10 Surrealist Paintings you should know

Rene Magritte Golconda
René Magritte, Golconde (1953)

In an era traumatised by the ravages of the First World War, many artists sought to create a new kind of reality to make sense of the world. Especially interested in psychic theories, Surrealists used their dreams, the subconscious mind and their stream of consciousness to create their art. In this article, discover iconic as well as lesser-known paintings that have contributed to Surrealism’s influence.

1. Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening – Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali Dream Painting
Salvador Dali – Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening (1944)

Although Salvador Dali had a tumultuous relationship with the Surrealist group, the Spanish painter remains one of the most famous Surrealist artist today. Persistency of Memory’s melted clocks are one of Dali’s most famous and reproduced imagery, but his surrealistic oeuvre goes far beyond this painting. For example, Dali’s Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening is a remarkable example of surrealist art at its height. The painting’s lengthy title confers a psychoanalytic character to the artwork. Like many surrealist artists, Dali was fascinated with dreams and Freudian theories of the conscious and subconscious mind. Set in a maritime landscape, Dali depicted a dreamlike scene inspired by one of Gala’s vision, wife and muse of the artist. The vibrant yet imposing atmosphere renders the scene both threatening and inviting.

2. The Treachery of Images – René Magritte

Magritte painting Treachery of Images
René Magritte – The Treachery of Images (1928)

Magritte‘s humorous painting stating “This is not a pipe” underneath a very realistic pipe raises important points on the gap between language and meaning, especially in the post-WWI era. Words don’t mean what they represent, and surrealist artists argued for a deconstruction of language. Magritte’s images, although simple, trigger startling thoughts. His use and mixing of both text and visual was quite revolutionary for the time and came to inspire many conceptual artists in the late 20th century.

3. Self-Portrait – Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington - Self-Portrait 
Leonora Carrington – Self-Portrait 

One of the many but too little known Surrealist women artists, the American painter Leonora Carrington was a bold artist who managed to establish herself as a key figure of Surrealism despite the discrimination of her male peers. Many of the surrealist male artists were rather misogynistic and would solely acknowledge women as a mere sexual desire and object. Thankfully women such as Leonora Carrington depicted deeper women experiences, especially in male-dominated societies and environments. In this self-portrait, she explores her femininity by creating a mimesis between her and a hyena, relating herself to the animal’s rebellious nature.

4. Harlequin’s carnival – Joan Miro

Joan Miro - Harlequin’s carnival (1924)
Joan MiroHarlequin’s carnival (1924)

Harlequin’s Carnival is considered to be one of the major surrealist artworks in Joan Miro’s artistic career. The painting was exhibited during the collective exhibition “Surrealist Painting” in 1925 at the Pierre gallery in Paris. Major surrealist artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and Max Ernst also exhibited their work along with Miro. The painting was inspired by the artist’s hallucinations when he was in economic difficulties and struggled to eat his fill. Miro stated himself “I tried to translate the hallucinations that hunger would produce. I didn’t depict what I’d see in my dreams, as the Surrealist often did, but what hunger would produce: a form of trance.” The apparent jumble of random items together is actually the fruit of a meticulous composition, as Miro’s preparatory sketches prove.

5. Ubu Imperator-Max Ernst

Max Ernst - Ubu Imperator (1923)
Max Ernst – Ubu Imperator (1923)

The Surrealist artist Max Ernst was radically opposed to academic art and wanted to completely revolutionise people’s approach to arts. Inspired by Alfred Jarry’s absurd theatre play King Ubu, the painting Ubu Imperator represents oppressive power in an ironic and satirical manner. In an empty landscape, the “Imperator” is depicted as an anthropomorphic top, framed in a red armour and with human hands expressing surprise. The top embodies the idea of unstable balance, suggesting that authority is far from permanent and can be overthrown at any moment. These miscellaneous elements are mixed together to create an absurd and grotesque idea of authority.

6. I Saw Three Cities – Kay Sage

Kay Sage - I Saw Three Cities (1944)
Kay Sage – I Saw Three Cities (1944)

The American Surrealist painter Kay Sage depicted surreal atmospheres, which feel haunting and ghostly. As her painting I Saw Three Cities demonstrates, her work largely differed from the other women Surrealist. Her universe remained obscure, impenetrable and nihilistic throughout her artistic career. In this painting, she mixes the fluidity of drapery, recalling Ancient Greek aesthetic, with harsh geometric shapes. This contrast creates a tension between modernity and classical art.

7. Indefinite Divisibility – Yves Tanguy

Indefinite Divisibility - Yves Tanguy
Indefinite Divisibility – Yves Tanguy

This oil on canvas painting depicts mundane objects gathered together to form what seems to be an artist’s easel. Tanguy would utilise the concept of stream of consciousness in order to create his artworks, as he once stated “the painting develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses.” Tanguy’s painting sought to trigger emotions, rather than communicating specific explanations. Kay Sage was his wife and although they worked independently their characteristic eerie atmospheres have undoubtedly had a mutual influence on their creation.

8. Celestial Pablum – Remedios Varo Uranga

Remedios Varo Uranga - Celestial Pablum
Remedios Varo Uranga –Celestial Pablum

Varo Uranga was a feminist and anarchist Spanish Surrealist painter, associated with the para-surrealist movement. She was interested in the ancestral and mystical and strived to create a collective feminine consciousness and free themselves from patriarchal oppression. Varo often denounced how reductive and overbearing associations of women with elements from nature could be. For instance, the painting Celestial Pablum depicts a woman imprisoned in a medieval tower, in the company of a moon who is also in a cage. Women are often associated with the moon to symbolise fertility and motherhood. This is ultimately limiting as it defined what was “good” and “natural” for women. Besides, many of Varo’s paintings are related to the celestial universe, and she believed that art and sciences were deeply intertwined.

9. The Song of Love – Giorgio de Chirico

Giorgio de Chirico Song of Love Surrealist painting
Giorgio de Chirico – The Song of Love (1914)

The Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico is considered as one of the precursor of surrealism and was particularly appreciated by the Parisian surrealist circle. Although it was painted 10 years prior to André Breton’s Surrealism Manifesto and the official founding of the movement in 1923, his painting The Song of Love is one of the early examples of surrealist painting. The painting’s surrealist character lies in the mixing of uncanny objects, such as a giant surgeon’s glove with a classical bust mix and a rubber ball to create a sense of mystery. As the term surrealist wasn’t coined at this time, Chirico’s painting was rather defined as metaphysical.

10. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning painting surrealist
Dorothea Tanning – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943)

Dorothea Tanning, who passed away in 2012, is finally receiving well-deserved recognition. The Tate Modern in London is currently organising a major exhibition on the highly versatile female artist. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is one of her most famous early works and was seemingly inspired by childhood fears and nightmares. Supernatural elements, such as an oversized sunflower that seems animated and life-size dolls create an eerie atmosphere in the dark hotel corridor.

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