Art and the Search for the Unconscious

“As the longest-running avant-garde movement of the 20th century, Surrealism’s scope and richness is perhaps unparalleled in its influence of modern art and culture.” (2)

Theory of the Unconscious

In 1900 and then 1905, Freud developed a model of the unconscious mind. In 1915 Freud further defined this model. The mind is an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, peaking out above the water is the part of our brains we are fully aware of, the conscious mind.

The preconscious, elaborated on in 1924, are thoughts we’re not presently aware of but that can easily be brought to the surface. Standard emotions will likely be in the subconscious, while traumatic emotions, or repressed memories and thoughts are in the unconscious.

Freud believed human behaviors are controlled by the unconscious mind. These behaviors are determined by our past experiences. Freud considered the information stored in our unconscious minds primitive. The information is stored there because it is too dangerous to bring to the surface. We may be able to glimpse into our unconscious minds through dreams and slips of the tongue.

Hans Bellmer, 1934

Manifestoes of Surrealism

Written in 1924 by André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism sought to define a movement. This movement of writers, poets, painters, photographers, and so on was strongly influenced by Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind.

“…the manifesto defined Surrealism as “psychic automatism”, a process that encouraged a freeing of the mind from rational and utilitarian values and constraints as well as moral and aesthetic judgement.” (2)

These artworks aimed to merge together dreams and reality, to show the unconscious, in the real world, in a physical state.

“Invariably playful and disturbing at the same time, the Surrealist object insists on the rich poetic and emotional resonances that inform our relationship to the everyday material world.” (2)

Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936, Man Ray

Surrealists weren’t trying to change the world, but people’s way of thinking and experiencing the world. They prioritized truth above realism. They wanted people to be in touch with their imaginations.

Breton included a list of names in his Manifesto of those he considered surrealists, but included “etc.” after his list, allowing the addition of others. And there were most certainly additions.

Some Notable Surrealists

Philippe Halsman, Dalí Atomicus, 1948
  • Salvador Dali 
  • René Magritte 
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Joan Miró 
  • Man Ray
  • Giorgio de Chirico
  • Dora Maar 
  • Marc Chagall 
  • Yves Tanguy 
  • Lee Miller 
  • Dorothea Tanning 

Surrealism after Breton

The surrealist movement officially began at the writing of this manifesto in 1924, and ended with Breton’s death in 1966. Of course that doesn’t mean surrealism didn’t live on.

“Surrealism’s legacy is indisputable, informing all manner of cultural forms from film, photography, fashion and advertising culture to literature and philosophy.” (2)

Abstract Expressionism developed in the 1940s and 50s directly from Surrealism. And Surrealism in itself involving the exploration of the mind can truly encompass much of art. The important distinction is the exploration of emotion and dream like sensibilities, the merging of the real with the imagined.

Some of my work I’d place under the Surrealist umbrella –

(Find other modern day Surrealist artists in ‘Further Reading’ #6, and a deeper dive into my unconscious in ‘Further Reading’ #8)

The majority of my work with toy photography seeks to explore my own personal emotions, no matter their difficulty. In this, I am exploring my unconscious, at least in part. I do fully believe art requires you to search within yourself.

And whether we consider it surreal or not, we should all most definitely explore everything that makes us tick.

“In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.”

– David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking


  1. Freud and the Unconscious Mind, Simply Psychology, Dr. Saul McLeod, 2015
  2. Explainer: Surrealism, The Conversation, Natalya Lusty
  3. 100 years old and making a comeback – Freud’s theories of the unconscious, The Guardian, Mark Vernon, 11/3/15
  4. Photography: A Cultural History, Mary Warner Marian, 2002
  5. Manifestoes of Surrealism 4 Radical Reprint, André Breton, 2020
  6. From Magritte to Tanning and everything in between, Kooness, 9/13/20
  7. Surrealism, The Art Story

Further Reading (posts I’ve written on Surrealism):

  1. How Toy Photography has Changed Over Time: 1898 to Present Day, 2/4/21
  2. Hans Bellmer – A Doll Day Feature, 8/2/20
  3. Surrealist Figure Photographers of the Mid 1900s, 5/15/20
  4. Vogue and Toy Photography, 5/23/20
  5. Historic Dabbling in the World of Toys – Bahaus, Fotografia Metafisica, Surreal, 1/10/21
  6. Artists I Love, 1/9/17
  7. Small Surrealism, Toy Photographers, 10/19/17
  8. The Conception and Sensation of Time, 2013

On Topic Shoutouts:

9 thoughts on “Art and the Search for the Unconscious

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  1. I don’t know if this is the appropriate place but it is your latest post. I wanted to share this with you:
    It’s only in German but just click on the gallery and have a look at the photos. This is a book that shows sights from Mannheim (which is close to where I live) with little toy figures. I think they are not bigger than an inch or so, the kind that is used to populate train sets. The pictures are quite marvellous I think.

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