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Surrealist art is the realm of dreams, the imagination and the absurd. Continue reading to learn more about the wonderful world of Surrealism.

The Surrealist movement emerged in the 1920s and found expression in the visual arts, literature, theatre and film. Surrealist art is well represented in the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen with masterpieces by Dalí, Magritte and Delvaux bursting with strange images and objects.

What is surrealism?

Sometimes you come across really bizarre things: in the streets, in pop music or in design. Milou wonders where these strange ideas come from and visits the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. There she finds out more about surrealism and the methods used by surrealists as Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.

European surrealism

The term ‘surrealism’ was coined in 1917 by the French writer Guillaume Appollinaire (Rome 1880 - Parijs 1918). He used the word to describe something that rose above reality, something that was ‘surreal’. The Paris surrealist artists created a reality in their work which could not actually exist except in dreams and in the realm of imagination. Surrealism had considerable influence in Europe, and many artists moved to Paris: Max Ernst from Germany, Salvador Dalí from Spain. Artists produced surrealist work in various countries, such as René Magritte and later Paul Delvaux in Belgium, and Giorgio de Chirico in Italy.

Paul Delvaux (1973)

Skeletons, nudes and train stations are important motives in the oeuvre of Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). Because of the estranged representations in a realistic style, Delvaux is branded a Belgian surrealist, a label that makes him feel uncomfortable though. In 1973 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen organized a retrospective of the work of Paul Delvaux. This film is a registration of this exhibition in the so-called newsreel.

On the couch with Freud

An important source of inspiration for Surrealism was the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud developed psychoanalysis - the theory of the human subconscious - in the early 20th century. Freud believed that man’s behaviour was to a large degree driven by subconscious and irrational urges.


The founder of the Surrealist movement was the French author André Breton. In 1924 he wrote the ‘Manifeste du Surrealisme’ in 1924, in which he laid out his ideas about Surrealism in relationship to art and society. He believed Surrealism to be a method for discovering one’s true thoughts and expressing them in words or images. To accomplish this the subconscious needs to be explored. Dreams, childhood and insanity play an important part.

He also described his methods of exploring the subconscious using art. For example, impulses from the subconscious could be transferred directly to paper using the method of ‘écriture automatique’ or automatic writing. This could be done, for example, by drawing when half asleep or under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s library contains a copy of Breton’s influential manifesto.

Surrealism in Rotterdam

In 1965, ‘The Pair’ by Max Ernst and ‘On the Threshold of Freedom’ by René Magritte were acquired for the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Since then, the collection of Surrealist art has grown considerably. The major acquisitions were made in the period of 1977 and 1979.

Twelve works by Magritte and Dalí were acquired from the collection of Edward James (West Dean 1907 – San Remo 1984), a poet who had also been the benefactor of the two artists in the 1930s. The works of the Surrealists became one of the most important pillars of the museum's collection.

Did you know that the museum’s emphasis on Surrealism was due to the passionate interest of Renilde Hammacher, the museum’s first curator of modern art? 

And the museum still collects Surrealism. It acquired the world famous ‘Mae West Lips Sofa’ by Salvador Dalí in 2005, ‘Landscape with Pink Clouds’ by Yves Tanguy in 2007 and a ‘Shadow Box’ by Joseph Cornell in 2009. The most recent Surrealist acquisition is ‘Le Miroir Vivant’, an early painting by René Magritte, which was purchased in 2016.

Dalí in Rotterdam

Renilde Hammacher-van Brande, the very first head curator of modern art at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, organised a successful Dalí exhibition in the winter of 1970-1971. In two months more than 200.000 people visited the museum. The Dutch Polygoon Newsreel made a programme about it.

An Belgian Surrealist

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen owns no less than fifteen paintings by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. Magritte wanted to show the ‘mystery of the everyday’. By divorcing things from their daily surroundings, that mystery could be revealed. Magritte wanted to achieve this without the spectator rejecting the painting as an improbable figment of the imagination. For every object he searched for a second image element that had a hidden relationship to it. 

‘The Red Model III’ shows a pair of bare feet which transform into shoes. The feet and the shoes are thus placed in a strange light.

An Belgian Surrealist
René Magritte, Le modèle rouge III (The Red Model III), 1937, oil on canvas, purchase with the support of: Vereniging Rembrandt, Prins Bernhard Fonds, Erasmusstichting, Stichting Bevordering van Volkskracht Rotterdam and Stichting Museum Boymans-van Beuningen 1979


The Surrealists expressed their vision on art and society in various publications and magazines. The first issue of the magazine La Révolution Surréaliste appeared at the end of 1924. On the first page of the first issue there was a photograph of an unrecognisable object, wrapped in rags, a work by Man Ray. A reconstruction of this same object is part of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen collection. The title ‘The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse’ refers to the book ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ that Ducasse wrote under the pseudonym Le Comte de Lautréamont.

The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920)

The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920)

‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ is a cynical attack on western civilisation and this made Ducasse a hero of the surrealists. A quotation from the book became their motto: ‘As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella on the cutting table’. Man Ray refers to this quotation with this wrapped sewing-machine.

During the 1930s, the magazine Minotaure became the surrealists’ most important vehicle. The magazine, edited by André Breton and sponsored by the wealthy Edward James, drew attention to as - op dat moment -  yet unknown artists such as Hans Bellmer, Paul Delvaux and Alberto Giacometti.

Inspired benefactor

Edward James was a rich English aristocrat and a Surrealist poet. In the 1930s, he supported both Magritte and Dalí by purchasing work from them. Magritte based 'Not to be Reproduced' on a photograph he made of Edward James looking at the painting 'On the threshold of freedom'.

Dalí also received financial support from him for two years and Magritte stayed at his house in London in order to complete a number of paintings. In addition, he gave financial support to the magazine Minotaure. James decorated and furnished one of his houses, the Monkton House in West Dean, as a Surrealist dream. Dalí’s ‘Mae West Lips Sofa’ was also given a place in this house.
Inspired benefactor
Edward James standing for 'On the threshold of freedom' (1930).
Not to be Reproduced

Not to be Reproduced

James himself was immortalised in the number of Surrealist paintings. Magritte, for example, made a puzzling portrait of James that is now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen's collection: 'La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced)' from 1937.