The writer is a lifelong artist and art educator facing a new reality with a little more time on her hands.

Published April 1, 2020

FIVE ARTISTS from the Surrealist Art Movement: Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy (Courtesy of Joy Schilling)


What does it mean when someone says, “This is so surreal?”

When people refer to something as surreal it means it is so strange you cannot believe it is real. A situation or experience that is surreal is bizarre and difficult to understand, like something from a dream or in the instance of COVID-19, a nightmare.

So you might wonder what exactly is Surrealism?

The word “surrealism” (as well as the movement itself) was invented in France. In French, “sur” means “above,” so surreal means literally “above real.” Surrealism was a 20th-century movement in art and literature, which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. The poet and critic André Breton, described Surrealism as a means of reuniting the conscious and unconscious, joining dreams and fantasy to the everyday world in an absolute reality, a “surreality.” Breton saw the unconscious as the source for the imagination and defined genius in terms of accessibility to the unconscious imagination.

Surrealism aimed at expressing imaginative dreams and visions free from conscious rational control. The surrealists found magic and beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny. They used fantastic visual imagery from the subconscious mind with no intention of it making sense. They were inspired by the ideas of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He wrote about the strange and anxious feelings people have when they see everyday objects placed in strange situations.

The Surrealists evolved from the Dada Movement. Dada was an artistic response to the horrors of World War 1. Dada was not a style but an attitude based off the premise that nothing in society made sense so why should art? Artists made their art as idiotic as possible to express their anger about the war. Dada inspired the Surrealists because it was funny, weird and a little bit mad. But surrealist art isn’t angry like Dada art.

People like Surrealism because it elevates our sense of wonder, you wonder what the heck is going on. It uses a great deal of imagination and has a fun and freeing quality. Surrealism artworks often feature the element of surprise with random objects and unpredictable juxtapositions. It’s mysterious, and people like mysteries. Salvador Dali described it as the symbolic language of the subconscious; truly a universal language, that doesn’t depend on education, culture or intelligence.

Today, when someone describes the pandemic as being surreal it is because we are dealing with something that we have no experience with. As a direct result of the coronavirus and social distancing, we are staying home from school and work. We are not hanging out with friends, going out to dinner or to the movies. We wonder if we have enough paper towels and toilet paper.

Coronavirus has completely changed the things that keep me on track: getting up, getting dressed, going to school, making dinner, and planning for the weekend. When you take away the things that are familiar, it’s easy to lose track of what is important. We have all been forced to change our routines by something we cannot see, but we have to pay attention because it’s dangerous, and people are dying from it. Routines organize how we spend our time, and without them, we feel lost. People feel anxious because of these new and extenuating circumstances. It’s kind of surreal.

Because we have no previous experience to help us figure out how to respond, it doesn’t feel real. With no points of reference, we don’t know what to do, or when. Without a clear idea of how to handle this situation, we feel helpless. While this pandemic is global, we are all experiencing it as individuals. Things seem surreal.

We are trying to figure out how to stay connected. The problem is too much news makes you feel anxious and uneasy. We are maintaining connections at school and developing activities and experiences that will establish a sense of normal. I have found that by keeping some of my old habits, like walking my dog around the block, I feel less disoriented. Once we establish new routines blended with a few of our old routines the anxiety will diminish. Eventually we will work it out and that is when life will become more real and less surreal.


• What is Surrealism? | Tate Kids – YouTube. From Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, to Dorothea Tanning. Watch this short introduction for kids and find out about the surrealist artists!

• What Is Surrealism? How Art Illustrates the Unconscious. Posted November 28, 2018

• Why Life During a Pandemic Feels So Surreal.