Home Magazine Beyond Reality: 15 astonishing Surrealist paintings

Surrealism - which came to prominence in the 1920s - was a cultural movement, not only confined to the world of art but also characterizing literature, music, theatre and philosophy.

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Surrealist Paintings

The chief apologist of Surrealism, André Breton, cited Paul Klee as an inspiration in his first Surrealist manifesto (1924) for his sense of magic and his spontaneous or “automatic” drawings. Breton defined Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism, the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns”. Surrealism sought to reveal the uncanny coursing beneath familiar appearances in daily life.

In surreal oil paintings, artists convey emotion through symbols, colours and simple shapes, by using juxtapositions - "As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” -, placing cryptic and ironic objects, that won’t fit the “real” world, together. Surrealism focused on dreams and on the subconscious, and Joan Miró, the precursor of Surrealism,was able to draw paintings from these ideas.Surrealist works often present unsettling character: they place the viewer on the spot, caught between looking through and being watched by an empty eye. Cloaked in an atmosphere of anxiety and melancholy, Surrealist humanoid forms, vacuous architecture, shadowy passages evoke the profound absurdity of a universe torn apart by World War I. 

In 1930, Salvador Dalí formulated his “paranoiac-critical method,” cultivating self-induced psychotic hallucinations in order to create art. Leonora Carrington was able to see things beyond the immediately perceptible and she was no stranger to myth and magic. Despite the Surrealist movement tended to degrade women, Leonora Carrington, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning and Varo Uranga’s fierce art elevated women, as you can see from the following amazing artworks. 

Surrealist Portrait

The theatrical self, as depicted by performative artist Claude Cahun in the late 30s, is disturbing, surrealist and revolutionary, by blurring the traditional binaries of gender identity.  

A man in an overcoat and a bowler hat whose face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple: The Son of Manis a 1964 painting by the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. It is perhaps his most well-known artwork. Magritte painted it as a self- portrait. The spirit of Surrealism artists continues to live in their frequent and decisive portraits.

Previously, in 1935, René Magritte painted The Portrait (gift of surrealist artist Kay Sage Tanguy to the MoMA). It stands for the mystery of the ordinary: a simply laid-out meal is not as simple as it seems. The unblinking eye, that stares motionless from a slice of ham on a plate, confront or perhaps boldly invite the viewer to join the table.

On a summer’s day in 1936, a woman dressed in a provocative contemporary outfit paraded around Trafalgar Square in London. Her head entirely covered by a flower arrangement, in tribute to Salvador Dalí’s painting, Woman with the Head of Roses (1935). The mystery woman was later revealed to be artist Sheila Legge, appearing as “the phantom of Surrealism” or the portrait of a Surreal lady out of time.

In 1938, Leonora Carrington completed her Self-Portrait, an early depiction of what she called her “inner bestiary.” In the painting, her right hand reaches out towards a hyena - one of Carrington’s most favored counterparts - standing at her side, who reciprocates the gesture: a human woman holding an uncontrollable wildness within herself.

Dorothea Tanning, in her mesmerizing self-portrait Birthday (1942), shows herself in a feathered, bare-breasted costume in front of a never-ending series of doors. A wild metaphor for describing her process of creating: a sort of web of dreams and ideas from which there is noescape. The title Birthdaywas suggested by her lover Max Ernst to signify Tanning’s rebirth from the real to the surreal.

Surreal landscape paintings

Many Surrealists utilized landscape imagery as a metaphor for the mind and psychological states of being, like Kay Sage and Eileen Agar. For Sage, architectural scaffolding, somber tones and draped figures to evoke feelings of entrapment and dislocation. For Agar, instead, erotic landscapes, ancient mythologies, classical art, and the natural world, to postulate the free spirit of modernity.

Without employing direct references to the real world, Yves Tanguy painted surreal landscapes laden with strange, indeterminate forms. In Surrealists’ collaborative drawing, artists and poets assembled phantasmagoric and bizarre multi-handed landscapes.   

Surreal painting ideas

The whole concept of Surrealism is about chaos, an element of surprise and illogical depictions of reality. The cultural movement was an expression of “psychic automatism” and “the omnipotence of dream”, as André Breton stated in his manifesto. For instance, Ithell Colquhoun used many automatic techniques which were described in the first surrealist manifesto and invented several automatic techniques herself. Surrealist artists were principally concerned with a move away from reason and rationality, in the hope of achieving a free thinking but creative license. The disregard for the conventional construction and visual proportion of the human body can be tied down to Surrealist thought. The list below gives us an idea. Such works foreshadow early on the Surrealist notion of subconscious and étrangement, but they also seem surprisingly contemporary.

Let's discover the 15 most iconc surrealist paintngs


1. The False Mirror, René Magritte


René Magritte, The False Mirror, Paris 1929, Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 31 7/8" (54 x 80.9 cm), © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


The False Mirror is a surreal oil painting by René Magritte that depicts a huge human eye framing a cloudy, blue sky, the place normally occupied by the iris. The Surrealist photographer Man Ray once owned The False Mirror, which he memorably described as a painting that “sees as much as it itself is seen”. While the inner corner has a viscous quality and the eye’s pupil is deep black as a void, the sky displays no trace of convexity, appearing as though seen through a circular window.

Read more about René Magritte


2. Surrealist Phantom, Sheila Legge

In a costume inspired by a Salvador Dalí painting, the Surrealist performance artist Sheila Legge (1911 - 1949) opened the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition in Trafalgar Square. With the head obscured by a mask of roses, and pigeons perching on her sheer black evening gloves, Legge was transformed  into a walking "Surrealist Phantom”. Often relegated to the role of a “groupie”, or the lover of René Magritte, Legge had the merit of launching the London Surrealist women movement. She is undoubtedly the most photographed surrealist artists of all time.


Sheila Legge as Surrealist “Phantom, TrafalgarSquare, London, 11 June 1936. Photograph attributed to Claude Cahun. Courtesy Jersey Heritage Collections.

3. Figuras fantásticas a caballo, Leonora Carrington.


Leonora Carrington, ”Figuras fantásticas a caballo", 2011, Lithograph on heavy-weight hand-made paper, 19 7/10 × 43 3/10 in, 50 × 110 cm, Edition of 100, © Moises Valdes Gallery.


Leonora Carrington “rewrote the Surrealist Narrative for women”, with a wild, feminist intensity. The rules of reality in Figuras fantásticas a caballo (2011) are upturned. Visions of ghosts and animals; bodies transform into birds or beasts; dogs, children, minotaurs, and an aquatic-looking creature. As a young woman in 1930s Europe, Carrington involved herself in the Surrealist movement, met and fell in love with Max Ernst, and - as one of the last remaining Surrealists - died in Mexico in 2011. Art is magic, not rationality, neither understanding and “comes from somewhere else.”

Read more on Kooness 


4. Untitled, Portrait of Claude Cahun lying on leopard skin

One of the most radical artists of the 20th Century was Claude Cahun, who explored her identity by practicing cross-dressing. She, in collaboration with her partner Marcel Moore, produced Surrealist, astonishing, bold and elaborate self-portraits and photomontages. Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob changed her name in Claude Cahun in 1919, to explore and exploit the self, struggling against the patriarchal gaze and inherited canons of women representation. In the early 1930s, Cahun was described as "one of the most curious spirits of our time”, by the surrealist group.

Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), “Untitled” [Portrait of Claude lying on leopard skin] (1939), gelatin silver print, 3 5/16 x 4 5/16 in. (Jersey Heritage Collection).


5. The Song of Love, Giorgio de Chirico


Giorgio de Chirico, The Song of Love, Paris, June-July 1914, Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 23 3/8" (73 x 59.1 cm), Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest, © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome.


Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico strongly influenced the Surrealist movement. The Song of Love - one of his most famous works - is an early example of the surrealist style, though it was painted in 1914, ten years before the movement was founded. A pink rubber glove add to the works’ eerie power. What is the whole ensemble - the glove, the green ball and the classical plaster head, doing in the vacuous outdoor architecture? A metaphysical presence, something hidden beyond the reality’s appearances.

Read more about Giorgio de Chirico


6. Around the Fish, Paul Klee


Paul Klee, Around the Fish, 1926, Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on cardboard, 18 3/8 x 25 1/8" (46.7 x 63.8 cm), Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.


Derided as childlike, disorderly, and confused by the Nazi government, Around the fish was was officialy considered “degenerate art”. Yet the progenitor of Surrealism Paul Klee precisely painted these free-floating disparate elements orbit an elaborately detailed fish in Surrealism style. Klee, often in his artworks, uses colour and simple shapes, such as triangles, squares and circles, or enigmatic small sign symbols to display emotion, to embed spiritual content and the subconscious into abstract art. Mystical hieroglyphs and otherworldly creatures constellate his compositions, full of magic and symbolism.


7. Observatory Time: The Lovers, Man Ray


Man Ray, À l'heure de l'observatoire—les amoureux (Observatory Time—The Lovers), 1968, serigraph, Edition: 44/150, sheet: 26 1/2 x 40 3/4 inches (67.31 x 103.51 cm), Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.


Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) was a significant contributor to the Surrealist movement, a pre-surrealist with informal ties. In the early 1930s, Man Ray made his most famous painting, and the quintessential Surrealist painting, a supreme example of isomorphism. Observatory Time: The Lovers (1932–34), is “incredibly sexy and melancholic”. The giant Lips - embedded in a canvas eight feet long and over three feet high - are organic forms used in a kind of realistic illusionism. The lips of a devouring woman - central thematic to Surrealist philosophy - are flying through the air.


8. Alice with Lewis Carroll, Eileen Agar

More than just a Surrealist, British artist Eileen Agar (1899-1991) was a prophet of the future. Widely associated with the European avant-garde movement, she, instead, combine aspects of English Surrealism and Cubism, the figurative and the abstract. Moving from style to style, color to color, material to material, mood to mood, Agar transcended any formal style and subvert the concept of the female “muse”. In her timeless work, the oil painting Alice with Lewis Carroll, she praises the author Lewis Carroll as “mysterious master of time and imagination, the Herald of Sur-Realism and freedom”.


Eileen Agar, Alice with Lewis Carroll, 1961, oil on canvas. Courtesy: ©The Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images. Image Courtesy Private Collection..


9. The Sunken Cathedral, Ithell Colquhoun

One of the key figures of British surrealism, but little-known painter, Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) had a life-long preoccupation with magic, mythology and the occult. Her reluctance to give up the esoteric worldview created tensions with the British Surrealist group, which Colquhoun

left in 1940. But - as the surreal seascape of The Sunken Cathedral shows -  she forged dreamy, artistic, and mystic propensities all her life. Her experiments with surrealist techniques such as automatism, fumage and decalcomania prove Colquhoun was a precursor in a magical art.
Ithell Colquhoun, The Sunken Cathedral (La cathédrale engloutie), 1952, 130.1 x 194.8 cm. (51 ¼ x 76 5/8 in.), Courtesy The Israel Museum.


10. Tomorrow is Never, Kay Sage


Kay Sage, Tomorrow is Never, 1955, Oil on canvas, 37 7/8 × 53 7/8 in. (96.2 × 136.8 cm), Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1955, © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


One of the most prominent women associated with Surrealism in the United States, Katherine Linn Sage, usually known as Kay Sage, - especially struck by the paintings of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico - borrowed motifs and styles from the Surrealists, although her paintings were "imbued with an aura of purified form and a sense of motionlessness found nowhere else in Surrealism”. Her austeretones and architectural style, latticework structures, and draped figures are combined in Tomorrow is Never - one Sage’s last large works before her suicide in 1963.


11. Indefinite Divisibility, Yves Tanguy


Yves Tanguy, Divisibilité indéfinie (Indefinite Divisibility), 1942, oil on canvas, support: 40 x 35 inches (101.6 x 89 cm); framed: 51 1/4 x 46 x 3 1/8 inches (130.18 x 116.84 x 7.94 cm), Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, © Estate of Yves Tanguy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Yves Tanguy's Indefinite Divisibility (1942) is a Surrealist artwork, influenced by the subconscious and dreams. He borrowed a visual motif from his mentor Giorgio de Chirico: a mysterious structure which dominates the indefinite space, unlimited and nebulous. Tanguy developed a style that remained consistent from 1927 until his death: strong and thick shadows, dense and oppressive atmospheres inhabited by concrete objects that are shaped into an abstract idea of uncertainty. is everything simply imagined, inanimate, or is it the result of human errors?


12. Creación de las aves, Varo Uranga


Remedios Varo Uranga, Creación de las aves, 1957. Colección MAM, México, courtesy MALBA.


The Spanish-Mexican surrealist Remedios Varo Urangamet André Breton - who was a formative influence in her understanding of the uncanny, the marvelous and the real - and the Surrealist circle, differing, though, from other Surrealists because of her constant use of religious references in her work. She considered Surrealism as an "expressive resting place within the limits of Cubism, and as a way of communicating the incommunicable”. Mystical forces, nature and animistic faiths greatly influenced her paintings. Her fascination for science, Carl Jung’ s ideas, the occult never limit herself to one mode of expression. 


13. Eine KleineNachtmusik, Dorothea Tanning


Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, , Oil paint on canvas, Support: 407 × 610 mm frame: 640 × 833 × 85 mm, Tate, © DACS, 2020.


For Tanning, enigma was “a very healthy thing, because it encourages the viewer to look beyond the obvious and commonplace.” In the 1943 painting Eine KleineNachtmusik(“A Little Night Music”) - one of her best known early paintings - Tanning took the Surrealist obsession with the femme-enfant: a life-like doll and a real girl standing nearby, a giant sunflower, in a hotel corridor. There has been some sort of struggle or encounter with supernaturalforces. The artwork is about confrontation, “a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with”.


14. Battle of Fishes, André Masson


André Masson, Battle of Fishes, 1926, Sand, gesso, oil, pencil, and charcoal on canvas, 14 1/4 x 28 3/4" (36.2 x 73 cm), © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.


From 1924 to 1929, André Masson - a remarkable figure of French Surrealism - actively participated in the movement, undertaking a number of automatic drawings in pen and ink and experimented with altered states of consciousness. In Battle of Fishes, Masson began to incorporate sand into his paintings freely applying gesso to areas of the canvas, thus allowing an element of chance to enter into his work. This pictorial compositions of irrational forms (the excess of paint brushed away) would reveal a savage underwater battle, and the physical and spiritual wound of all creatures.

Read more about André Masson 


15. Cadavre Exquis, André Breton


Valentine Hugo, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Greta Knutson, Cadavre Exquis, Landscape c. 1933, Composite drawing of colored pencil on colored paper, 9 1/2 x 12 1/2" (24.1 x 31.7 cm), Courtesy MoMA, © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.


French writer and poet André Breton - co-founder and theorist of Surrealism - invented in 1925 in Paris Cadavre Exquis (exquisite corpse): a collaborative drawing approach to create bizarre and intuitive drawings. Psychoanalyst SigmundFreud’s ideas of free association and automatic drawing or writing - to explore the unconscious mind of his patients - had strongly influenced Breton. He produced the earliest examples of automatism, aiming to write - as rapidly as possible without intervening consciously to guide the hand - a transcription of dreams to paper. In this collaborative drawing, four Surrealist artists and poets assembled an oniric landscape.   


More Surrealist paintings on Kooness


Cover image: René Magritte, The False Mirror, Paris 1929, Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 31 7/8" (54 x 80.9 cm), © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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