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Unconsciousness / Subconsciousness

Salvador Dalí
The Persistence of Memory, 1931
Oil on canvas
24.1 x 33 cm (9.5 x 13 in.)
© 2023 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The exploration of the unconscious or subconscious mind has been a significant theme in art history, manifesting in various artistic movements and practices. From the early 20th century to the present day, artists have delved into the depths of human psychology, tapping into the hidden recesses of the mind and unlocking new realms of creativity and expression. One of the key movements associated with the unconscious mind is Surrealism, which arose in the 1920s, seeking to liberate the imagination and access the subconscious through dreamlike imagery and irrational juxtapositions. Artists like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Max Ernst utilized automatism, a technique aimed at bypassing conscious control, to tap into their subconscious thoughts and desires. The resulting artworks often featured bizarre and fantastical elements, inviting viewers to question reality and engage with the mysteries of the unconscious.

Egon Schiele
Self-Portrait, 1911
Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper
51.4 x 34.9 cm (20.2 x 13.7 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In addition to Surrealism, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have had a profound influence on artistic explorations of the unconscious. Figures such as the Viennese Expressionist Egon Schiele and the Dadaist movement embraced Freudian concepts in their works, delving into themes of sexuality, identity, and the darker aspects of human existence. Artists influenced by Jungian concepts include Frida Kahlo, who drew upon personal symbolism and mythological imagery in her self-portraits, and the Abstract Expressionists, who sought to tap into the universal unconscious through spontaneous gestures and mark-making.

Throughout art history, artists have explored the concept of the unconscious mind, going beyond specific movements or theories. They have utilized introspection/meditation, and altered states of consciousness to access their subconscious realms. Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko employed techniques such as gestural and color-field painting to tap into their inner emotions.

More recently, artists continue to engage with the theme of the unconscious through a diverse range of media and approaches. Some create immersive installations that evoke dreamlike or hallucinatory experiences, while others incorporate chance, randomness, or intuition to access the subconscious. Additionally, artists working with digital technologies explore the intersection of the virtual and the psychological realms, delving into the impact of technology on our collective unconscious.

Related categories



Color Field Painting

Symbolic Images/Objects

Human Nature/Existence

Art and Technology

Media Study

Introspection / Meditation

Reality and Fantasy / Illusion / Imagination

(Inspired by) Abstract Expressionism

Large Scale Installation/Sculpture


(Inspired by) Technology

Post-War American Art

Freedom of Expression

Psychological Approach

Digital Technology

Riverscape / Seascape

Dreamlike Imagery


Art of the 1920s

Two Person Exhibitions

Traces of Hidden Stories

Human and Technology

Personal/Social Identity

Human Desire