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Surrealism

Surrealism Collage

Started: 1924

Ended: 1966

"Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life."

Giorgio de Chirico Signature

Important Art and Artists of Surrealism

The below artworks are the most important in Surrealism - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Surrealism. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Harlequin's Carnival (1924)

Harlequin's Carnival (1924)

By: Joan Miró

Miró created elaborate, fantastical spaces in his paintings that are an excellent example of Surrealism in their reliance on dream-like imagery and their use of biomorphism. Biomorphic shapes are those that resemble organic beings but that are hard to identify as any specific thing; the shapes seem to self-generate, morph, and dance on the canvas. While there is the suggestion of a believable three-dimensional space in Harlequin's Carnival, the playful shapes are arranged with an all-over quality that is common to many of Miró's works during his Surrealist period, and that would eventually lead him to further abstraction. Miró was especially known for his use of automatic writing techniques in the creation of his works, particularly doodling or automatic drawing, which is how he began many of his canvases. He is best known for his works such as this that depict chaotic yet lighthearted interior scenes, taking his influence from Dutch seventeenth-century interiors such as those by Jan Steen.

Battle of Fishes (1926)

Battle of Fishes (1926)

By: André Masson

Masson was one of the most enthusiastic followers of Breton's automatic writing, having begun his own independent experiments in the early 1920s. He would often produce art under exacting conditions, using drugs, going without sleep, or sustenance in order to relax conscious control of his art making so that he could access his unconscious. Masson, along with his neighbors Joan Miró, Antonin Artuad, and others would sometimes experiment together. He is best known for his use of sand. In an effort to introduce chance into his works, he would throw glue or gesso onto a canvas and then sand. His oil paintings were made based on the resulting shapes.

Battle of the Fishes perhaps references his experiences in WWI. He signed up to fight and after three years, was seriously injured, taking months to recover in an army hospital and spending time in a psychiatric facility. He was unable for many years to speak of the things he witnessed as a soldier, but his art consistently depicts massacres, bizarre confrontations, rape, and dismemberment. Masson himself observed that male figures in his art rarely escape unharmed. Battle of Fishes has subdued color, but the fish seem involved in a vicious battle to the death with their razor-like teeth and spilled blood. Masson believed that the use of chance in art would reveal the sadism of all creatures - an idea that he could only reveal in his art.

Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)

Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)

By: Yves Tanguy

The most pivotal moment for Tanguy in his decision to become a painter was his sighting of a canvas by Giorgio de Chirico in a shop window in 1923. The next year, Tanguy, the poet Jacques Prévert, and the actor and screenwriter Marcel Duhamel moved into a house that was to become a gathering place for the Surrealists, a movement he became interested in after reading the periodical La Révolution surréaliste. André Breton welcomed him into the group in 1925. Tanguy was inspired by the biomorphic forms of Jean Arp, Ernst, and Miró, quickly developing his own vocabulary of amoeba-like shapes that populate arid, mysterious settings, no doubt influenced by his youthful travels to Argentina, Brazil, and Tunisia. Despite his lack of formal training, Tanguy's mature style emerged by 1927, characterized by deserted landscapes littered with fantastical rocklike objects painted with a precise illusionism. The works usually have an overcast sky with a view thatseems to stretch endlessly.

Mama, Papa is Woundedshows Tanguy's most common subject matter of war. The work is painted in a hyperrealist style with his distinctive limited color palette, both of which create a sense of dream-like reality. Tanguy often found the titles of works while looking through psychiatric case histories for compelling statements by patients. Given that, it is difficult to know if this work is relevant to his own family history as he claimed to have imagined the painting in its entirety before he began it. His brother was killed in World War I and the bleakness of the landscape may refer generally to losses suffered in the war by thousands of French families. De Chirico's influence on Tanguy's work is obvious here in his use of falling shadows and a classical torso in the landscape.

The Accommodations of Desire (1929)

The Accommodations of Desire (1929)

By: Salvador Dalí

Painted in the summer of 1929 just after Dalí went to Paris for his first Surrealist exhibition, The Accommodations of Desire is a prime example of Dalí's ability to render his vivid and bizarre dreams with seemingly journalistic accuracy. He developed the paranoid-critical method, which involved systematic irrational thought and self-induced paranoia as a way to access his unconscious. He referred to the resulting works as "hand-painted dream photographs" because of their realism coupled with their eerie dream quality. The narrative of this work stems from Dalí's anxieties over his affair with Gala Eluard, wife of artist Paul Eluard. The lumpish white "pebbles" depict his insecurities about his future with Gala, circling around the concepts of terror and decay. While The Accommodations of Desire is an exposé of Dalí's deepest fears, it combines his typical hyper-realistic painting style with more experimental collage techniques. The lion heads are glued onto the canvas, and are believed to have been cut from a children's book.


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The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932)

The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932)

By: Alberto Giacometti

Giacometti was one of the few Surrealists who focused on sculpture. The Palace at 4 a.m. is a delicate construction that was inspired by his obsession with a lover named Denise the previous year. Of the affair he said, "a period of six months passed in the presence of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night - a very fragile palace of matches. At the least false movement a whole section would collapse. We always began it again." In 1933, he told Breton that he was incapable of making anything that did not have something to do with her.

The work includes representations or symbols of his love interest as well as perhaps of his mother. Other imagery, such as the bird, is less easy to interpret. Thus, the work is characterized by its bizarre juxtaposition of objects and a title that is seemingly unrelated to the constructed scene, giving the piece an undercurrent of mystery and tension as if something frightening is about to occur. The work, in its child-like simplicity, captures the fragility of memory and desire. Giacometti's postwar interest in Existentialism is already evident here in how he represents the isolation of the various figures.

The Human Condition (1933)

The Human Condition (1933)

By: Rene Magritte

Magritte's works tend to be intellectual, often dealing with visual puns and the relation between a representation and the thing itself. In The Human Condition a canvas sits on an easel before a curtained window and reproduces exactly the scene outside the window that would be behind the canvas, thus the image on the easel in a sense becomes the scene, not just a reproduction of the landscape. There is in effect no difference between the two as both are fabrications of the artist. The hyperrealist painting style often used by Surrealists makes the odd setup seem dreamlike.

Luncheon in Fur (1936)

Luncheon in Fur (1936)

By: Meret Oppenheim

Oppenheim was one of the few women Surrealists whose work was exhibited with the group. Like Giacometti she worked primarily with objects. Luncheon in Fur, with its unsettling juxtaposition of a domestic object and animality, is an excellent example of Surrealism. The artist makes strange a teacup, saucer, and spoon purchased at the Monoprix department store - objects that are familiar are made disturbingly off-putting as the viewer must imagine drinking tea in a fur-covered cup.

The Barbarians (1937)

The Barbarians (1937)

By: Max Ernst

Max Ernst was known for his automatic writing techniques including frottage, grattage, and collage. Here he uses grattage, which requires taking a painted canvas, placing it on a textured surface, and scraping off paint. The method introduces elements of chance and unpredictability to the work as the artist is forced to release some control of the creative process. The grattaged canvas was then used by Ernst as inspiration for further imagery. The Barbarians is typically Surrealist as it is fraught with bizarre juxtapositions, mysterious figures, and dream-inspired symbols. The bird imagery is one of the staples of Ernst's work - he experienced a childhood trauma related to the death of his pet bird and as an adult developed a bird alter ego named Loplop.

Mannequin (1938)

Mannequin (1938)

By: Man Ray

Mannequin depicts André Masson's mannequin at the Exposition International du Surrealisme, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, in Paris 1938. Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Maurice Henry, and others also designed these weird mannequins to fill a room with uncanny female forms that looked both monstrous and sexually alluring. Man Ray photographed them all as discreet characters, of which this is one example. He repeatedly photographed his assistant, artist Lee Miller, and many other women, both living and inanimate. Like Hans Bellmer, an artist peripherally associated with the group, Ray was obsessed with the female form as the perfect embodiment of male desire, and sought to capture it formally in fantastical ways. Man Ray also pioneered many photographic techniques, including rayographs, named after himself, that incorporate elements of chance and in which subjects appear to glow in dream-like silver auras.

Birthday (1942)

Birthday (1942)

By: Dorothea Tanning

Birthday is a self-portrait that Dorothea Tanning painted to commemorate her 30th birthday. Viewed up close, one notices the infinite rooms recessing into the background, symbolizing Tanning's unconscious mind. Many Surrealists felt architectural imagery was well-suited to expressing notions of a labyrinthine self that changes and expands over time; Birthday is one of the best examples of this. Also notable is the gargoyle at the subject's feet. Tanning said this was her rendition of a lemur, which has been associated with death spirits. Tanning juxtaposed natural imagery, like the skirt made of roots, against objects representing high culture, like fancy apparel and interior design, to pay homage to culture as well as to express nature and wilderness as a feminine construct.


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Related Movements and Major Works

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity from the series Edgar A. Poe (1882)

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity from the series Edgar A. Poe (1882)

Movement: Symbolism

By: Odilon Redon

Although Edgar Allan Poe had been dead for 33 years at the time of Redon's lithograph and both Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé had translated his writings between 1852 and 1872, this is not an illustrated narrative of Poe's work; instead, it is parallel to it in its evocation of the macabre world of the writer. The single eye - the all-seeing eye of God - is an old symbol, but is here transformed. The large scale of the eye is the symbol of the spirit rising up out of the dead matter of the swamp. It is a physical organ that looks upward toward the divine, taking with it the dead skull. The aura of light surrounding the main image helps express the idea of the supernatural, as does the nebulous space. The work evokes a sense of mystery within a dream world. However, Redon's works should not be confused with Surrealism, for they are meant to create a coherent, specific idea - the head as the origin of the imagination and the spirit lodged in matter.

Also, Redon's works distinguish themselves from Surrealism in that the vision is possible to construct. Redon creates ethereal, macabre visions, but they are essentially realistic visions. As the artist himself wrote, "I approached the unlikely by means of the unlikely and could give visual logic to the imaginary elements which I perceived." Redon was, more than some Symbolists, more of a modernist. Although a Symbolist, he was also interested in the scientific materialism of the time - in Charles Darwin's work on evolution, in the study of zoological forms, and, as evidenced in this work, in the technology of the hot air balloons that were popular at the time. His work was a manifestation of his own private world expressed in personal symbols - thus more open to interpretation - and allowed the viewer to understand what hidden realities lay within the forms.

Vision After the Sermon (1888)

Vision After the Sermon (1888)

Movement: Post-Impressionism

By: Paul Gauguin

Gauguin studied in Brittany in the north of France where the unique history and customs represented a certain degree of spiritual freedom and primitive candor for Gauguin. While there, he painted Vision After the Sermon.

The painting, which depicts a revelatory vision of Jacob wrestling with an angel, clearly delineates reality and spiritual manifestation through aesthetic form. While the crowd of churchgoers who experience the vision is in the foreground, the Biblical struggle appears in the background, surrounded by a two-dimensional and vibrantly colored plane. Gauguin relied upon the abstraction of the red ground to communicate the space of the vision as well as the heightened emotions present at a religious revelation. As this work demonstrates, Gauguin rejected the conventions of industrialized modern society, in both his art and his life, through romanticized evocations of the primitive, the incorporeal, and the mystical. In doing so, he helped initiate the individualized expressionistic vein of avant-garde art that influenced generations of artists throughout the twentieth century.

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