Surrealism was an avant-garde artistic and literary movement that emerged in the early 20th century. It focused on deep emotional expression through artistic creation and free association. It drew heavily on psychoanalysis, which delved into the unconscious mind to identify repressed urges or traumas. Surrealism represented a turning point in modernism and the function of art in society as it diverged from traditional aesthetics in favor of self-analysis. Below are 10 famous paintings of the movement and their artists.
Dada and Early Surrealism Art
Surrealism was strongly influenced by the avant-garde movement called Dadaism. Like Surrealism, Dadaism encouraged nontraditional artistic styles, irony and erroneous imagery. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was also a key member of the Dada movement and created the automatic method of free association, which would be a an important influence on surrealist art and literature.
Celebes (1921) by Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German artist, sculptor and poet who was a key member in both the Dada and Surrealism movements. His work is known for its experimentation with illusion and the irrational and he became a leading member in the use of Automatism. He also pioneered a method called ‘frottage,’ which consisted of placing paper on uneven surfaces then rubbing a pencil over it to create the silhouette of the surface.
Celebes depicts a Sudanese corn bin that has been transformed into a mechanical elephant-like monster. Like many surrealist paintings, the piece is set in a vast, desolate landscape. At the forefront of the piece is a headless female figure. There are numerous elements of disjointed iconography including flying fish, oil cans, and a pole as if images from within a dream. These apparently random elements are products of surrealist automatism and the free association of the unconscious mind.
Carnival of Harlequin (1924-25) by Joan Miró
Joan Miró was a Spanish artist and a prominent member of the 20th-century avant-garde. His work was characterized by bright color use, geometric shapes and perspective shifts. He used these elements to create simplistic yet evocative abstract pieces. There are two museums dedicated to his work, one in Barcelona entitled Fundació Joan Miró and the other in Mallorca called Fundació Pilar I Joan Miró.
The Harlequin’s Carnival focuses on a fragmented harlequin at a carnival scene. The color palette features primary colors against a grey background. It exemplifies the symbolism and free association of Surrealism with disconnected elements that come together to form a cohesive piece. The background window has a geometric, abstracted sun and mountain. Many of the figures in the painting are anthropomorphized and appear to be dancing, highlighting the scene’s nonsensical nature.
Surrealism Art and the Exploration of the Unconscious
Influenced by psychoanalytic theory, Surrealists used art to delve into the unconscious mind. This was a method of self-analysis, unlocking underlying attitudes, desires or traumas and transposing them into art with symbolism. The use of psychoanalysis resulted in highly emotional, visceral and often shocking imagery.
The Great Masturbator (1929) by Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí was a Spanish artist and a leading member of the Surrealism movement. His work was known for his dream-like landscapes and bizarre imagery. He was highly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis and he used art to delve into the unconscious mind through symbolism. While expanded his career into other art movements including Cubism and used mediums such as sculpture, printmaking and writing, he was primarily known for his Surrealist visual art.
The Great Masturbator depicts a large, amorphous figure based on a Catalonian rock formation. A profile resembling Dalí’s wife Gala protrudes from the figure’s top and is surrounded by other grotesque bodily shapes. Small figures stand below the large formation on Dalí’s signature Catalonian landscape. Like many Surrealist paintings, it’s combination of individual elements suggests free association, which all together represent Dalí’s joint fascination and disgust towards sexual intercourse.
The Broken Column (1944) by Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter and a prominent contributor to the Surrealism movement. She was known primarily for her highly autobiographical self-portraits. These portraits often highlighted her lifelong struggle with illness and disability, featuring deeply personal and sometimes disturbing imagery. Her work also drew significant inspiration from Mexican culture and often included traditional Mexican iconography or clothing, bright colors and flowers.
The Broken Column represents the constraints of disability on Kahlo’s life. At age 6, she contracted polio, which left her with a permanent limp. She was later involved in a bus accident, during which a metal pole impaled her pelvis and left her disabled for the rest of her life. She dawns a back brace in the painting, which she was required to wear after her accident. Her spine is symbolized by an ancient Greek column that is fragmented within her body to represent her physical fragility after her accident. She is also penetrated by many nails, representing her constant pain and vulnerability.
Object in Fur (1936) by Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim was a Swiss-German artist and a prominent contributor to the Surrealism movement. Her work centered around feminism and the subjugation of women in society through the fragmentation of female bodies. She was closely linked with other avant-garde artists, posing for Man Ray and collaborating with Pablo Picasso. She was also known for experimenting with non-traditional materials in art.
Object in Fur is a teacup and spoon sculpture covered in animal fur. It was inspired by a conversation between Oppenheim, Picasso and Dora Maar at a café in Paris, during which the artists agreed that fur could cover any object, no matter its mundanity. It exemplifies the Dada and surrealist ‘found object’ sculpture type, which used and combined nontraditional or ordinary objects as artistic sculptures. Object in Fur has been renowned for its combination of domesticity and eroticism, remaining one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century.
Henry Ford Hospital (1932) by Frida Kahlo
Henry Ford Hospital portrays Kahlo laying in a hospital bed after suffering a miscarriage. She is central to the painting, hemorrhaging and surrounded by images of fertility, health and childbirth. Behind her are images of urban industrialism. A bus accident during her youth had crushed her pelvis and spine, disabling her for life and leaving her infertile. The piece, therefore, represents her lasting feelings of vulnerability, helplessness and pain that were caused by her accident and her struggle with womanhood and infertility.
Famous Motifs of Surrealism Art
The exploration of the surrealist mind yielded abstract, dreamscape images with paradoxical subject matter and symbolism. To connect these nonsensical scenes, surrealists used repeated motifs as if a part of a recurring dream. These motifs became recognizable and even iconic symbols of surrealist art.
The Philosopher’s Lamp (1936) by René Magritte
René Magritte was a Belgian artist and a prolific member of the Surrealism movement. He has created numerous surrealist masterpieces and remained an enduring contributor to the period throughout his career. His art was known for its elements of illusionism, irony and wit. He also introduced several iconic motifs into the movement, the most famous being a tobacco pipe. He was influenced by fellow artists Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico.
The Philosopher’s Lamp features Magritte’s use of the pipe motif. It is a self-portrait, depicting Magritte’s profile with a table in the background. Magritte’s nose extends, almost like an elephant trunk, into the pipe as if to parody the philosopher’s intelligence. The table behind him holds a candle extending up like a snake, a worm or a cord of an electric lamp. The piece is full of humorous irony and unrealistic elements, exemplifying the satirical nature of Surrealism.
The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dalí
The Persistence of Memory is one of the most well-known surrealist masterpieces, introducing Dalí’s melting clock motif into 20th-century modernism. The piece is set along a Catalonian coastline with the sea in the background. Central to the painting is a limp shape resembling a facial profile, surrounded by melting clocks and a stopwatch. It draws attention between notions of time and reality, alluding to the infinite metamorphosis of the world we live in.
Gradiva (1939) by André Masson
André Masson was a French artist who was linked with Surrealism, although he never formally identified as part of the movement. His work was known for its ancient Greco-Roman iconography and its depiction of grotesquely violent and erotic imagery. He was also a pioneer of Automatism and remains one of its most important influences.
Gradiva represents a character from Wilhelm Jensen’s 1902 novel ‘Gradiva,’ which centered around a young archaeologist who experiences delusions of an ancient statue. Gradiva, the object of the archaeologist’s obsession, was subsequently adopted by Freud and the Surrealists as a symbol of desire. The painting depicts a scene from the novel in Pompeii, in which Gradiva turns to stone. It features metamorphic, violent and erotic imagery and represents a moment of sexual completion. Although Gradiva is Masson’s most famous example of Greco-Roman imagery in painting, he repeated the theme throughout his oeuvre.
The Son of Man (1964) by René Magritte
The Son of Man is a self-portrait depicting Magritte in front of the sea wearing a suit and bowler hat. His face is obscured by a green apple, but the viewer can see his eyes protruding over its edge. The obscured face theme occurs in two of Magritte’s other paintings done during the same period, The Great War (1964) and The Taste of the Invisible (1964). It is one of Magritte’s most well-recognized paintings and has been continuously reiterated in modern pop culture.