What most people (even many artists) know about Surrealism begins and ends with Salvador Dali. I guess there are two or three reasons for this. For one thing, though his brand of Surrealism deals with dreams (or nightmares, as the case may be), his painting style is at least grounded in a certain amount of realism (or super realism perhaps). And while this doesn't always make his work totally comprehensible, it at least allows some degree of entry into his mind. I've heard him referred to as the Norman Rockwell of Surrealism, and while this may be to some extent unfair to BOTH artists, it is, nonetheless indicative of why his work has remained so popular. Also, when one considers that Dali has got to be the showman artist of all time, coupled with the fact his work has been merchandised to death, it's little wonder he has come to dominate the movement.
Surrealism predates Dali by at least a decade, however. In fact he could almost be considered a latecomer. Surrealism grew out of Dada in the 1920s. Dada was an antiwar (damn near anti-everything else too, in fact) movement, filled with an overwhelming amount of negativism and anarchic destruction to the point of being SELF-destructive. Surrealist was, in effect, a positive reaction to Dada. It grew out of a fundamental distrust of logic, reason, and the external world in general, which was viewed as an illusion, not to be trusted. Truth, the Surrealists insisted, lie in dreams, where the conscious and the subconscious flowed freely, in a world where insanity was a valid as sanity. It was a world where Ashille Gorky, Mark Tobey, Bradley Tomlin, William Baziotes, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Giorgi de Chriico, and Joan Miro, appear to run amok, challenging everything we have come to take for granted not just about painting, but reality itself.
Yet Surrealism was not the brainchild of artists but of poets. Particularly Frenchmen, Guillaume Apollinare who coined the term, Andre Breton who became it's guiding light, and his inspiration, another poet by the name of Arthur Rimbaud. Of course all their insights were predicated upon Sigmund Freud's groundbreaking work in psychoanalysis.
Breton was born in 1896 and in 1924 wrote the Surrealist Manifesto in which he proclaimed not visual images, but pure thought (without any control exercised by reason, aesthetics, or moral concern), conveyed either orally or through the written word, as the only true form of human expression. It was left for painters, who quickly espoused his brand of creative freedom, to amend the document to include VISUAL expression. Thus painting, far from being the heart and soul of the movement, was merely its most visible component, and Dali, merely its most visible (and some might say superficial) standard bearer.