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Surrealism: Art and Liberty - HOA00073I

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  • Department: History of Art
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Michael White
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

This module will examine the presentation of alternative realities by Surrealist artists from the 1920s until recent times, critically evaluating whether the appeal to the imagination empowered artists to challenge the status quo and propose radically different forms of life in the manner some claimed.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

Surrealism remains very present in canonical accounts of avant-garde art practice, is extremely visible in major museum presentations of modern art, and has also penetrated popular culture to a high degree. This module will therefore consider its radical potential. Did it enable the production of alternative realities, as it desired, or was the sense of outrage it conjured merely entertaining sensationalism? Did it envisage possible futures or did it merely exploit different pasts. Did it challenge aesthetic norms, or did it simply plunder the visual cultures of non-European peoples?

To answer such questions, the module will consider Surrealism in manifold manifestations, across time, space and media, from painting and drawing to its deployment of collage, montage, found objects, film, photography and exhibition design. We will investigate the Surrealist fascination with altered mental states, with non-normative relationships, with world cultures and with forms of knowledge other than aesthetic, in every case testing out its claims to offer something other than the status quo.

Indicative seminars include:

Alternative states of mind: automatism and dreams

Convulsive beauty: anti art and the anti-aesthetic

The Surrealist Revolution: the politics of desire

Paris peasants: the Surrealist city

Surrealist muses: gender and sexuality

‘The eye exists in a savage state’: Surrealism, primitivism and the exotic

(Un)natural histories: the Bureau of Surrealist Research

‘Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible’: Surrealism and Counterculture

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will have acquired:

  • knowledge of a number of Surrealist artists and practices across a range of times and places.

  • a familiarity with Surrealist writings and theories.

  • an understanding of Surrealism from the perspective of its avant-gardism.

  • an ability to critically evaluate Surrealism’s radicalism.

  • an understanding of the legacies of Surrealism in contemporary cultural debate.


Task Length % of module mark
Intermediate Assignment
N/A 100

Special assessment rules




Module feedback

You will receive feedback on assessed work within the timeframes set out by the University - please check the Guide to Assessment, Standards, Marking and Feedback for more information.

The purpose of feedback is to help you to improve your future work. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further, you are warmly encouraged to meet your Supervisor during their Office Hours.

Indicative reading

  • Breton, A. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.
  • Chadwick, W. The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017.
  • Cohen, M. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Conley, K. Automatic Woman: the Representation of Woman in Surrealism. Lincoln; London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
  • D'Alessandro, S., and M. Gale. Surrealism Beyond Borders. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021.
  • Jolles, A. The Curatorial Avant-Garde: Surrealism and Exhibition Practice in France, 1925-1941. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013.
  • Lyford, A. Surrealist Masculinities: Gender Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Post-World War I Reconstruction. London: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Malt, J. Obscure Objects of Desire Surrealism, Fetishism, and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Mundy, Jennifer. Surrealism: Desire Unbound. London: Tate Publishing, 2001.
  • Pawlik, J. Remade in America: Surrealist art, Activism, and Politics, 1940-1978. Oakland: University of California Press, 2021.
  • Sheringham, M. Everyday Life: Theories and Practice from Surrealism to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Spiteri, R., and Donald LaCoss. Surrealism, Politics and Culture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
  • Wood, G. Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design. Edited by Ghislaine Wood. London: V&A Publications, 2007.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.