make no conventional sense and therefore invite viewers to ponder artwork with a mixture of curiosity and, sometimes, shock. Artwork created in the surrealist mold is at once vivid and mundane, interesting and off-putting, familiar and foreign—the product of the unconscious mind’s liberation expressed in what’s known as automatic drawing.
Here’s a crash course on surrealism and all of its quirks.

The History of Surrealism

When we look at the definition of the word “surreal,” we automatically associate it with adjectives such as bizarre, weird, and odd. That’s because its connotation is something that challenges our concept of reality in a way that’s not necessarily positive or negative, just different.
With that in mind, you’ll soon see why this art movement is so aptly named.
Etymologically speaking, we have one Guillaume Apollinaire, a French playwright and poet whose works also contributed to the Futurist design movement, to thank for the term “surrealism.” He coined the term in March of 1917, years before it came into being as an official movement within Paris. His use of the term was a reference to Parade, the early 20th-century ballet featuring costume and set design by Pablo Picasso. Apollinaire was taken by how Parade’s use of scenery and costumes, in his opinion, diverged significantly from what had been done up to that point.
It’s crucial to realize that Apollinaire’s views were coming in the context of World War I, which raged on from 1914 to 1918. Like so many other design trends in early 20th-century Europe at the time, the development of surrealism, especially as it concerned its founding artists’ and designers’ outlook on the world, was being shaped by this global conflict. As an example, De Stijl design, which originated in Holland at around the same time, emerged largely because its adherents were isolated from the rest of Europe during the war since Holland was a neutral country.

Image Source: Wikipedia
When it came to surrealism, however, its founders were free to roam and gather influences from other parts of Europe. One of the ideas that struck a chord with many of them was the also then-burgeoning Dada movement, which was an avant-garde design philosophy that rejected capitalism and war while embracing radical, left-wing politics, originating in Zurich, Switzerland, among other early locations.
That brings us to the movement’s actual founder, Andre Breton, a French poet and writer, who initially started as a devotee to Dadaism. However, after the war, his experimentation with something fascinating known as automatic writing—or surrealist automatism, if you will—led to a radical change in his outlook. Instead of the Dada movement’s tactics of attacking existing values, Breton began to believe that social change could come more swiftly through this automatism.
To understand this design movement, you have to understand automatism.
In a nutshell, automatism (or automatic drawing) is Surrealism’s answer to automatic writing. Whereas automatic writing is, purportedly, when mediums channel spirits of the dead to write through them, automatism is when a designer or painter cedes complete control to his unconscious mind during the artistic process. During automatism, the surrealist’s hand moves randomly over the paper or canvas to ensure that coincidence and chance are in control during the illustration, so as to eliminate the mind’s intentional and logical influence. In theory, this process would result in the subconscious rising to the forefront and expressing itself in the finished painting, thus giving insight into the surrealist’s cryptic psyche.
Breton even coined the phrase “pure psychic automatism” to define his nascent movement.
Have a look at some of our favorite surrealist-inspired digital assets to see if you can spot these automatic-drawing influences:

Eventually, by the early 1920s, this movement started to draw more luminaries into the fold, including:

  • Salvador Dali (painter, sculptor, artist, draftsman, and photographer)
  • Man Ray (American visual artist)
  • Max Ernst (German graphic artist, sculptor, and painter)
  • Roger Vitrac (French playwright and poet)
  • Pierre Naville (French sociologist and writer)
  • Paul Elulard (French poet)
  • Marcel Duchamp (French-American sculptor, painter, and writer)

All this came to a head by 1924, when two, competing surrealist groups were established in France. Breton, leader of one group, and Yvan Goll, leader of the other, actually came to blows at one point due to the intensity of their schism within the movement. To influence and persuade people to accept their respective viewpoints on surrealism, each leader published a manifesto: Goll published his Manifeste du surréalisme in Surréalisme on October 1, 1924, while Breton published his Manifeste du surréalisme on October 15, 1924, within the pages of Éditions du Sagittaire.
In the end, it was Breton’s vision of the movement that won out, enshrined in his manifesto. After this seminal moment in the movement’s history, it seemed like the sky was the limit. Throughout the 1920s, the movement expanded, with surrealist organizations forming in Brussels and the first exhibition, called La Peinture Surrealiste, held in Paris by 1925.
Surrealism got so influential that it even expanded into the politics of its day. It was firmly affiliated with communism, with Breton and some of his supporters being staunch followers of Leon Trotsky, the Marxist theorist and Russian revolutionary who had a significant role in the 1917 October Revolution that was a precursor to the Soviet Union’s formation in 1922.
Literature saw contributions by the surrealists, including Le Pèse-Nerfs (1926) and Death to the Pigs (1929).
Other mediums like films also received attention from this movement, including:

  • 1924’s Entr’acte (short film)
  • 1929’s Un Chien Andalou (silent film)
  • 1930’s Le Sang d’un Poete (avant-garde film)

By the 1930s, the movement had entered its very own golden age, increasing its visibility and popularity with the public at large. The movement expanded into England and culminated in the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition, while another, smaller branch formed in Birmingham at around the same time.
Additional exhibitions soon followed, finally reaching the shores of America, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its 1936 exhibition titled Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism. Then, 1938 saw another huge exhibition, this time again in Paris: The Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme drew attendance from more than 60 artists and designers and showed off 300 unique works.

Image Source: ADAGP, Paris, 2005
While World War II put a damper on its expansion for a few years, it couldn’t be held down for good. Noteworthy figures like Breton fled to the U.S. to escape the war’s chaos, where they found surprising support and interest for their ideas. Look no farther than 1942’s First Papers of Surrealism, an exhibition held in New York as proof of this.
After the war, exhibitions resumed in earnest, with the following as highlights:

  • 1947’s Paris International Surrealist Exhibition
  • 1959’s Paris International Surrealist Exhibition
  • 1960’s New York Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanter’s Domain

After Breton’s death in 1966, the movement continued to go strong, with a notable foray into politics. In the 1980s, when the Soviet Union used the Iron Curtain to stand off against the U.S. and the west, an artistic, anti-Communist movement called the Orange Alternative began to blossom in Poland. Conceived by activist Waldemar “Major” Fydrych, this insurrection utilized surrealist ideas and symbolism to organize large rallies against the dictatorial, left-wing regime in Poland, also painting graffiti with a surrealist bent on areas where anti-regime propaganda had been covered up. What’s notable about this surrealist involvement in politics is that it was used to oppose communism, whereas Surrealism’s founder, Breton, and other early luminaries were actually aligned with communists.
As recently as the turn of the last century, modern museums have continued to hold exhibitions of this style:

  • New York City’s Guggenheim Museum’s Two Private Eyes in 1999
  • London’s Tate Modern’s International Surrealism in 2001 and beyond
  • New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Desire Unbound in 2002

Today, there are numerous surrealist groups operating worldwide, with some notable examples being:

The Characteristics of Surrealism

The beauty of this style is that, perhaps more than any other design, you’ll know it when you see it. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about it. As soon as you see a drawing or a painting that explores a scene that’s disjointed and looks like it came straight out of a dream—you know you’re staring at a surrealist offering.
Here are the many telltale features of surrealist works:

  • Shock value (unnerving, jarring, etc.)
  • Oxymorons and juxtapositions in the same design or artwork
  • Asymmetry or imbalance
  • A dreamlike state or quality
  • Vibrant colors
  • Metaphorical qualities
  • Celebrating the unconscious aspect of the mind
  • Unorthodox application of paint to a canvas or of a writing utensil to a surface
  • Liberation from the ordinary and logic, so as to encourage imagination
  • A lack of logic (irrational)
  • White or negative space
  • Abstract, depictive and psychological elements galore
  • The removal of the usual significance from ordinary, everyday objects

See if you can spot some of these many, interesting characteristics in some of our surrealism digital assets:

The Techniques of Surrealism

It’s notable to point out that this design movement also features a number of interesting techniques that empowers its designers and artists to create their masterpieces. As you’ll see, some of them are just as unconventional as the movement itself:

  • Frottage – an automated, creative production characterized by rubbing as the basis for further artistic exploration

Image Source: Nicola L.K.

  • Decalcomania – a decorative method to transfer prints and engravings onto pottery or 3D objects
  • Photomontage – the creation of a composition by overlapping, cutting or rearranging two or more separate images into one
  • Aerography – a method where a 3D object is utilized for a stencil with spraypainting
  • Involuntary sculpture – a sculpting technique characterized by absent-mindedly shaping an object; coulage is a form of involuntary sculpture produced by pouring a molten metal into cold water to form a random shape
  • Heatage – a method where an unfixed though exposed photo negative gets heated from underneath, producing emulsion and the ensuing image to develop randomly
  • Fumage – an approach where impressions are produced onto a canvas or paper by the smoke of a lamp or candle

Image Source: Andreas Neufert

  • Cubomania – an approach to making collages where an image gets divided into squares and said squares are randomly rearranged
  • Éclaboussure – a process where watercolors or oil paints are applied and either turpentine or water is splattered and then soaked up to show disorganized spots where the material was removed
  • Grattage – a painting process in which normally wet paint is scraped off a canvas
  • Automatism – a drawing technique where the illustrator or painter surrenders rational control to his unconscious mind; entopic graphomania is a form of automatism, in which dots are placed at the points of blemishes on a piece of paper and then straight or curved lines connect these dots
  • Parsemage – a method where dust from color chalk or charcoal gets distributed on water’s surface, then skimmed away via stiff cardboard or paper right beneath the water’s surface
  • Triptography – an approach to photography in which a film roll gets used three times to triple-expose it, so that no single image has a distinct subject
  • Étrécissements – a so-called reductive approach to visual art whereby pieces of an image are cut away to eventually create a new image
  • Bulletism – a technique where ink is shot onto a blank piece of paper, where artists can create images based on what they see
  • Collage – a process where artwork is created by forming a bigger assemblage out of various forms
  • Soufflage – a method of image creation based on blowing on liquid paint to develop an image

Note the consistency in the philosophy of this movement: not only are its designs unconventional, but its approaches to creating these designs are also markedly different from anything else you’ve ever come across.

Surrealism in Graphic Design

Because of its devotion to the delightfully weird and shocking, this style lends itself well to graphic design. Here are some great examples of notable surrealist offerings in graphic design:

La Révolution surréaliste

Translated to the Surrealist Revolution, this publication went live in 1924, shortly after Breton published his manifesto. The cover is a study in minimalism and symmetry, with a neatly centered heading, tri-shape image, and a rectangular information box at the bottom.

Image Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France via Wikimedia Commons
The fonts used in the different parts of the text are all serif fonts, which is a reflection of what was popular back in the day in Paris.

The Elephant Celebes

From Max Ernst, this painting is celebrated as one of the most famous surrealist works in all of history. It’s also one of the earliest.

Image Source: Olga’s Gallery
When you gaze upon the composition, you immediately notice its dreamlike quality that’s haunting and aesthetic all at once.
If you closely look at the piece, you’ll see there’s a lot going on:

  • A horned tail and head of the mechanical elephant
  • A surgical glove (a common surrealist symbol) on the nude figure
  • The low center of gravity of the creature’s bulk
  • A reference to Greek mythology in the nude figure (implying Europa’s abduction by Zeus while in bull form)

L’Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surréalisme

Another creation by Ernst, this artwork, also known as the throwing-down lizard, is a perfect example of a surrealist work that’s downright bizarre and intended to shock the audience.

Image Source: Wilhelm Barth
Seemingly straight out of someone’s nightmare, the painting depicts a humanoid-looking, fierce creature on the prowl against a cloudy, threatening sky. Note the use of vibrant and warm colors within the creature’s attire, creating contrast with the more neutral backdrop. Also note the most interesting parts of the creature—its head and arms and legs—being situated right along the lines of the rule of thirds for added impact.

The Palace of the Widowed Rocks

French painter Yves Tanguy’s The Palace of the Widowed Rocks—overly dramatic title aside—is one of the hallmarks of his career, not to mention a standout example of what this design movement has to offer.

Image Source: WebMuseum Paris
Inspired by North Africa’s Atlas Mountains, this piece is a metaphor that’s such a common technique in many surrealist works. Depicting a desolate landscape in the background, the painting shows a collection of broken and mismatched pieces of different objects in the foreground. As such, it shows a composition where objects only look real, but they’re in fact non-existent (as they appear) in the real world. Further, it’s a commentary on how illusory things in the world can be—and how they may, in fact, be nothing more than put together by an assemblage of pieces.

Surrealism in Web Design

Web design is another area that’s taken to this design movement. After all, vivid and striking graphics are key to attracting visitors to your website. Here are some standout examples.

Red Monkeys

German brand agency Red Monkeys’ homepage shows flashes of the same, early 20th-century brilliance that so many surrealist artists displayed.

Image Source: Red Monkeys
Where you’d normally expect to see a standard airplane, you see a hybrid with various car and vehicle shapes, all rolled into one. The hot-air balloons and stairs are the only indication of anything close to conventional.

Serial Cut’s Paraiso

Design studio Serial’s Cut’s work for Madrid’s festival is an homage to surrealism.

Image Source: Serial Cut
This imagery evokes memories of various artworks that Breton and Dali have designed almost a century ago. As with all good imagery in this style, the sum is actually a complicated amalgam of many, unique parts. In this case, there are almost too many to keep track of.

Surrealism in 3D Design

Since this style encompassed a range of artistic outlets, it’s no surprise that there has also been a fair selection of surrealist sculptures. Here are some notable works.

Profile of Time

One of Salvador Dali’s well-known pieces, this aptly titled Profile of Time cleverly uses literal and symbolic metaphors to create a commentary on time.

Image Source: Julo
Time, represented by a clock, literally melts away on its foundation in this artwork, making the point that time is very finite for all human beings. There’s literally never enough time to do what you want or have to do.

Homage to Newton

Another well-known creation of Dali’s, his Homage to Newton is a work in bronze that features a dark patina. As with so many surrealist creations, you don’t at first know whether you’re looking at a human or an animal—or a blended creature featuring both elements.

Image Source: Marcus Lim
The figure has both an open torso (with a hanging heart) and head for symbolic purposes: for an open heart and an open mind.

It’s Not What You Think It Is

What makes surrealism such a splendor to behold is that you have to do double-takes—sometimes, several—to wrap your head around what you’re looking at. That, of course, speaks to the mastery of the surrealist designers who specialized in turning the conventional on its head and jarring audiences with fantastically blended creatures and forms.
Whether it’s your basic oil-on-canvas painting, a modern-day website that pays tribute to these classic works, or a 3D sculpture that offers a commentary on society, surrealist artworks make you heavily ponder over design, while giving you a plethora of inspiration for your next project.

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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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