The word surreal is often used to describe the hallucinatory or even the fantastic and irrational, but when you are talking about art, it refers to the movement that flourished in Europe and the United States between the World Wars.

It's the world of Salvador Dali's liquid clocks, Max Ernst's robotlike elephants and images that emerge from dreams and subconscious visions.

A retrospective exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explores Surrealism from its awakening in the 1920s to its decline in the late '40s.

When curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, headed by John Vick, decided to look for Surrealist art in the museum's own galleries and vaults, they found more than 100 paintings, drawings, documents, texts and photographs. It was enough to put together the exhibition "The Surrealists: Works from the Collection."

The show traces the history of this groundbreaking period in modern art, born in a time of profound social and political conflict between the two World Wars.

"Once war begins in Europe in 1936 with the Spanish Civil War and then in 1939 in World War II," said Vick, "you see some Surrealists taking a very specific look at these conflicts and making works to respond to this political climate.

"For instance, Salvador Dali with his 'Soft Construction with Boiled Beans' does that for the Spanish Civil War. Three years later, Man Ray, an artist from Philadelphia who was at that point living in Paris, makes a painting called 'Fair Weather,' which is a reflection of several dreams that he had," Vick continued. "There are elements throughout the painting, a keyhole that's dripping blood, a stone wall that has been bombed by some sort of artillery, that presage the conflict of World War II that's about to erupt."

To assemble the elements for the exhibit, Vick looked first in the obvious places, the galleries themselves. By isolating the familiar paintings and drawings by Di Chirico, Joan Miro, Max Ernst and many others in the vast galleries at the museum's Perelman building, they works took on new lives and visibility.

Power to shock undimmed

For Vick, "the work can still be shocking, especially if you come to Surrealism with this notion that it's all about tricks of the eye, or images that look like two things at once.

"There's something magical about the work where composition seems to erupt out of nothingness that I think can be shocking and mesmerizing," he said. "And there's also work that reflects a great degree of violence, self-destructiveness or violence against another that are shocking for an entirely other reason."

Poet Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism, declared the movement revolutionary and an audio recording at the exhibition lets him tell the story though the voice of actor Dan Hodge.

"Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality. The mere word 'freedom' is the only one that excites me," Hodge reads from Breton's 1928 "Manifesto of Surrealism."

"Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be," he continues. "I believe in the future resolution of two states, dream and reality, in appearance so contradictory, into a sort of absolute reality, a Surreality."

An act of rebellion

The Surrealism movement was a true act of rebellion against the established norms in politics, education, class structures and, of course, culture. For Surrealists, turmoil gave birth to new ideas and subversion that translated into constant questioning and reinvention.

Surrealism was also a philosophy of life, said Matthew Affron, the museum's curator of modern art.

"Andre Breton says that at age 20, we all come to a moral dilemma, we all get to the point where we have to give up our imagination, our sense of wonder, in order to grow up and become members of society," Affron said. "He thought that was a great human problem because imagination was a very important human value because it was the key to freedom."

The show starts in the 1920s when Surrealists were finding their visual and literary language, and then plunges into the 1930s, war time.

"Which precipitated a move for many of the Surrealists from Europe to the United States where Surrealism flourished or thrived during the 1940s," Affron said.

The exhibition continues by exploring the work of European artists in the U.S. and American artists who embrace the language and intent of Surrealism. The last gallery traces the return to Paris for a major international exhibition in 1947 centered on the concept of New Myths.

Legacy of Surrealism informs modern art

But, as Affron said, it would a mistake to think that Surrealism was short lived.

"Many of the methods contemporary artists use, including the idea of a work of art as an archive, the idea of collage, assemblage and other kinds of hybrid practices, the idea of a work of art as an installation space, these are ideas that are not entirely due to Surrealism but are an important legacy of Surrealism that are found everywhere in contemporary art," he said.

The Surrealists, Works from the Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building continues through March 2.