Art & Art History ETDs


Michael Regan

Publication Date



The purpose of this thesis is to examine a number of American painters who combined surrealism and social consciousness in their paintings. These “social surrealists” attempted to join a modern style of art with political and social content in paintings done between the years 1930 and 1945, with a peak of activity from about 1934 to 1940. Peter Blume, James Guy, Walter Quirt, and O. Louis Guflielmi were the chief practitioners of social surrealism. There were a number of other artists whose paintings reflected similar concerns with surrealism and social consciousness, but neither as clearly nor as consistently as those of the four social surrealists.

Social surrealism is examined against the background of the artistic climate of the 1930’s in America. During the thirties there was a general trend toward realism and social consciousness among American artists. It was also during the thirties that surrealism first became widely known in America—through books, magazines, and most importantly, exhibitions of the major European surrealists. The emergence at this time of Salvador Dali as one of the most important of the surrealists was crucial in determining the type of surrealism which was to influence American artists, including the social surrealists, during the thirties.

Social surrealist paintings are examined and statements made by the artists are presented in support of the theory that these artist adopted surrealism because they saw it as conducive to the making of effective political and social statements in paint. A case is also made for the importance of the Depression in causing these artists to deal with social conscious subjects.

The critical reception which greeted the social surrealists is examined and is contrasted to the reactions of left-wing critics of European surrealists. It is seen that radical critics were much more favorable to the American social surrealists. This was because the paintings of the social surrealists were both more political and more consciously controlled than were those of the European surrealists.

Social surrealism was characterized by a rational use of the devices of surrealism, such as juxtaposition and the free association images. These devices were applied to the political and social issues of the time rather than to personal problems or states of mind. In the forties, as political activism waned and realism was replaced by abstraction as the dominant trend in American art, social surrealism was abandoned and the paintings of the artists involved became less political in content and, for the most part, increasingly abstract in style.

Although social surrealism was short-lived and did not involve large numbers of artists, it was important because of the attempt to unite modern art and progressive politics.



Document Type


Degree Name

Art History

Level of Degree


Department Name

UNM Department of Art and Art History

First Committee Member (Chair)

Douglas Roland George

Second Committee Member

Nicolai Cikovsky Jr

Third Committee Member

Ferenc Morton Szasz