Surrealism is the Result of Imagination Preserved into Adulthood

Surrealism in Art and Literature Proves That the Movement Isn’t Dead

The 20th century art form places an emphasis on the unconscious and highlights the creativity of adults armed with imagination.
July 27, 2021
7 mins read

As kids grow into adulthood, society often tells them they need to let go of their imagination. Creativity is good, but too much is bad. And it’s only an asset when it can be used in a professional setting. The surrealist art movement that began in the 20th century is the antithesis to this mindset, and it promotes sharing one’s worldview through the lens of one’s deepest unconscious thoughts. Surrealist works tend to carry a dreamlike quality — that makes sense, considering how the word “surrealist” suggests that such works come from a place “beyond reality.”

Surrealism is meant to be nonsensical. The strangeness of surrealist works exemplifies what it means for an adult to fully embrace their creative muscle without any preconceptions about how others will interpret what they express. In short, surrealism is when an adult successfully reclaims their imagination.

What is Surrealism?

The term “surrealist” originated in a 1903 play written by French avant-garde poet Guillame Apollinaire. Later, André Breton’s 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto” defined the term as “pure psychic automatism, […] the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns.”

The most distinguished surrealist artist from the 20th century is Salvador Dalí, whose purpose for creating surrealist art was “capturing the experience of the instant between falling asleep and waking up, or vice versa.” He is most renowned for his 1931 piece “The Persistence of Memory,” which pictures a bleak, deserted beach landscape with several clocks draped over various objects, appearing almost liquified. Dalí expertly expresses the inevitability of time’s continuous passage with the various subjects within the landscape.

However, Dalí’s painting is only the beginning of what surrealism can portray. Some scholars argue that the surrealist movement ended with Breton’s death in 1966, but others claim that it’s still alive and thriving today. Artists and authors such as Zdzisław Beksiński and Haruki Murakami are just a few of the people who confirm the latter statement. Beksiński is known for his dystopian-surrealist paintings and Murakami for his surreal literary novels.


Although Beksiński is most famous for his paintings, he began his career in art as a photographer in the 1950s. His photographs are often described as surrealistic-expressionist. Beksiński’s most well-known photograph, “Sadist’s Corset,” features a woman in black and white. Nude and turned away from the camera, the woman has thick thread tied tightly around her. The geometric shapes created by the thread are meant to suggest a person being broken into pieces.

“Sadist’s Corset” was photographed in 1957 and marked the beginning of Beksiński’s career in photography, which only lasted until the early 1960s. Beksiński gave up photography early on because he felt like it constrained his imagination. He could only capture so much in the real world, and his ultimate goal was to “photograph dreams.” Thus, he turned to drawing and painting to fully explore the deepest recesses of his creativity.

Beksiński’s paintings are often described as disturbing and horrifying. He uses dull and gory colors such as reds, browns and yellows. He occasionally adds lighter blues or greens to portray a bleak landscape with distorted human bodies and desolate architecture. The backgrounds of his paintings incorporate oranges and reds to appear as though the world of the subjects is on fire. Beksiński also gave none of his paintings any titles. He explained that his paintings do not mean anything to him but are up for interpretation by others. Many critics describe his art as dystopian-surrealism. They suggest that the color palettes, the desolation of the setting and the distortion of the subjects imply themes of tragedy and decay. However, according to Beksiński’s own rare input, his works are optimistic and humorous.

Beksiński captures the essence of surrealism by painting dreamscapes that only exist as an expression of creativity. His art doesn’t follow any trends, making him a true individual in his preserved imagination.


Most surrealists tend to focus on the visual arts. However, surrealism exists in literature as well, and Murakami is among the most critically acclaimed of the genre. But he didn’t always write surrealist literature; his first novel, “Hear the Wind Sing,” was strictly realist and won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers in 1979.

Murakami’s creativity pours out of him and into his words. Like Beksiński, it seems as though the surrealist aspects of Murakami’s novels are unnecessary to the stories he tells. But many agree that Murakami’s novels would not be what they are without his love of the nonsensical. Murakami himself also stated the weirdness in his books is fundamental to the structure of his stories. It represents how one must go through vast amounts of uncertainty and weirdness in their own life before reaching the better part of it.

Readers can even find surrealism in the synopses of Murakami’s books. The synopsis of “Kafka on the Shore,” one of his most acclaimed novels, explains how “Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder.” A book review from Readers’ High Tea explained a few other strange aspects of the story, including a purgatory village where rejected dead people go and people possess shadows only half as dark as those of ordinary people. Other reviews describe it as defying time and linearity.

These things happen in the novel with no explanation as to why. Rather, the people who live in Murakami’s world just accept it. Thus, the readers must also accept it with no explanation. Surrealist literature can be challenging for many to enjoy because of how irrational it may seem. The release from the constraints of reality and rationality is endless when an author like Murakami decides to craft 500 pages of pure imagination.


Surrealism is a fascinating genre because it consists of pure creativity. Those who participated in the movement released some of the most original art to date, and they continue to baffle and surprise those who await new works. The artists who contribute to the movement exist as proof that imagination can be fully preserved into adulthood and impact others’ lives in meaningful ways. Surrealism may be nonsensical, but it provides one the opportunity for needed escapism and can change their view of the world.

Jayni Nielsen, Pace University

Writer Profile

Jayni Nielsen

Pace University
English Language & Literature

I am a student at Pace University’s New York City campus with a passion for all things concerning literature, psychology, art, nature and media.

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