Surrealism, often misinterpreted as an artistic movement, had its beginning in 1924, with the publication of André Breton's [First] Surrealist Manifesto. In the Manifesto Breton defines surrealism as "pure psychic automatism" ("automatism" is spontaneous creative production without (conscious) moral or aesthetic self-censorship). (By Breton's admission, however, as well as by the subsequent development of the movement, this was a definition capable of considerable expansion.) At first this automatism was only conceived in the realm or writing and language, and it was not until later that automatic drawing was developed by Andre Masson, and automatic drawing and painting, as well as other automatistic methods, such as decalcomania, frottage, fumage, grattage and parsemage became significant parts of surrealist practice. It was a movement which transformed post-World War I visual art, writing, poetry and film. (Examples of surrealist film are Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or .)
Although surrealism is related to the earlier Dada movement, and many of its initial members came from Dada, it is significantly broader in scope than the Dada movement. While Dada was more nihilistic surrealism is more positive in nature.
This was the "in crowd" of Paris in the 20s and early 30s: Louis Aragon, Marcel Duchamp, Rene Magritte, Miro, Max Ernst, Dali, Giacometti, Valentine, Hugo, Oppenheim, Man Ray, Tanguy, Prevert, Queneau, to name but a few).
Though surrealism is often identified in the popular mind, particularly in the United States of America, with the paintings of Salvador Dali, Dali was in fact expelled from the surrealist movement in the late 1930s for his far-right-wing tendencies, and in fact his painting after that time has little significance for surrealism and moves farther and farther away from it.
The movement successively drifted left, adherence to the Moscow communist party line became a requirement, and Breton (who would later denounce that same party line) purged those who disagreed with him as the movement gradually splintered and drifted apart, only to reunite in exile in New York in the early forties during World War Two.
Although it is often falsely stated that surrealism ended either during or shortly after the Second World War, or with the death of Breton in 1966, the 1960s in fact saw a dramatic expansion of international surrealism, including the founding of the Chicago Surrealist Group by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont. Surrealism continues today around much of the world.
Must read: Andre Breton, "Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism" (Gallimard 1952) (Paragon House English rev. ed. 1993).
"What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings of Andre Breton" (edited and with an Introduction by Franklin Rosemont).