Home Magazine From Magritte to Tanning, top fifteen surrealist paintings of this summer

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. 

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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 paintings of this summer 2021.
Watches melting in the sun 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.


The Persistence of Memory, 1931, oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm), © 2021 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Strange creatures beside a blue sea: 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 centered 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, inviting the viewer to reclaim the wonder from familiar images of the surrounding world. His 1953 painting, The Wonders of Nature (Les merveilles de la nature) is a prominent example of this kind of work – where the curious point of view of a couple of anthropomorphic mermaids and a ship made of water deprives words of the power to explain.


René Magritte, Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1953, Oil on canvas, Encased: 42 5/8 × 50 5/8 × 6 ½ in. (108.3 × 128.6 × 16.5 cm), Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Gift of Joseph and Jory Shapiro, Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


Woman dazzled by the light: 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 recognize his involvement in the scene and how some of his works crossed into the surreal. 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. Picasso’s lover Dora Maar, seated on a chair, is painted in the Surrealist style, using bright colors broken lines and several perspectives.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar (Portrait de Dora Maar), 1937, Oil on canvas, 92 cm × 65 cm (36 in × 26 in), Courtesy Musée Picasso, Paris.


Days of being wild: 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 utilized an essentially folkish and naïve style to render her often mythical, surreal and fantastical worlds. Her wonderful gardens were surely a source of solace from the high heat of Mexican’s summer.  


Frida Kahlo, Two Nudes in a Forest, 1939 Collection of Jon ShirleyPhoto: 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Life on a farm in Catalonia, Spain. 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. The Hunter - an escape into the absolute nature - reveals a landscape populated with a rich assortment of human and animal figures and natural forms, and the truncated word “sard” also references the fragmented letters of the Surrealist poetry.


Joan Miró, The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), Montroig, July 1923-winter 1924, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 39 1/2" (64.8 x 100.3 cm), © 2021 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.


Enigmatic nocturnal landscape of the American southwest: 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 the décalcomanie technique, an inventive exercise in manipulating paint. This transfer process, using gouache or some other water-based medium, laying one on top of the other, can be repeated to create increasingly chance-based and intricate compositions. The Phases of the Night is a “multidimensional time-space continuum”: a complex, enigmatic, panoramic nocturnal landscape of the humble village of Sedona (Arizona), dedicated to the woman in his life, Dorothea Tanning (further on the list).


Max Ernst, The Phases of the Night, 1946, oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 63 7/8 in. (91.3 x 162.4 cm.), Courtesy Christie’s. 

Solarized visions: 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. Ray’s photographic works are considered his most profound achievement, particularly technical experiments with the medium, such as his "camera-less" photographs, which he called solarization and 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 Double Profile, Solarized demonstrates 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. “I do not photograph nature,” he once said. “I photograph my visions.


Man Ray, Double Profile, Solarized, 1932, Gelatin silver print on ferrotyped paper, 9 7/8 × 7 5/8 in, 25.1 × 19.4 cm, Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.
Jugglers at country fairs: 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 Max 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, layered, and polyvalent dreamscape populated with personal references. 
Leonora Carrington, Juggler (El Juglar), 1954, oil on canvas  37½ x 37½ in. (95.2 x 95.2 cm.), Courtesy Christie’s.


Dawn and dusk, day and night at the same time: 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 elongated shadows and jarring perspective. The work Sgombero su piazza d’Italia belongs to the artist’s most iconic series of metaphysical works: monumental yet mysterious scene.

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


Strangeness on the sand: 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’s major work Guernica, that make up her enduring legacy. Maar’s hybrid photomontages look modish and styled The shell and hand recall Bataille’s obsessions with crustaceans and orphaned body parts. The hand rhymes with similar ones in the photographs of Claude Cahun,
Dora Maar, Untitled (Shell hand), 1934, Courtesy Centre Pompidou / Philippe Migeat / RMN-GP.


Cheerful life under the sea: 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. Circus performers were ideal characters to populate Chagall's dream-like compositions. 


Marc Chagall, Le Cirque bleu, Oil paint on canvas, Support: 349 × 267 mm 540 × 464 × 45 mm, Courtesy Tate Collection, © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.

The story of a small school of fish and a child: 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. Tanguy’s debt to the imaginative landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico is apparent in the perplexing array of imagery included in this artwork.

Yves Tanguy, Unknown, 1926, Oil on canvas with string and collage,36 1/4 × 25 1/2 in. (92 × 64.8 cm), The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection, 2002, © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 


Bathing with sharks: 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. 
Lee Miller, Bathing Feature, Vogue Studio, London, 1941 © Lee Miller Archives, England, 2018. All rights reserved.

Dreaming on the coast of Dorset: 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 symbolic and surreal, juxtaposing Surrealists’ fascination with Freud’s theories of the power of dreams to reveal the unconscious (the spheres) amongst an otherwise material landscape (the hawk).

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream, 1936-38, Oil paint on canvas, Support: 679 × 1016 mm, frame: 904 × 1244 × 119 mm, Courtesy Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1946.


Fluid spaces in between desire and transformation: 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: “My dreams are bristling with objects that relate to nothing in the dictionary … Dreams one reads in books are composed of known symbols but it is their strangeness that distinguishes them.” Tanning: an exuberant surrealist with a unique female gaze.
Dorothea Tanning, Voltage, 1942, Oil on canvas, 11 1/8 x 12 1/8 in., © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020, Photo: Jochen Littkemann, Berlin.


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

Written by Max Lunn and Petra Chiodi

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