To Dream, to Collect

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Surrealism has produced some of the most salient and pored over images of the 20th century. The Surrealists were deeply ambitious about the potential role their art could play in unbridling potent societal forces, but unlike analogous avant-garde modernist movements such as Dada, the works all have an enduringly popular appeal and viewers feel instantly drawn to the imaginative qualities of the works. 

Related articles: Beyond Reality: 15 astonishing Surrealist paintings - Magritte: an artist with a "surreal" value - The art of the Century in 26 powerful movements

The central tenet of surrealism was the desire to release the unconscious as a medium to explore hidden aspects of the imagination and to offer a subjective, deeper form of truth to each painter and viewer. Largely seen as evolving from the theoretical basis produced by psychoanalysis, and heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and his examination of subconscious desires and dreams, the surrealists believed in the endless possibilities offered by liberating the mind from its rational and conscious state. 

The Surrealist movement encompassed a variety of loosely connected groups who often proclaimed – through their respective manifestos – to be articulating a more urgent and truer version of the artistic style than other collectives. It was a movement where every practitioner identified closely with the label ‘surrealist’, and the term had come into circulation and use in a critical context when the first paintings done in the style were created. Although the most enduring images of Surrealism are Salvador Dali’s bizarre landscapes, he was by no means the first artist to work in the style, nor was he the most revered within the surrealist circle. Below are the top fifteen surrealist painters from the 20th century:  

Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989)

Salvador Dali became properly involved with surrealism towards the end of the 1920’s when he became acquainted with both the writings of Sigmund Freud – in particular those on the interrelation of sexuality and subconscious imagery – as well as his association with the Paris Surrealists. After this point, his work eventually became the most enduring vision of the movement and his legacy as one of the great surrealist painters is arguably unparalleled. His renderings of unreal landscapes with everyday objects and natural features metamorphosed into unfamiliar and physically impossible versions of themselves now decorate the walls of major museums around the world. Arguably the poster of surrealism, the enigmatic painting: The Persistence of Memory (1931) is one such example, where wilted watches adorn an unquiet landscape.


Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.


René Magritte (1898-1967) 

Magritte is another icon of surrealism, especially for French surrealist painters.

Magritte’s style never veered away once he had arrived within the movement. His work typically centred around a familiar array of objects in precisely defined, often uncanny settings such as apples, pipes and bowler hats set against a background that was simultaneously day and night.  Unlike the purely visual surrealism of Dali and others, Magritte’s works were often text-based and intellectual, dealing with the semiotic slippage between an object’s representation and its essence. His 1929 painting, The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des images)is a prominent example of this kind of work – whereby the phrase ‘ceci n’est pas un pipe’ is written plainly to accompany the painted image of what is evidently a pipe. 


Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929.


Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

Unlike many of the other artists described here, Picasso was a radical experimenter and restless in his search for novel visual vocabularies to depict scenes in ever different styles. He cannot, therefore, be described as solely a ‘surrealist’, however, it is important to recognise his involvement in the scene and how some of his works crossed into the surreal. It is often thought that Picasso did not actively seek to join the movement, and it was rather they that brought him within their ranks. Picasso’s intimacy with André Breton catalysed this, and led to his inclusion in the fourth issue of Révolution surréaliste in 1925, the same year he exhibited his Cubist works at the first Surrealist group show. 

Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) 

They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’  - Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter whose own personal narrative looms just as large as her art. Some of the themes she often returned to were her difficult personal life, her relationship with the mural painter and revolutionary Diego Riviera and her persistent illness. This inclusion of deeply personal subject material makes her stand out from the typical surrealist painter, and her style has been defined in a variety of ways. Kahlo’s foundational motifs were drawn from Mexican popular culture and she utilised an essentially folkish and naïve style to render her often mythical, surreal and fantastical worlds. Despite, therefore, approaching painting from a very different geographical and psychological angle from many of the other surrealists, her contributions to the movement are undoubtedly valuable. It is worth noting also that there were a number of Cuban surrealist painters working in Central America. 


Joan Miró (1893 – 1983) 

Towards the middle of the 1920s, Joan Miró had permanently moved to Paris, after formally joining the Surrealist movement in 1924. He was deeply involved with the experiments of other practitioners, sharing a studio with André Masson and Max Ernst. A truly enigmatic figure, who pioneered his own deeply personal visual vocabulary of biomorphic, playful forms, his work has been often been interpreted as one incarnation of Surrealism, albeit with an individualistic angle, and evidently closely related to other modernist movements such as Fauvism and Expressionism. 

His alignment with surrealism goes beyond the visual as he was notable for his interest in the idea of the subconscious. Miro channelled this particular interest through his evocation of the childlike and naïve – believing this was a route to an oft obscured truth. Miró was also often known to disapprove of the manner in which conventional painting methods supposedly supported bourgeois society. He went as far as declaring his desire for an "assassination of painting". 


Joan Miró, The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), 1924.


Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) 

Max Ernst was first a key member of Dada before he became closely involved with Surrealism in Paris. One of his foremost contributions to the movement was his introduction of chance-based techniques such as frottage, whereby he would arrange a sheet of paper over a heavily textured material such as wood (often a floor board) and subsequently rub the surface of the paper with a mark making pencil or crayon. He then used this technique with oil painting to create increasingly chance-based and intricate compositions. With the oil painting, he would scrape paint from specially prepared canvases which has been arranged above materials such as rope, the caning from chairs and wire mesh. One example of this can be seen in Ernst’s 1927 work, The Forest. The trunks of the trees demonstrate the application of the method well. The Surrealists enjoyed the technique owing to the relinquishing of control on the part of the artist. Ernst commented that he ‘came to assist as spectator at the birth of all my works.’


Max Ernst, The Forest, 1927.


Man Ray (1890 – 1976) 

In the early 1920’s, Man Ray moved to Paris and became associated with the Dada and then Surrealist circles of artists and writers. He was best known for his experiments with surrounding photography, most notably his discovery of how to make "camera-less" photographs, which he called rayographs (a combination of the word photograph and his name). These experiments with photography allowed him access to the beating heart of the Parisian Surrealist movement which was led by André Breton. 

Man Ray was evidently in tune with many of the formal and theoretical concerns of the other surrealists, and works such as his series Anatomies,demonstrate this through their transmutation of the familiar to the uncanny. Man Ray was also involved in the media output of the surrealists through their journals in the 1920s and 1930s. 


Man Ray, Anatomies, 1929.


Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)

Leonora Carrington was both a painter as well as a novelist, and has recently reached more acclaim. She was known for exploring the female sensibility and aspects of female sexuality through her surrealist practise. Her association with the surrealist group is often seen in relation to her romance with Ernst, of whom she was once the muse and lover. Carrington moved beyond the idea of the woman as merely a source of inspiration for the surrealists and became interested in forces beyond the human and the visible and focused on the occult. One of her better-known works is El Juglar from 1954, which is a large dreamscape populated with personal references. 


Leonora Carrington, El Juglar, 1954.


Giorgio de Chirico (1888 – 1978) 

De Chirico was known for establishing the scuola metafisica, a movement which was much admired by the surrealists. This term defined much of his work done during the 1910’s, before he was formally affiliated with the surrealist movement. Breton referred to de Chirico as ‘a sentry’ of the movement, and his works seemed to contain an uncanny sensibility owing to their dreamlike landscapes coupled with unexplainable combinations of quotidian objects framed in bizarre ways. De Chirico himself, however, never invested himself fully in the movement, and in fact pined after a wholescale return to principles of skilled draftsmen-ship within art, a move that supposedly alienated the surrealists and their quest for meaning within art. 

De Chirico’s best-known paintings feature classically architectural backdrops, complete with clearly defined shadows and jarring perspective. Mannequins are probably the most common of his objects, along with fruit, giving the paintings a sense of the still life. 


Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913.


Dora Maar (1907-1997)

Until relatively recently, Dora Maar is best known as the lover and muse-like figure of Pablo Picasso. An appreciation of her autonomous and unique creative output has recently taken place, however, and she is now seen as an important figure within the surrealist movement. Artistically, she was most influenced by Man Ray, and worked principally in photography. It was throughout the 1930s that Maar’s challenging montages became renowned images of the surrealist movement, and it is these images as well as her documentation of Picasso painting his major work 1937 work Guernica that make up her enduring legacy. 

Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985) 

Born in Vitebsk, Marc Chagall was an artist who although had no formal ties with the movement, went on to have an huge impact on Surrealism. Breton heavily favoured his works, claiming that ‘no work was ever so resolutely magical’ as his. Chagall was later officially invited to join the movement, but decided to turn down the offer. Chagall always claimed, like Kahlo, that there was no level of metaphor running through his paintings and that what he saw shouldn’t be defined as symbolism. Chagall’s work was a mythic mix of nostalgic references to his native Belarus, references to his wife Bella and a general investigation into soft layers of coloured form. 

Yves Tanguy (1900 – 1955) 

Tanguy’s paintings are often mistaken for Dali’s, a testament to how intimately they fit within the surrealist canon. Tanguy was in fact working earlier than Dali, and the younger artist admits his debt to Tanguy. Beyond his work, Tanguy embodied many of the qualities surrealist artists have become associated with in the popular imagination, known for his highly eccentric behaviour. His most well-known works depict landscapes with biomorphic, rock-like formations and shifting, almost liquefied surfaces in hazy, pastel coloured environments resembling some cosmic outpost. 


Yves Tanguy, Azure Day, 1937.


Lee Miller (1907 – 1977)

Surrealism in Britain had a few major exponents, one of whom was Lee Miller, an American born artist who later settled in Britain, and whose home Farley Farmhouse became a centre for the movement and other avant-garde artistic activities. 

Born in New York, Miller was a fashion model featured heavily in magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair as she was growing up. She then moved to Paris to study photography with Man Ray, and set up a studio Her later marriage to the artist Roland Penrose meant she moved to Sussex. She had a lot of engagement with the wider surrealist movement, the pinnacle of which was her and Penrose’s role in the London based,1936 International Surrealism Exhibition and their organisation the next year of ‘Surrealist Invasion’ of Cornwall. Documented carefully by Miller and Penrose, this was an occasion where artists including Leonora Carrington stayed together in Cornwall and exchanged ideas and practised together. 

Paul Nash (1889 – 1946)

Nash is perhaps the best-known exponent of British surrealism, with his melding of distinctly English, folkick and mythic sites with strange, distorted perspectives and objects becoming much loved works in Britain and elsewhere. Acclaimed originally for his war paintings of the First World War, Nash’s subsequent explorations into novel depictions of landscape see his closest ties to the surrealist group. In these works his style became increasingly abstract and surreal, juxtaposing commonplace objects such as furniture and machines amongst an otherwise naturalised landscape. 

Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Tanning was introduced to the Surrealists through the exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” in 1936 which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Tanning is most well-known for her subsequent paintings which often include references to her dreams, which she viewed as signifying deeper truths and the containing in each person the potential for a psychological rebirth. She commented: ‘[M]y dreams are bristling with objects that relate to nothing in the dictionary … [D]reams one reads in books are composed of known symbols but it is their strangeness that distinguishes them.’ Tanning later met Max Ernst - who at the time was married to Peggy Guggenheim – but whom Tanning ending up marrying and staying with until Ernst’s death. 


Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942.



Cover image: Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913.

Written by Max Lunn

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