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A hundred years of Surrealism and its influences

For LGBT+ History Month 2024, we're marking the 100th anniversary of Surrealism – a powerful movement in the arts. Surrealism finds beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional – all sentiments felt by the LGBTQ+ community throughout history. Similarly, Surrealism’s philosophical influence on architecture has acted as a liberatory process to enhance creativity in much the same way.

February is LGBT+ History Month, and also marks the 100th anniversary of Surrealism – a powerful movement in the arts.  

This year, RIBA’s internal LGBTQ+ Community is celebrating this anniversary because it was a remarkable period for the development of LGBTQ+ history and the visibility of LGBTQ+ people. By celebrating Surrealism, we are celebrating the history (and the future) of the community.

Recognising difference with Surrealism

Surrealism aims to revolutionise the human experience. The movement's artists have always found magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional.

Surrealism shows us that by including diversity in our creative process we can create new beauty. So, in celebration of this anniversary, we encourage everyone to embrace greater diversity to support the flourishing of beautiful people, communities, and ideas.

The many faces of Surrealism

The year 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first manifesto of Surrealism, and the creation of the core surrealist group in Paris following an initiative of poet and writer, André Breton.

It is also the 90th anniversary of the founding of the surrealist group in Prague, following an initiative of poet Vítězslav Nezval, who translated the first manifesto of surrealism into Czech, with writer and artist Karel Teige.

Cover detail of The Minimal Dwelling by Karel Teigem available from the RIBA Library special collections (Credit: RIBA)

Surrealism originated as a literary movement and was one of the avant-garde movements that characterised the 20th century. Its core group was formed initially by poets and writers such as André Breton, Louis Aragon, Raymond Queneau, René Crevel, Paul Éluard and Jacques Prévert among others.

Freedom of expression, as one of the main ingredients for the Surrealist recipe, quickly attracted the attention of many visual artists such as André Masson, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

In addition to these groups, many other surrealist groups or sympathisers were present all around the world. The two main visual artists of the Czech group were Jindřich Štyrský and Marie Čermínová Toyen (known simply as Toyen).

Surrealism and same-sex desire

Even though homosexuality wasn’t illegal in 1920s France, most people at the time held negative attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. And while some of the Surrealists, like Breton, held homophobic views, most of the group was homophile (meaning they were engaged in same-sex desire or didn’t see it in a negative light).

Some of the founding members, or writers and artists gravitating in the surrealist sphere, were openly gay or queer such as Jean Cocteau, René Crevel, André Gide, Toyen, and others.

Additionally, many members also declared themselves to be either homosexual or bisexual sooner or later in life, including Louis Aragon, Jacques Prévert, and Salvador Dalí among others. In written texts, it’s easy to find that a large proportion of surrealists were LGBTQ+ allies as well.

What differentiates the surrealist group from others at the time regarding LGBTQ+ issues, was that despite the historical context, they openly talked about and honestly expressed their views on the topic.

Some of their views on sexuality were reported in the ‘Recherches’ sessions, where the group met to discuss relevant topics of life, and then published the minutes in their magazine La Révolution surréaliste.

Fortunately, the scripts were never censored despite Breton editing them (see the appendix at the bottom of this page for an example of one of these conversations).

Books on Surrealism from the RIBA Library (Credit: RIBA)

Influence on architecture

The influence of Surrealism on architecture is mostly philosophical, as it can be seen as a liberatory process to enhance creativity – in other words, surrealism posed a philosophical challenge to architecture to embrace the daring and unexpected in design.

For example, the sentence, “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” written by Isidore Ducasse (better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, 1809-87) in Les Chants de Maldoror, was chosen and used by the Surrealists as a sort of ‘visual manifesto’, and its ‘dislocation of realities’ paved the way for the modern and contemporary imaginary.

The term "Surrealism" itself was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 to describe Jean Cocteau's ballet Parade with music by Erik Satie, and his own play The Mammaries of Tiresias [Les Mamelles de Tirésias] as going “beyond reality” or involving a super-reality [sur-réalité].

Breton, a former medical student who served as a psychiatric orderly during the war, and who was fascinated by the theories of Sigmund Freud, adopted the term defining it as a: “pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation”.

This last definition was ultimately the ‘recipe’ to produce anything under the umbrella of Surrealism.

Surrealist games – Le cadavre exquis

Much of the surrealist philosophy that influenced architecture focused on ‘de-constructing’ reality to create something new in a way that was light-hearted and entertaining.

Le cadavre exquis - architectural edition (Credit: RIBA)

In the spirit of liberation, abandon and fun, the concepts of ‘games’ and ‘play’ were central to the lives and works of the surrealist group. As Johan Huizinga wrote in Homo Ludens: “[…] games are free acts […] games are freedom […]”.

The Surrealists invented new games and modified old games according to the definition of Surrealism given by Breton by casting rationality aside and challenging the very concept of a rule. From this subversive approach, one of the first Surrealist games, Le cadavre exquis [The exquisite corpse], was born.

As part of this anniversary celebration, we have created an interactive toolkit that turns architecture and the RIBA Collections into something that can be de-constructed and re-imagined to make your own cadavre exquis.

This toolkit is not only a great way to team build within your practice, but to also help you consider new ways of creating by stepping out of traditional architecture processes. It also highlights just some of the LGBTQ+ items within the RIBA Collections and on RIBApix. Some of the images included in this toolkit are also part of RIBA’s OUT of Space exhibition which was created by the LGBTQ+ Community Group for LGBT History Month in 2023.

Access the cadavre exquis toolkit for your practice now.

De-constructing tradition

What Surrealism teaches us is that to create new beauty and to innovate, we sometimes need to reconfigure or destroy ideas that are considered 'normal' or classical' this involves including more diverse and unconventional ideas of beauty.

We're calling on everyone across the built environment to embrace this spirit of radical inclusion both during this celebration of the surreal, and beyond.

Find out more about RIBA's LGBTQ+ initiatives and other equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work.

Additional resources on Surrealism from the RIBA Library

  • The minimum dwelling, by Karel Teige – original Czech edition in our Special Collections, and a facsimile published by Cambridge, Mass., London, MIT Press, 2002.
  • Modern architecture in Czechoslovakia and other writings, by Karel Teige (more copies in other languages) - Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2000.
  • Karel Teige 1900-1951 : l'enfant terrible of the Czech modernist avant-garde, edited by Eric Dluhosch, Rostislav Svacha - Cambridge, Mass., London, MIT Press, 1999.
  • Karel Teige : luoghi e pensieri del moderno, 1900 – edited by Manuela Castagnara Codeluppi, Electa, Milan, 1996.
  • Surrealism, edited with an introduction by Herbert Read; contributions by Andre Breton [and others] - Faber & Faber, London, 1971.
  • What is Surrealism?, André Breton - Faber, London, 1936 (special collections)
  • Surreal things : surrealism and design - edited by Ghislaine Wood - London : V&A Publications, 2007
  • Architecture and surrealism : a blistering romance, by Neil Spiller, London : Thames & Hudson, 2016
  • Surrealism and architecture - edited by Thomas Mical - Routledge, London, 2005
  • Dada and surrealism, by Dawn Ades, Thames and Hudson, London, 1974
  • Fantastic art, Dada, Surrealism - edited by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. - Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936. (special collections)
  • Prague : capital of the twentieth century : a surrealist history, by Derek Sayer, Princeton, N.J.; Oxford : Princeton University Press, 2013.

The RIBA Library also holds more than 60 articles featured in the journals collections - contact for queries.

Books on Surrealism from the RIBA Library (Credit: RIBA)


An excerpt published in the minutes of the Surrealist magazine La Révolution surréaliste where the group openly discusses their thoughts on same-sex desire:

Benjamin Péret: What do you think of homosexuality?

Raymond Queneau: If two men love each other, I have no moral objections to make to their physical relations.

Protests from Breton, Péret, and Unik.

Jacques Prévert: I agree with Queneau.

Raymond Queneau: It is evident to me that there is an extraordinary prejudice against homosexuality among the surrealists.

Jacques Baron: Noll, what do you think of homosexuality?

Marcel Noll: I can only talk about homosexuals. I feel nothing but a deep, visceral antipathy to such people. There is no similarity whatsoever between their values and mine.

Jacques Baron: Man Ray?

Man Ray: I don’t see any great physical distinction between the love of a man for a woman and homosexuality. It is the emotional ideas of homosexuals which have always separated me from them: emotional relations between men have always seemed to me worse than between men and women.

Raymond Queneau: I find these emotional relations equally acceptable in both cases.

André Breton: Are you a homosexual, Queneau?

Raymond Queneau: No. Can we hear Aragon’s view of homosexuality?

Louis Aragon: Homosexuality seems to me to be a sexual inclination like any other. I don’t see it as a matter for any kind of moral condemnation.

Jacques Baron: I share that opinion.

Marcel Duhamel: I do not believe that moral viewpoints have any place in this question. I’m generally annoyed by the external affectations and feminine mannerisms of homosexuals. Nonetheless I’ve been able to imagine without revulsion —for a short space of time— going to bed with some young man whom I found particularly beautiful.

Jacques-A. Boiffard: Not all homosexuals indulge in such affectations. The mannerisms of some women are more ridiculous, more annoying, than those of some homosexuals. I absolutely do not condemn homosexuality from a moral point of view. I too have imagined going to bed with a man without any revulsion. Though I haven’t done it.

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