Do you know your Dalí from your Ernst? How about your Breton from your Magritte? If not, don’t panic. We’ll give you the rundown on what surrealist art is, how to spot surrealist artworks when you’re at a museum, and highlight some of the most famous (and not-quite-so-famous) pieces that you should be familiar with. 

What Is Surrealist Art?

Before we explore both famous and lesser-known surrealism artworks, let’s quickly recap what surrealism is. 

A movement that began in the aftermath of the First World War, surrealism is about breaking away from the constraints of society and reaching deep into the unconscious mind to find the true source of creativity. The surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s believed that their work transcended reality, finding inspiration in their dreams to create a “super reality” that was notably opposite to what they determined to be an over-rational world.

Ubu Imperator
Source: wikiart
“Ubu Imperator” by Max Ernst is a classic example of surrealism in art.

Surrealist art was one of the main creative channels for those interested in this idea in the interwar years, following on from the Dadaism tradition of the early 20th century, where humor and absurdity were used to convey creative concepts. The horrors of war and lingering PTSD in those returning from the frontlines encouraged artists and writers to experiment with more anarchic forms of painting, drawing, and writing. 

Art has long been a tool for reflection and expression, but for the first time, creatives used their craft to firmly turn their backs on the conventional rules of society and explore their internalized thoughts around their traumatic experiences. And so, in the years following the world’s first truly global war, surrealism art was born.

Surrealism in Art

Once you know what to look for when it comes to identifying surrealism artworks, you’ll soon find it easy to spot them. For many of the surrealists, living through war led to the creation of graphic and, often, shocking imagery, a stark contrast to the impressionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Gone were the days of accurate depictions of what the artist was seeing, instead replaced by ordinary objects distorted almost beyond recognition, yet placed in a familiar or bland background setting. The technique of automation, popularized in visual arts by Joan Miró, gave artists the freedom to draw whatever they saw in their mind’s eye and frequently resulted in fantasy or nonsensical worlds painted on canvas.

Botanical Theater
Source: wikiart
Paul Klee’s “Botanical Theater” is an early example of the surrealist movement.

Irrational and terrifying depictions of everyday objects or scenes are commonly found throughout surrealist artworks, like melting clocks or human faces turning into fruit. You may also see surrealist art making use of negative or white space around a central shape to create the illusion of new or different shapes. For some surrealist artists, the decision to leave the interpretation down to the viewer was the true heart of surrealism, allowing the viewer to tap into their own subconscious and project their thoughts and feelings onto the piece.

While the surrealism movement was largely over by the start of the Second World War, surrealist artists have continued to use the concepts of psychoanalysis, the subconscious, and dreams to create memorable paintings and drawings. 

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Famous Surrealist Paintings

“The Tilled Field” by Joan Miró

The Tilled Field
Source: wikiart
“The Tilled Field” expertly blends the concepts of surrealism with political movements of the time.

“The Tilled Field” is one of Miró’s most well-known paintings and some of his earliest surrealism art. His work depicting the Catalan landscape is an important connection between the history of the area and its people, particularly during the Spanish Civil War. 

Like many of his other pieces from this time, the longstanding desire for Catalonian autonomy is shown through the seemingly random placement of objects and animals within the farm-based landscape. The painting is a good representation of how surrealist artists strived to break away from the ideals of society, using their art as a means of liberation.

“Mama, Papa Is Wounded!” by Yves Tanguy

“Mama, Papa Is Wounded!” by Yves Tanguy
Source: wikiart
Tanguy was often influenced by psychology and the work of Sigmund Freud.

If ever there was a painting that captured the influence of Sigmund Freud on surrealism, it’s this. Tanguy makes heavy use of symbols throughout this artwork, drawing on Freud’s concepts around psychoanalysis and the interpretation of symbols within dreams.

Tanguy worked closely with fellow surrealist Breton to conduct interviews with veterans in the post-war years, turning their psychiatric analysis into abstract works of art. Art specialists often point out the meaning in the perspective of this piece, that the solitary landscape and empty distance to the horizon are reflective of the loss felt during the war and the fear of not knowing what is ahead. 

“The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte

ceci n'est pas une pipe
Source: wikiart
Magritte’s use of advertising imagery in his work resonated deeply with his contemporaries.

“The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)” is a recognizable painting for art lovers all over the world. Created to mimic the look and feel of late-1920s advertising (a field that he had previously worked in), Magritte’s pipe is representative of the gap between language and images.

Magritte himself noted that there is conflict in arguing that the painting is a pipe when it is in fact not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe. He was famously quoted as saying, “Who would dare pretend that the representation of a pipe is a pipe? Who could possibly smoke the pipe in my painting? No one. There, it is not a pipe.” 

Not-So-Famous Surrealism Paintings

“The Song of Love” by Giorgio de Chirico

“The Song of Love” by Giorgio de Chirico
Source: wikiart
Giorgio de Chirico was one of the earliest surrealist painters in the early 20th century.

Also known as “Le chant d’amour” or “Love Song”, this is one of the lesser-known paintings by popular surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico. Although it was painted a decade before the start of the surrealist movement in 1924, de Chirico is credited with being a highly influential artist in the transitional period from dadaism to surrealism. 

The painting depicts a Greek sculpture mounted on a wall next to a surgeon’s glove and above a rubber ball. The juxtaposition of these objects, their distorted size, and mismatched placement are reflective of a dreamlike scene set within an ordinary cityscape.

“A Little Night Music” by Dorothea Tanning

“A Little Night Music” by Dorothea Tanning
Source: wikiart
Tanning’s paintings often focused on dreams or fantasy worlds.

In this painting, Tanning focuses heavily on a key surrealist inspiration: dreams. The two childlike figures wander in a semi-unconscious state, surrounded by a giant sunflower (considered to be one of the more aggressive types of flower thanks to its speedy and large growth). They must navigate down hallways, around staircases, and into doorways, all while sleeping.

Tanning uses these elements to reflect on childhood nightmares or a fear of the dark that so many young children suffer from, drawing from her own experiences and creating a world that many of us can relate to. While our own dreams may not look like dark hotel corridors, we can all empathize with the feeling that she portrays in this surrealism artwork.

“The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí

“The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí
Source: wikiart
Dalí made heavy use of surrealist imagery and inspiration in much of his work.

Although Dalí is arguably the most famous of the surrealist painters, this particular work is cited far less frequently than the original 1931 “The Persistence of Memory” painting that it’s based on. 

This 1954 recreation floods the original scene with water, showing disintegration of the featured objects both above and below the surface. The floating bricks represent atoms, thanks to Dalí’s newfound interest in nuclear physics after the 1945 atomic bombs, and represent chaos and disorder in the world. The floating fish, a symbol of life, is the final nail in the coffin for humanity as Dalí reflects on our self-generated destruction as a species.

“Le Passage” by Kay Sage

“Le Passage” by Kay Sage
Source: wikiart
Sage’s work, although later, continued to draw on techniques used by the earliest surrealists.

Although not part of the original surrealism movement, Kay Sage’s work is an excellent example of how the concepts and techniques of surrealism remained popular in the post-1945 and Cold War era.

“Le Passage” was Sage’s final self portrait before her death seven years later and stands out among her portfolio for featuring the human figure (most of her other work was object-based). She depicts her own personal suffering and torment through the use of cuts and nail marks, representing herself as a Christ-like figure in the painting. Her back to the viewer is symbolic of her internalized grief, with no eye contact making it impossible for her to be free of her own internal struggle.

Art Isn’t Always as It Seems

When you’re new to surrealist art, it can be difficult to understand what exactly is being conveyed in the paintings. But that’s also half the fun. In fact, the meaning of some surrealist art is still hotly debated to this day.

If you’re a budding artist yourself, surrealism is one of the best ways to experiment with new techniques and break out of your comfort zone. So whether you’re just an observer or interested in trying it out in your own creations, it’s time to tap into your unconscious thoughts and see what you can come up with.

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Written by:

Holly Landis