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Blog Home Editorial Surrealism’s Influence on Today’s Art and Design
Surrealism's Influence on Today's Art and Design

Surrealism’s Influence on Today’s Art and Design

A quick refresher on Surrealism, and how it influences art and design today, including a plethora of accessible images.

While you may have heard of Surrealism, you might not realize how much of an influence Surrealism still has in art and design to this day. Surrealism is just as relevant now in contemporary art, graphic design, and fashion (to name a few) as it was 100 years ago.

Here’s a quick art history refresher on Surrealism and some ways we can see Surrealism’s influence today.

Illustration of an upsidedown walrus

What Is Surrealism?

Surrealism was an artistic movement that initially emerged in Europe between World War I and World War II. This inter-war movement pushed back against what members saw as destructive “rationalism” and sought to combine the conscious and unconscious mind in order to join the real world with the realm of dream and fantasy.

The Surrealist movement was heavily influenced by figures such as Sigmund Freud and was adapted by painters, poets, and thinkers alike.

License these images via Everett/Shutterstock and Kharbine-Tapabor/Shutterstock.

Surrealist art can be recognized due to its rather distinct characteristics, such as vast dream-like landscapes, recognizable but warped objects, and the concealment or disfiguring of faces.

Notable members of the movement include Salvador Dalí, Réné Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Giorgio de Chirico.

Subsets of the surrealist movement also emerged globally, particularly in Mexico with artists like Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo.

Detail from "Chiki Ton Pays" by Leonora Carrington

Detail from “Chiki Ton Pays” by Leonora Carrington. License this image via Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock.

Detail from "Dream caused by flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before waking" by Salvador Dali

Detail from “Dream caused by flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before waking” by Salvador Dali. License this image via Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock (Enterprise only).

Detail from "La Traversee Difficile" by Rene Magritte

Detail from “La Traversee Difficile” by Rene Magritte. License this image via Alfredo Dagli Orti/Shutterstock (Enterprise only).

Detail from "Construction, deconstruction" by Yves Tanguy

Detail from “Construction, deconstruction” by Yves Tanguy. License this image via Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock (Enterprise only).

Detail from "Battle of the Centaurs" by Giorgio di Chirico

Detail from “Battle of the Centaurs” by Giorgio di Chirico. License this image via Alfredo Dagli Orti/Shutterstock (Enterprise only).

Detail from "The Creation of Birds" by Remedios Varo

Detail from “The Creation of Birds” by Remedios Varo. License this image via Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock (Enterprise only).

Detail from "Mi Nana y Yo (My Nurse and I)" by Frida Kahlo

Detail from “Mi Nana y Yo (My Nurse and I)” by Frida Kahlo. License this image via Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock (Enterprise only).

Illustration of a skull with a bird's nest and two birds resting on top

Surrealism’s Influence in CONTEMPORARY ART

While overall compositions and stylistic choices may differ, some of the hallmarks of Surrealism are making their way into contemporary work. Artist Julie Curtiss, for example, takes clear inspiration from Surrealists like Réné Magritte and Méret Oppenheim. Her faceless figures seem to directly reference Magritte’s work, and her paintings of objects made out of hair cannot help but remind us of Oppenheim’s Object (1936).

Painter Rae Klein’s misty abstracted landscapes imbued with faces—both human and animal—also call back to artists such as Salvador Dalí’s dreamlike liminal worlds.

Painting titled "States of Mind" by Julie Curtiss of two women talking and smoking while wearing virtual reality goggles

License these images via Stephen Chung/LNP/Shutterstock, Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock, and John Lindsay/AP/Shutterstock.

Further proof of Surrealism’s contemporary influence is this year’s Venice Biennale theme, The Milk of Dreams, which is the title of a book by Mexican Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.

You can read more about the history of the Biennale and what to look for this year here!

Illustration of a rabbit laying on a zeppelin

… in GRAPHIC DESIGN

Surrealism has found its place in graphic design as well. Over the past two years, we’ve seen the popularity of custom typefaces that look distorted or melted increase significantly. These warped fonts remind us of Dalí’s melting clocks and faces.

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Also increasing in popularity is the “anti design” trend, which purposefully breaks typical design rules in favor of a more free-flowing, asymmetrical, and almost stream-of-consciousness aesthetic.

This trend is clearly reflective of Dada and Surrealist art in its rejection of prescribed compositional rules, as well as its sense of tongue-in-cheek cynicism about what’s typically considered beautiful.

Designers that capture this trend include Mel of @epi.to.me and Barrett Reid-Maroney.

Illustration of a pig wearing a top hat and jacket

…and in FASHION

Fashion is also going through a surreal moment with maybe the most memorable example being Kim Kardashian’s Balenciaga look for the 2021 Met Gala.

Her (literally) head-to-toe black outfit concealed her face and turned her body into a featureless sculpture.

Kim Kardashian wearing a full head to toe black dress at the 2021 Met Gala
License this image via Matt Baron/Shutterstock.

Another brilliant example of the resurgence of Surrealism in fashion is the House of Schiaparelli. Elsa Schiaparelli began designing in the 1920s and surrounded herself with Surrealist artists and thinkers, continuing to design and collaborate with them until her death in the 1970s.

License these images via Kharbine-Tapabor/Shutterstock and Horst P Horst/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.

In 2012, the brand relaunched, bringing the Schiaparelli into the modern era while giving nods to its original Surrealist roots.

Most recently seen on Doja Cat for the 2022 Billboard Music Awards, Schiaparelli’s designs are unmistakably surreal.

The pointed silhouette and ear-shaped earrings looking as though they’re pulled straight out of a Dalì painting.

License these images via Image Press Agency/NurPhoto/Shutterstock and Image Press Agency/NurPhoto/Shutterstock.

Illustration of a black cat hissing

Surrealism: Why Now?

What is it that makes Surrealism so compelling to a contemporary viewer? I believe it comes down to the shared psyche of our times.

Surrealism was born in an inter-war moment of uncertainty where so much of what the world took for granted was turned upside-down and there was a sense of collective trauma and confusion.

A hundred years later, we’re in the third year of a global pandemic, senseless wars are raging in Europe and the Middle East, political agitation is dividing many countries, and the climate crisis is on our doorstep.

The feeling of being lost and of yearning for an escape into the dreamlike is more prevalent than ever. It really does make sense that we feel a kinship to those thinkers and artists who tried their best to understand the psychology of pain, war, and disconnection . . . and find beauty therein.

Artist Jean Cocteau working on his abstract art piece titled "The Blood of a Poet"
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