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Surrealist Artists to Know About

We’ve put together a guide to the surrealist movement and highlighted contemporary Surrealist artists finding beauty in the unconventional and meaning in the unexpected.

By Tatty Martin | 02 Aug 2021

What is Surrealism?

Surrealism is an exploration of the uncanny, the unconscious and the unseen. Since its conception in the early 20th century, surrealist artists, writers and thinkers have sought to question the way we think by dissecting our thoughts and presenting them back onto us. 

Although Surrealism started as a movement, it quickly established itself as an artistic style, in which artists inject the recognisable or the familiar with an element of the unexpected and otherworldly.


The False Mirror, 1929 by René Magritte. Image courtesy of MoMA.


History of Surrealism

The term Surrealism was first given to the movement by André Breton in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto however, the term ‘surrealism’ had been coined by Guillaume Apollinaire twenty years earlier. A French word, with ‘sur’ translating to ‘beyond’ and ‘realisme’ meaning ‘realism’, surrealism was conceived to free the truths of the unconscious mind from the constraints of that considered 'real'.

Some surrealists took influence from Freud and the theories of psychoanalysis, others used automatic methods of expression to release repressed thoughts and unspoken tensions. The many different approaches and developments to the surrealist style demonstrates just how much influence it carried, and how its varying components, perspectives and techniques have seeped through art movements that have followed since. 

Among the most well known names in surrealist art are André Breton and Salvador Dalí. André Breton had previously been part of the Dada movement and founded the Surrealist movement ten years later, introducing ideas of automatism and intuitive art into the manifesto. Primarily a writer and a poet, Breton was also a practising artist and explored the chance association of text and image in his work.

Salvador Dalí is perhaps the most famous figure is the surrealist movement. Known both for his technical skills and his eccentric subject matter, many of Dalí’s works take their forms from dreams and memories. Motifs such as melting clocks, ants, drawers and baron lands are present throughout Dalí’s paintings, each symbolising an element of the artist’s innermost fears and fantasies. Although Dalí was expelled from the surrealist movement in 1934 because of his ‘counter-revolutionary’ behaviour, he still remains one of the most influential avant-garde artists.


Autumnal Cannibalism, 1936 by Salvador Dalí. Image courtesy of Tate.


Contemporary Surrealist Artists

Breton believed that surrealism has been present in the arts for centuries, claiming that writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jonathan Swift had also been working in a similar approach. Today, surrealist artists continue to work across painting, photography, sculpture, installation and beyond. From digital artist, Philip McKay who reimagines Dalí’s telephone in talk to me and references Magritte’s figures in about the weather, to Alexandra Gallagher’s hallucanagenic landscapes, surrealism straddles styles and mediums, existing as easily in abstract art, as in figurative sculpture. 


about the weather by Philip McKay


Patrick Hughes

Patrick Hughes’ style covers elements of surrealism, pop art and realism. In his revespective paintings, Patrick employs a detailed and technical style to create optical illusions. Gallery scenes, street works and city sites become three dimensional, changing according to the viewer’s point of view. Patrick pioneered the reverspective approach in the 1960s, and he continues to create work that encourages the viewer to question our own understanding of perspective. 


Maeght by Patrick Hughes


Adrian Novac

Adrian Novac’s paintings have a dark, nocturnal quality to them. His portraits, still lives and abstract works blend the real with the imagined to make hallucinagenic impressions of the everyday. In some of his works, forms appear to be melting or dissolving, gradually loosing their solid form and joining their eerie and atmospheric surroundings. Adrian explores the darker avenues of the human psyche in these works, revealing the more haunting and uncanny side to surrealism. 


untitled by Adrian Novac


Dave Smith

Dave Smith’s style can be seen as both pop art and surrealist, or perhaps a combination of the two. Taking bright colours, cultural references and modern day phenomena from pop art, and a photorealist approach, complex composition and outlandish subject matter from surrealism, Dave’s work marries two seemingly disparate styles. Floating pizzas, giant shoes and upside down tents sits within scenic landscapes and spotless blue skies to give Dave’s work its dreamlike aesthetic. 




A surrealist approach is often used to imagine fantasy, build on obscurity or comment on reality, and artists continue to develop the style into an openended vehicle for imagination. Since its conception, Surrealist art has allowed the viewer to simultaneously  jump into an alternate world, whilst looking further into their own.

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