Surrealism was a revolutionary artistic movement that emerged in Europe in the 1920s as a reaction to the atrocities of World War I and the cultural-political values of the time. It was inextricably linked to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories on dreams and the subconscious mind. Surrealist artists rejected rationalism and conformism to repressive social norms, and were interested in experimentation and unexpected outcomes; they utilized and invented new techniques in making art, such as collage, doodling, frottage, and more. Characteristics of Surrealist artwork include the element of fantasy and the irrational, a metaphysical atmosphere, dreamlike imagery depicting mysterious environments and landscapes, shocking juxtapositions, experimental techniques, and more.
Examples of surrealism artwork are the following:
1. BATTLE OF THE FISHES (Andre Masson), 1927
Andre Masson created the Battle of Fishes in 1927, by using the automatic drawing technique. His process involved rapid sketching, sprinkling sand on adhesive, and painting directly from the tube in a fierce manner. The automatic technique entails drawing without a preconceived idea and just following a free-flowing process by letting the hand draw arbitrarily and with speed across the paper. From the resulting abstract shapes, produced by the subconscious, Masson would then discover shapes to form an image. This active process has manifested into an image of an intense underwater battle of ferocious fish-like creatures.
The scene is chaotic and full of abstract forms; it conveys a sense of intensity and aggression. The sharp-toothed fish dominate the scene, while the sand and smoke-like areas, the lines in graphite and charcoal, and red blood spills fill in the white background.
This portrayal of animal savagery acts as an allegory of the brutality of life and all living creatures, even humans. The scene can be interpreted as a depiction of the terrible anxiety Masson experienced as a result of the physical and mental injuries, he sustained during World War I. Masson was in fact was institutionalized, after the war, and suffered from insomnia and recurrent nightmares, which he then used as inspiration for his work. Surrealism provided Masson with comfort and the ideal outlet for his unconscious mind and his deep exploration of human existence.
2. THE LOVERS (René Magritte), 1928
The Lovers II is part of a series of four surrealist paintings, which Magritte painted over the course of one year, in 1928. The painting is characterized by its muted and melancholic color palette with contrasting colors of warm brown-reds and cold gray-blues and its mysterious and unsettling scene. Magritte is recognized for his unique approach to giving everyday objects and subjects a new dimension by placing them in new and contradictory contexts.
In this surrealist painting, Magritte has created two figures of lovers who try to kiss, but in vain. A white cloth – resembling a shroud – covers their faces and necks. The fabric seems to separate the forms forever, as they are unable to truly ever touch and see each other. The subjects’ gender can only be determined by their clothing. The woman’s face is slightly tilted to the left as the man leans in to kiss her. From the few architectural cues, such as the corner of a room and the ceiling on the top, we can guess the setting of the scene to be an interior space. The central positioning of the figures focuses our attention on the mysterious lovers, who kiss in a cinematographic style as if from a movie, which indicates Magritte’s influence from cinema. Despite the painting’s apparent simplicity, all of these components contribute to the psychological effect on the viewer who is puzzled by this bizarre imagery.
And yet, such an erotic and intriguing image hides behind it a macabre story. Magritte’s mother, Regina, was a woman who suffered from depression. One fateful day, in 1912, she committed suicide by falling into the river Sabre in Belgium. Rene was only fourteen years old when this happened. It is said that he was present when her body was pulled from the river and her white nightgown covered her entire face, leaving the rest of her body exposed. This image of cloth wrapped around the face marked René, who reproduced it as a motif in many of his paintings.
3. CELEBS (Max Ernst), 1921
The Celebes is one of the most significant Surrealist artworks and was created by the surrealist artist Max Ernst in 1921. Max Ernst was one of the most prominent proponents of Automatism in the Surrealist movement and his work is characteristic of its absurdity and bizarreness.
The composition is dominated by a big round form in the center that resembles a large mechanical elephant. The creature’s round body was inspired by an anthropological journal photo that depicted a Sudanese clay bin used to store corn. Ernst had morphed this into a machine monster, with a horned head and a metallic cuff around its elephant trunk. The low horizon exaggerates the size and makes the monster appear gigantic and menacing. In the foreground, there is a headless female mannequin cropped by the frame of the work, and a totem-like pole right behind it. On top of the creature, there are bizarre objects as if coming out of it, while in the background we see smoke and two fish flying in the murky and clouded sky. The mechanical and smoky scene may allude to the terrifying experience of war that Ernst experienced.
The title of the work Celebes, (also known as The Elephant Celebes) is derived from a childish bawdy German rhyme with sexual connotations, which goes like this:
“The elephant from Celebes has sticky, yellow bottom grease.
The elephant from Sumatra always fucks his grandmama.
The elephant from India can never find the hole ha-ha.”
The painting’s illogical juxtapositions of unrelated objects evoke a dreamlike quality and the free association technique of Freud. It undoubtedly follows the de Chirico tradition of dreamlike space, atmosphere, and color palette and combines Surrealism irrationality and Dada’s collage techniques to create otherworldly realities.
4. THE HARLEQUIN’S CARNIVAL (Joan Miró), 1924-25
The Harlequin’s Carnival was created by Joan Miró in the year 1924 or 1925. It is an iconic image of the Surrealism Movement and is considered one of the most significant works of the artist. This work is distinguished by a childlike quality, and the use of animated forms that resemble living organisms. This piece combines abstract art with surrealist fantasy in a whimsical and poetic charm. The viewer is drawn into this imaginary universe, intrigued by the contradictions in recognizable forms and meaning.
This painting portrays a scene where a carnival or celebration is taking place in an indoor space with a table and a window in the background. Harlequin, the subject of this painting, is the protagonist of this event. Harlequin is a well-known Italian comic theater character who usually plays guitar and is generally characterized by his checkered costume. Harlequin in Miro’s painting is presented as a whimsical character with an animated mustache and a melancholic expression, which comes in contrast to the overall cheerful atmosphere. Curious characters and fantastical creatures around him, -such as dancing cats, mermaids, anthropomorphized bugs, floating stars, musical notes, and a flying ghostlike hand, -overfill the space as they play, sing, and dance in a chaotic manner. Many bizarre forms and swirly shapes add to this celebratory movement as they are moving or floating around the canvas.
When Miró created this work, he said that he was in difficult financial circumstances and often experienced hunger to the point of starvation. The hunger will cause hallucinations and the hallucinatory images he would then capture and incorporate into his work. Art critics consider Harlequin’s Carnival to be a portrayal of the subconscious mind; it is regarded as the pinnacle of Miro’s distinct surrealism style.
5. LE VIOLIN D’ INGRES (Man Ray), 1924
Le Violon d’Ingres (French for Ingres’s Violin), created by the artist Man Ray in 1924, is one of the most well-known images and a classic example of surrealist photography. It was initially published in the Surrealist magazine Littérature in June 1924 and has since then been venerated as a surrealist icon. Man Ray is recognized for his innovative photographic work which represented the female figure in an original and experimental approach.
Ray’s lover, the artist, and performer Alice Prin, also known as “Kiki de Montparnasse” posed in front of his camera for many of his pictures. For this work, Ray took inspiration from the nude studies of the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, such as the painting La Grande Baigneuse, and photographed the model from the back in a similar fashion. The nude model wears a turban on her head and a cloth covering her thighs partially, with her hands not visible. By painting two f-shape sound holes onto the photographic print and then printing the photograph on top, Ray has transformed her body into a musical instrument, a violin.
Man Ray in this work plays with the notion of objectification and admiration of the female body. We see this eccentric juxtaposition of the female form with an object reoccurring throughout his work and career. The title, in a humorous play on words, refers to the French idiomatic expression ‘violon d’Ingres’, which means hobby, and came about from Ingres’s well-known passion for the violin. Man Ray through this work pays homage to the work of the painter Ingres, while also presenting his muse and lover, Kiki, as his own ‘violon d’ Ingres’.
6. THE GREAT FOREST (Max Ernst), 1927
The Great Forest was created by the surrealist artist Max Ernst in 1927, as part of a series of abstract forest works that he painted in the late 1920s. For this painting, he used the innovative technique of grattage which he invented in 1926, following his earlier experiments with frottage. Ernst developed grattage by placing items with a textured surface, such as wire mesh, wood, and shattered glass, beneath his canvases and then spreading and scraping thick paint to capture textural effects and interpret forms that emerged.
The composition of this piece presents a dense and impenetrable wall of a dark forest with the only trace of life, a bird flying amid the trees, while a large sun disk is floating in the background. The forest conveys an otherworldly quality as if it is petrified and enchanted. The circle that resembles a sun dominates the composition and conveys optimistic feelings; its light-yellow color creates a beautiful contrast with the dark forest and the mysterious blue sky. There is no use of perspective in the traditional sense; the sun, forest, and sky appear to be all on one level. In this composition, texture plays an important role. Ernst scraped the paint off to create lines and patterns and reveal bright textural forms of tree trunks and foliage.
Forests and birds feature often in Ernst’s work, indicating his interest in nature. The source of inspiration for this piece is traced back to Ernst’s childhood memories and the fear and fascination he experienced in the German forest that surrounded his home. Ernst’s essay “Les Mystères de la forêt”, (“The Mysterious of the Forest”), published in 1934 in Minotaure, a surrealist-oriented magazine, describes this fascination and love for the forest: “They are, it seems, savage and impenetrable, black and russet, extravagant, secular, swarming, diametrical, negligent, ferocious, fervent, and likable, without yesterday or tomorrow… Naked, they dress only in their majesty and their mystery”.
7. THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY (Salvador Dali), 1931
The Persistence of Memory is one of the most popular and recognizable works by Salvador Dali and has come to represent an entire movement. It was created in 1931 at the pinnacle of the Surrealist movement. Dali like many Surrealist artists took inspiration from the psychoanalytic theories of Freud on the subconscious and dreams. For the creation of this work, Dali used his paranoiac-critical method through which he would self-induce paranoia and hallucinations to facilitate his creative process. His method and work have been very influential to many other surrealists and opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
The painting invites the viewer into a dreamlike desert-like landscape, where our attention is drawn right away to the melting clocks on top of a building block, a branch of a dry tree, and a large disfigured sleeping face lying on the ground. The melting clocks can be interpreted as a symbol of the passing and wear of time, which is also indicated by the swarm of ants walking on top of a face-down clock. The melting clock, one of Dalí’s most iconic symbols, became a recurrent motif in many of his surrealism paintings. As expected by a surrealist artist, Dali explained that the soft melting watches were “…nothing more than the soft, extravagant, solitary, paranoiac-critical Camembert cheese of space and time… Hard or soft, what difference does it make! As long as they tell time accurately…”.
In the background, our gaze relaxes onto a horizon line of a light blue sea and rocky cliffs that allude to the Catalonian landscape, Dali’s home. All elements of the composition are painted in a hyperrealist manner and everything appears frozen in time as if time has stopped in old memories. In this work, Dali seamlessly merged and blurred the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.
8. EINE KLEINE NACHTMUSIK (Dorothea Tanning), 1943
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is one of the well known of Dorothea Tanning’s early paintings. The painting presents a peculiar scene with strange happenings, in what appears to be a hotel corridor. The doors are numbered and the corridor is covered with a red carpet, while on the far right a glimmer of light comes in through a half-open door. A huge sunflower and pieces of its broken stem lie on the corridor floor. A doll-like figure, with her chest exposed, is resting exhausted against one of the doors, holding a sunflower petal in her hands. A second figure of a girl is standing across the gigantic broken flower as if witnessing its fall, while her long hair is blown upwards by a blast of strong wind. It appears as if a battle or dramatic encounter against supernatural forces has taken place, as indicated by the torn clothes of the girls and the destroyed sunflower. The mysterious and dark occurrence in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik recalls the fantasy and nightmare characteristics of Gothic literature that Canning loved.
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik which means ‘A Little Night Music’, is titled after one of Mozart’s most well-known serenades; a paradoxical contradiction to the subject of the painting. Tanning was also fascinated with the sunflowers and has stated that the sunflower in this work represents ‘a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with, […] a never-ending battle we wage with unknown forces, the forces that were there before our civilization’. Tanning explored often in her work girlhood and the turn to womanhood on puberty, and this work perhaps explores in a symbolic and surreal manner this profound shift. Parallels to Tanning’s work can be found in the literary work of Alice Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol, where similarly the portrayal of the childhood experience and inner drama goes against the ideal perceptions of a child’s carefree and innocent existence.
9. OBJECT (LE DEJEUNER EN FOURRURE), (Meret Oppenheim), 1936
Object also known as Le Dejeuner en Fourrure or Breakfast in Fur is a surrealist object created by Meret Oppenheim in 1936, at the very young age of 22. This piece is one of the most notable Surrealist pieces of bizarre juxtapositions, using the “found object” or “objet trouvé” in French. Found object is a term that refers to art that utilizes and modifies everyday objects, (natural or man-made), to repurpose them into art while keeping them in a recognizable form. Oppenheim, as well as many other Surrealists, would experiment with the arrangement of objects in unexpected contradictions that evoked the subconscious and defied reason.
In this piece, Oppenheim has taken an everyday object, a cup-and-saucer set, and covered it with gazelle fur. It is a shocking piece full of contradictions: the soft fur accentuates the sensual pleasure of touch and associations with wild animals, while the teacup is a domestic man-made object meant to drink from. The surrealist artist has intervened and transformed the cup set from a familiar and functional object into a new object, a work of art. The addition of the fur has changed its original purpose completely, rendering it useless, and granting it a new status: that of a Freudian symbol with an odd mix of associations. The piece caused a sensation when it was initially exhibited in the surrealist exhibition in 1936, and subsequently became one of the symbols of surrealist art and the feminist movement.
The idea for this surrealism art piece was sparked over a joke. In 1936, Meret Oppenheim met at a Paris café with Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso. Picasso spotting her fur-lined, metal bracelet, remarked that everything could be covered in fur. Oppenheim responded, “Even this cup and saucer” and added with amusement “Waiter, a little more fur! ”.
10. LOBSTER TELEPHONE (Salvador Dali), 1938
The Lobster Telephone, created by Dali in 1938, is one of the most recognizable and ingenious Surrealist objects ever created. The bizarre juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelatable objects is a characteristic of Dada movement and Surrealist principles. Edward James, a prolific collector, and patron of the surrealist art movement commissioned Salvador Dali to create the Lobster Telephone and had four made for his own house. Nearly all the Lobster Telephones are currently housed in museum collections around the globe.
The surrealism artwork is so simple but shockingly nonsensical. It displays an unusual assemblage of a menacing marine creature, a large lobster, and an everyday object, a telephone. Dali, following the principles of Surrealism on the illogical nature of dream imagery, the subconscious, and sexual desires, positions a plaster-made lobster on the phone, with its genitalia aligned with the mouthpiece. The Lobster Telephone was initially titled Aphrodisiac Telephone, and for Dali, this surrealism art piece featured strong sexual connotations, as the lobster was considered an aphrodisiac.
Dali’s exploration of the paranoiac-critical method and preoccupation with surrealistic assemblages, and furniture, brought forth a new dimension to surrealism. The meaning of the Lobster telephone has been the subject of various interpretations over time. However, it is generally acknowledged that the piece was simply a result of Salvador Dali’s humor. Pairing the two unrelated objects was simply amusing for him. In an attempt to explain this piece, Dali stated: “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone; I do not understand why champagne is always chilled and why on the other hand telephones, which are habitually so frightfully warm and disagreeably sticky to the touch, are not also put in silver buckets with crushed ice around them.” That’s why most people believe that the piece signifies the humor of the famous artist.