Lazy Nerd Explainer: Surreal Collage History + Techniques

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Surreal Collage History + Techniques

From Decalcomania to Exquisite Corpse: The Intriguing Techniques of Surrealist Collage

Surrealism grew principally out of the earlier Dada movement — flourished in Europe between the 2 World Wars 1. And the Surrealists loved collage. Marked by the use of unexpected juxtapositions and absurd imagery. In this article, we will delve deeper into the history of Surrealist collage, explore some of its most notable techniques, and analyze intriguing works of art created through this adaptable medium.

Surreal Collage

Surrealist art has always been characterized by its unconventional and dreamlike qualities. Surrealist artists used techniques such as hypnosis, automatic writing, dictating dream sequences, and intuitive walking to indulge themselves in activities that waived rational and conscious control, looking for a way to experience and record automatic psychic construction 2. The blend of realistic detailed painting with obscure reference points and unexpected juxtapositions make Surrealism an effective way to convey messages we feel but cannot unravel, similar to the feeling of a dream 2. By tapping into the subconscious mind, surreal collage artists create a visual representation of the hidden desires, thoughts, and emotions that lie beneath the surface 3.

The Surrealists saw collage as a means to enact the fundamental poetic activity of the unconscious mind, combining disparate entities to create something new 2 3. Both Surrealist poets and artists used collage techniques, viewing it as a way to transform ordinary things and turn them into points of entry to another world 3.

Collage allowed the Surrealists to explore the unconscious and create exciting new meanings through juxtapositions 4Max Ernst, for example, blended visual and verbal elements in his collage novels from the late 1920s 5. In 1930, Louis Aragon organized an exhibition dedicated solely to collage at the Galerie Goemans 5. The basic mechanism of collage, irrational juxtaposition, was foundational for Surrealism and influenced the movement's development 3.

Surreal collage has been used to take viewers on a journey into the surreal collage artist's subconscious mind and our collective subconscious by combining disparate elements to create a single, unified image that challenges reason and summons subconscious and poetic associations 1. This method allows artists to transform reality in challenging but still recognizable ways, showing how the mind could re-make the world 1.

What is Collage?

Collage is a technique that involves combining different elements, such as images, texts, or objects, to create a single work of art. The word "collage" comes from the French word "coller," which means "to glue." The first collages were created in the early 20th century by artists such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who incorporated different materials such as newspapers and wallpaper into their paintings.

Collage challenged traditional notions of fine art by combining painting, real-world objects, images, and ephemera into a single work, directly questioning the tendency to separate fine art from everyday objects and the delineations between high and low culture 1.

Collage art often incorporated found and mass-produced objects, images, and materials that were not made by the artists themselves, questioning the traditional role of the artist within their creations 2.

By using a variety of materials and techniques, collage art allowed artists to create unique and innovative works that did not fit into a single, rigid analysis, making the movement accessible to a wide range of artists and expanding the boundaries of what could be considered art 2 3.

The Roots of Surrealist Collage

The roots of Surrealist collage can be traced back to the Dada movement, which emerged in the aftermath of World War I 1. Dada artists were interested in creating works of art that challenged conventional notions of art and society, favoring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and irreverence 2. They experimented with a range of mediums, including collage and photomontage, to explode typical concepts of how art should be made, viewed, and what materials could be used 2.

Dada artists used collage to create works of art that were deliberately provocative and absurd, attempting to create a new kind of art valued primarily for its conceptual properties rather than aesthetics or literal documentation 1. Collage allowed them to combine painting, real-world objects, images, and ephemera into a single work, questioning the separation of fine art from everyday objects and the delineations between high and low culture 3. This approach to art influenced the Surrealists, who also took up collage in their exploration of automatism and stream of consciousness in creating works, providing a way to explore the unconscious and create exciting new meanings through juxtapositions 3 4.

The Use of Found Objects

Surrealist artists were interested in the use of found objects, which were often discarded or considered worthless, because they saw these objects as having a kind of magical power that could be harnessed in their art 1. They believed that ordinary, everyday objects become unsettling or disturbing if presented in unexpected ways or placed in unexpected situations, inspired by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's theory of 'the uncanny' 1 2.

By incorporating found objects into their collages, Surrealist artists were able to create works of art that were both playful and subversive, transforming ordinary things, such as wallpaper, into points of entry to another world 2.

Surrealist artists saw collage as a means to enact what they considered to be the fundamental poetic activity of the unconscious mind, the combination of disparate entities to create a new thing 2. They used collage to transform reality in challenging, but still recognizable ways, showing precisely how the mind could re-make the world 2.

Many Surrealist artists began arranging found objects in combinations that challenged reason and summoned subconscious and poetic associations, creating unprecedented and provocative configurations that punctured the thin veneer of reality and tapped into the subconscious mind 3 . This new form of sculpture, called assemblage, allowed them to create works of art that were both innovative and revolutionary, dedicated to changing the world rather than narrowly artistic concerns such as form, style, and technique 2 3.


Decalcomania is a technique that originated in the 18th century as a transfer technique 1. It involves applying ink, paint, or another medium to a surface and, while still wet, covering it with material such as paper, glass, or aluminum foil 1. When the material is removed, it transfers a pattern that may be further embellished upon 1.

The most common example of decalcomania involves applying paint to paper, folding it, applying pressure, and then unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern 2.

The technique is most commonly associated with Surrealist painters Max Ernst and Oscar Dominguez, who used decalcomania to create impromptu paintings controlled largely by chance 3. They would apply paint to a smooth surface (such as glass) and either transfer it by pressing it onto a canvas or by placing a piece of paper or foil over it and lifting 3.

Decalcomania was popularized by the Surrealists as an 'automatic' form of image-making, allowing for the exploration of chance and subconscious associations in their art 4. The technique has been used by artists since the early to mid-twentieth century, including the Abstract Expressionists of the 1960s 4.


Frottage is an art technique that involves rubbing a pencil or other tool over a textured surface to create a pattern 1. The technique was first adopted by the Surrealist artist Max Ernst in the second half of the 1920s 1. The frottage creative process is based on the principle of rubbing a sheet of paper or a canvas over a rough and textured surface, using a pencil, a crayon, or other drawing tools 1. The result obtained by applying the frottage technique is an improvised pattern that reflects the irregular surface on which the rubbing was carried out 1.

Frottage is one of the techniques invented by the Surrealist movement to perform automated gestures and to obtain works of art that imply randomness and a subconscious component, instead of a rational process 1. The term frottage derived from the French verb frotter, which means “to scratch” or “to rub,” the procedure actually used by the artist 1.

The technique involves rendering an image by placing a sheet of paper over an object or dimensional surface and rubbing it with a marking agent such as graphite or wax crayon 2. This relatively simple procedure generates sophisticated and unexpected compositions that capture both the indexical and the more elusive properties of objects 2.

The French poet and painter Henri Michaux coined the term "apparitions" for his frottages: images that are dictated by chance as much as by choice and that emerge onto the surface of the paper 2. Frottage continued to be explored throughout the twentieth century and remains an experimental practice in studios today 2.


Grattage is a Surrealist painting technique that involves scraping or scratching the surface of a painted canvas to create texture and dynamic effects 1. The term "grattage" is derived from the French word "gratter," which means "to scratch" or "to scrape" 1. This technique was invented by Surrealist artist Max Ernst 2 .

In grattage, a canvas is prepared with a layer or more of wet paint, then laid over a textured object, such as wood, wire mesh, pieces of broken glass, or cord 3. The paint is scraped off with a sharp-edged tool, like a palette knife or spatula, to create an interesting and unexpected surface that reveals the underlying textures 3. The scratches created bring out the colors of the underlying pictorial layers and create chromatic contrasts 4.

After preparing a canvas using grattage, Ernst would work back into the painting, responding to the unexpected marks and shapes created by the texture 2 . This technique stimulates the mind to engage in the automatic process of "discovering" images lying hidden within its innermost recesses 4. Grattage has been used by various artists to create a strong sense of texture and to incorporate natural patterns or create new ones in their artwork 4.


Photomontage is an artistic technique that involves combining two or more photographs into a single composite image 1. This can be achieved by cutting, gluing, rearranging, and overlapping photographs, or by successively exposing individual images onto a single sheet of paper 2. The purpose of photomontage is to encourage the audience to think about the relationship between the grouped images 3. Sometimes, the final composite image is photographed so that it appears as a seamless physical print 1.

Photomontage first emerged in the mid-1850s, and its potential was further explored by Dadaist and Futurist artists in the early 20th century 2. Prominent artists who contributed to the recognition of photomontage as an engaged art form include John Heartfield and George Grosz 4. The technique was also extensively used in the Pop art movement of the 1960s and 1970s 2.

Contemporary photomontage has evolved in various directions, with artists using digital technologies to transform traditional techniques 4. This shift to virtual spaces has expanded the creative possibilities of photomontage, allowing artists to experiment with new forms and expressions 4.

Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse is a collaborative game that originated from the Parisian Surrealist Movement, involving the collective assembly of words or images 1. In the game, each participant writes a word or draws a part of an image on a sheet of paper, folds it to conceal their contribution, and passes it on to the next player for their addition 1. The process continues until a complete composition is formed, often resulting in surprising and sometimes absurd outcomes 1.

The name "Exquisite Corpse" comes from a line of poetry created using this technique: "The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine" 1. The game has been adapted to various forms, including drawing and writing, and has inspired numerous works of art, literature, and even a horror novel by American writer Poppy Z. Brite 2.

Exquisite Corpse has been used by artists of the Surrealist movement to generate collaborative compositions and continues to be a popular method for creative collaboration and exploration of imaginative constraints 1.

Examples of Surrealist Collage

Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale

A painting created by Max Ernst in 1924, during the beginning of the Surrealist movement 1. Combines oil painting, collage elements, and wooden objects, such as a gate, parts of a toy house, and a knob, to create a dreamlike landscape 2. The scene features a nightingale hovering above two girls, one holding a knife and the other lying on the grass, seemingly unconscious 2. A character, representing the artist, tiptoes towards the blue knob while holding a child in his arms, as if trying to escape the dark scene 2.

The painting symbolizes two critical moments in Ernst's life: the death of his sister in 1897 and a fever-induced hallucination he experienced as a child, in which the wood grain on a panel near his bed transformed into various shapes, including a menacing nightingale 1. The artwork is considered the last of Ernst's early collages and a farewell to the technique 1. "Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale" exemplifies Ernst's ability to merge irrational elements and break traditional artistic boundaries, reflecting the Surrealist movement's influence on his work 2. The painting is currently housed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City 3.

The False Mirror

"The False Mirror" is a 1928 surrealist oil painting by René Magritte, depicting a human eye with a cloudy blue sky replacing the iris 1. The painting is known for its striking and haunting imagery, as it removes the eye from its usual context and presents it without the face to which it belongs 2. The juxtaposition of the sky within the eye challenges viewers to question their perceptions and what they think they know 2.

Magritte created "The False Mirror" during his Surrealist Paris years, a period marked by the exploration of the unconscious mind and the use of unrelated objects in art 3. The painting shares a common motif with the works of other Surrealist artists, such as Man RaySalvador Dalí, and Max Ernst, who also used eyes in their art to unsettle viewers and challenge complacent attitudes about art and life 2.

"The False Mirror" is currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City 3. The painting has had a significant impact on the art world and is considered a prime example of Magritte's magical surrealism 4.

Cut with the Kitchen Knife

Hannah Höch's piece is another notable example of Surrealist collage. This work of art features a large collage of different images, including photographs of politicians and other public figures. The collage is full of unexpected juxtapositions and plays on words, creating a sense of confusion and disorientation.

Second Homesick

In "Second Homesick," I collaged my lovevolution with Bangkok into a rainbow of sensory overload. Layering  my own snapshots of the hodge-podge metropolis with a pageant of durian, circuses, and all that blind faith I wasted in his youth. Bridging time and space with reckless color to reveal the curious connections between Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam found in Thai design. Ancient figures and philosophies dashing over concrete and wildflowers. Capturing the fleeting riddle of this aggressively modern gold rush town. An enigma that lies beyond the peculiarities found in other places. 



Surrealist collage is a technique that has had a significant impact on the world of art. Through the use of unexpected juxtapositions and imagery, Surrealist artists were able to create works of art that challenged conventional notions of art and society. By incorporating techniques such as decalcomania, frottage, grattage, photomontage, and exquisite corpse, they were able to create works of art that were full of unexpected twists and turns. Today, Surrealist collage continues to inspire artists and art lovers around the world.

Main image: Toby Leon, Second Homesick pt 1