Most of us have heard of Salvador Dalí, but how familiar are you with other surrealist artists? If you’re left scratching your head when you try to come up with a few other names, don’t worry—that’s what this guide is here for.
We’ll introduce you to some of the world’s best surrealism painters—both lesser-known and famous surrealist artists—and share highlights of their work so that you can feel confident talking about surrealist art with just about anyone.
When you’re new to surrealist paintings, it can be confusing to understand exactly what you’re looking at. Before we take a look at some of the most famous surrealism artists, let’s quickly run through a recap of what exactly surrealism is.
The surrealist art movement was centered around the desire to break away from social conventions of the early 20th century and focus more on the unconscious mind as a way to drive creativity and imagination.
The early surrealists were heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud’s ideas around psychoanalysis and, in the wake of the First World War, paintings and drawings based on dreams or fantasies were seen as a way to process trauma by tapping into an irrational unreality.
You’ll find that many surrealist painters use the distortion of everyday objects, landscapes, and people to convey their own pain and suffering or reflections on what they have seen in their dreams. There is no set technique to creating surrealist art, with artists instead concentrating on spontaneity and the use of disturbing imagery to reflect their unconscious mind.
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1. Max Ernst (1891 – 1976)
Despite having no formal training or education in the visual arts, Ernst became one of the primary founders of the surrealist art movement and a prolific painter, sculptor, and graphic artist. He is credited with the invention of artistic frottage, a technique whereby pencil or charcoal is rubbed onto paper over the top of an object, leaving an outline of the shape underneath.
Ernst became close friends with other notable artists in the Dada movement, the popular style that was the predecessor to surrealism, like Paul Klee and Giorgio de Chirico. Many of his paintings feature birds, and his alter ego, Loplop, was also a bird. Ernst believed that this alter ego was a representation of himself, with his unconscious thoughts making confusing connections between the life of birds and humans.
2. André Masson (1896 – 1987)
Masson was one of the many French surrealist painters in the 1920s to embrace the new movement toward free thought in creativity. He was a big proponent of automatic drawing, a surrealist technique adapted from automatic writing and believed to be the unconscious mind spilling out onto paper.
His experimental art took many forms, including using drugs to induce an altered state of consciousness in order to create his work. Masson also tried various tools and textures in his painting, throwing sand and glue at canvases and using oil paint around them to make different shapes. Although his later works were more structured, he is best known for his surrealist paintings.
3. Yves Tanguy (1900 – 1955)
Tanguy was a self-taught French surrealist whose paintings are known for their illogical and often terrifying depictions. His use of abstract landscapes, a limited neutral color palette with flashes of contrasting colors, and significant amounts of empty space around objects or subjects make his paintings instantly recognizable.
When working on ideas for new paintings, Tanguy frequently referred to psychiatry textbooks and interviews with war veterans to draw on their experiences of mental suffering. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tanguy’s focus on natural landscapes helps his work to straddle multiple genres of art—surrealism, realism, naturalism, and even some elements of classical art.
4. Katherine Linn (Kay) Sage (1898 – 1963)
As the wife of Yves Tanguy, Sage was fully immersed in the world of surrealism artists for much of her career, but her interest in the movement began long before she met Tanguy. An American-born painter, Sage traveled extensively throughout Europe in the 1920s and quickly fell in love with the work of Giorgio de Chirico and surrealism.
Sage’s paintings commonly feature a sense of motionlessness and impending doom, with dark color palettes and abstract graphics that became a key feature of many surrealist artists’ work. After relocating to the U.S. at the start of the Second World War, both Tanguy and Sage collected unusual and interesting objects—like a stuffed raven in a cage—and continued to create their surrealist paintings in a shared his-and-hers barn studio. Sage’s works won several national awards, attracting attention for their ominous mood and tone.
5. René Magritte (1898 – 1967)
One of the most notable Belgian surrealist painters, Magritte used surrealist concepts to create humorous and thought-provoking visual art. Like his contemporaries, he made use of ordinary objects in unusual settings. This approach, combined with his witty vision, made Magritte a popular artist at the time, and his work became highly influential in movements that followed, like pop, conceptual, and minimalist art. Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns were known admirers of his work.
Magritte’s previous work in the advertising industry led to some of his most famous creations, like “The Treachery of Images,” which has a distinctly ad-based look and feel. It was elements like this that made him stand out from other surrealism artists of the time and fueled his ever-growing popularity.
6. Leonora Carrington (1917 – 2011)
Born in England and later a resident of Mexico City, Carrington was initially inspired to try surrealist painting when she saw the work of Ernst at a 1936 exhibition in London (she later became his companion) and focused her attention on magical realism and alchemy. Unlike the other surrealists, she was not interested in the work of Freud or the subconscious, instead choosing to follow a mystical and fantasy route into the movement instead.
Many of Carrington’s paintings feature women and explore the nature of female sexuality through magical symbols and associations. Her use of small, meticulous brushstrokes and vibrant colors are symbolic of the influence that prominent surrealism painters had on her. Carrington’s paintings continue to be exhibited and sold for high value to this day.
7. Man Ray (1890 – 1976)
Although he was best known for his photography, Ray worked with various mediums like painting, film, sculpture, and prints. His work was all about the blurred line between reality and dreams, with his primary focus being the female form and how it could be used to represent various unreal situations.
Particularly in his photography, he made use of solarization and cropping to create surrealist effects against live models, placing everyday objects around them and using photosensitized paper to make high-exposure images. Ray’s fascination with negative space and shadows was originally formed in his painted artwork, using hard-edged applications of color to remove any traces of his own hands on the final piece.
8. Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954)
Mexican artist Kahlo did not consider herself to be one of the surrealist painters, noting that she was painting reality as she saw it rather than her dreams. Despite this, art critics continue to discuss her work within the context of surrealism. Her deep connection to her own thoughts and feelings lent itself well to surrealist techniques and outcomes, with many of her paintings exploring her own turbulent life and, in particular, her ongoing illness and relationship with Diego Rivera.
Kahlo was keen to include as much about Mexican culture as she could in her work, adding a folklore and mythical edge to many of the paintings that she created. Much of her later work centered around the subject of what it means to be a woman. Her depictions of miscarriage were a vital part of her portfolio, her own outward exploration of how the lack of motherhood in her own life impacted her female identity.
9. Mathieu Saunier (Present)
Very few surrealist artists continued to see global success following the Second World War, but modern artists continue to use surrealist ideas in their own artwork. French artist Saunier, who also goes by the name Khan Nova, makes use of digital techniques to create collages in the surrealist style, exploring the past and future through contemporary juxtapositions like people dressed in vintage ski wear against the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
His diverse and extensive portfolio makes Saunier one of the most exciting surrealist artists in the modern art world today.
10. Mark Ryden (Present)
If you love the fantasy side of surrealism, Ryden’s art will be right up your alley. Based in Los Angeles, Ryden mixes both pop art and surrealist methods to create subversive imagery. His focus on the blurred line between fine art and pop culture has led to some incredibly unique pieces that are unlike those of any other modern artist.
Although not always strictly surrealist, Ryden’s work is an interesting take on the ideas that the movement brought to light and the constant discussion between high and low art.
Try Your Hand at Surrealist Art
If you’re feeling inspired by learning more about the world’s most famous surrealist artists, having a go on your own is a great next step.
Remember, creating art should always be fun, and the endless opportunities that surrealism offers gives you complete freedom to let your imagination run wild.
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