Artworks and Artists of Surrealism

Joan Miró: Carnival of Harlequin (1924-25)

Carnival of Harlequin (1924-25)

Artist: Joan Miró

Miró created elaborate, fantastical spaces in his paintings that are an excellent example of Surrealism in their reliance on dream-like imagery and their use of biomorphism. Biomorphic shapes are those that resemble organic beings but that are hard to identify as any specific thing; the shapes seem to self-generate, morph, and dance on the canvas. While there is the suggestion of a believable three-dimensional space in Carnaval d'Arlequin, the playful shapes are arranged with an all-over quality that is common to many of Miró's works during his Surrealist period, and that would eventually lead him to further abstraction. Miró was especially known for his use of automatic writing techniques in the creation of his works, particularly doodling or automatic drawing, which is how he began many of his canvases. He is best known for his works such as this that depict chaotic yet lighthearted interior scenes, taking his influence from Dutch 17th-century interiors.

Oil on canvas - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

René Magritte: The Human Condition (1933)

The Human Condition (1933)

Artist: René Magritte

The iconic and enigmatic René Magritte's works tend to be intellectual, often dealing with visual puns and the relation between the representation of something and the thing itself. In The Human Condition a canvas sits on an easel before a curtained window and reproduces exactly the scene outside the window that would be behind the canvas, thus the image on the easel in a sense becomes the scene, not just a reproduction of the landscape. There is in effect no difference between the two as both are fabrications of the artist. The hyperrealist painting style often used by Surrealists makes the odd setup seem dreamlike.

Oil on canvas - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Yves Tanguy: Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)

Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)

Artist: Yves Tanguy

The most pivotal moment for Tanguy in his decision to become a painter was his sighting of a canvas by Giorgio de Chirico in a shop window in 1923. The next year, Tanguy, the poet Jacques Prévert, and the actor and screenwriter Marcel Duhamel moved into a house that was to become a gathering place for the Surrealists, a movement he became interested in after reading the periodical La Révolution surréaliste. André Breton welcomed him into the group in 1925. Tanguy was inspired by the biomorphic forms of Jean Arp, Ernst, and Miró, quickly developing his own vocabulary of amoeba-like shapes that populate arid, mysterious settings, no doubt influenced by his youthful travels to Argentina, Brazil, and Tunisia. Despite his lack of formal training, Tanguy's mature style emerged by 1927, characterized by deserted landscapes littered with fantastical rocklike objects painted with a precise illusionism. The works usually have an overcast sky with a view thatseems to stretch endlessly.

Mama, Papa is Wounded depicts Tanguy's most common subject matter of war. The work is painted in a hyperrealist style with his distinctive limited color palette, both of which create a sense of dream-like reality. Tanguy often found the titles of works while looking through psychiatric case histories for compelling statements by patients. Given that, it is difficult to know if this work is relevant to his own family history as he claimed to have imagined the painting in its entirety before he began it. His brother was killed in World War I and the bleakness of the landscape may refer generally to losses suffered in the war by thousands of French families. De Chirico's influence on Tanguy's work is obvious here in his use of falling shadows and a classical torso in the landscape.

Oil on Canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Accommodations of Desire (1929)

Artist: Salvador Dalí

Painted in the summer of 1929 just after Dalí went to Paris for his first Surrealist exhibition, The Accommodations of Desire is a prime example of Dalí's ability to render his vivid and bizarre dreams with seemingly journalistic accuracy. He developed the paranoid-critical method, which involved systematic irrational thought and self-induced paranoia as a way to access his unconscious. He referred to the resulting works as "hand-painted dream photographs" because of their realism coupled with their eerie dream quality. The narrative of this work stems from Dalí's anxieties over his affair with Gala Eluard, wife of artist Paul Eluard. The lumpish white "pebbles" depict his insecurities about his future with Gala, circling around the concepts of terror and decay. While The Accommodations of Desire is an exposé of Dalí's deepest fears, it combines his typical hyper-realistic painting style with more experimental collage techniques. The lion heads are glued onto the canvas, and are believed to have been cut from a children's book.

Oil and cut-and-pasted printed paper on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932)

Artist: Alberto Giacometti

Giacometti was one of the few Surrealists who focused on sculpture. The Palace at 4 a.m. is a delicate construction that was inspired by his obsession with a lover named Denise the previous year. Of the affair he said, "a period of six months passed in the presence of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night - a very fragile palace of matches. At the least false movement a whole section would collapse. We always began it again." In 1933, he told Breton that he was incapable of making anything that did not have something to do with her.

The work includes representations or symbols of his love interest as well as perhaps of his mother. Other imagery, such as the bird, is less easy to interpret. Thus, the work is characterized by its bizarre juxtaposition of objects and a title that is seemingly unrelated to the constructed scene, giving the piece an undercurrent of mystery and tension as if something frightening is about to occur. The work, in its child-like simplicity, captures the fragility of memory and desire. Giacometti's postwar interest in Existentialism is already evident here in how he represents the isolation of the various figures.

Wood, glass, wire, and string - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Battle of Fishes (1926)

Artist: André Masson

Masson was one of the most enthusiastic followers of Breton's automatic writing, having begun his own independent experiments in the early 1920s. He would often produce art under exacting conditions, using drugs, going without sleep, or sustenance in order to relax conscious control of his art making so that he could access his unconscious. Masson, along with his neighbors Joan Miró, Antonin Artuad, and others would sometimes experiment together. He is best known for his use of sand. In an effort to introduce chance into his works, he would throw glue or gesso onto a canvas and then sand. His oil paintings were made based on the resulting shapes.

Battle of the Fishes perhaps references his experiences in WWI. He signed up to fight and after three years, was seriously injured, taking months to recover in an army hospital and spending time in a psychiatric facility. He was unable for many years to speak of the things he witnessed as a soldier, but his art consistently depicts massacres, bizarre confrontations, rape, and dismemberment. Masson himself observed that male figures in his art rarely escape unharmed. Battle of Fishes has subdued color, but the fish seem involved in a vicious battle to the death with their razor-like teeth and spilled blood. Masson believed that the use of chance in art would reveal the sadism of all creatures - an idea that he could only reveal in his art.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Meret Oppenheim: Object (1936)

Object (1936)

Artist: Meret Oppenheim

Oppenheim was one of the few women Surrealists whose work was exhibited with the group. Like Giacometti she worked primarily with objects. This work, also known under the title Luncheon in Fur, with its unsettling juxtaposition of a domestic object and animality, is a quintessential example of Surrealist ideas. The artist makes strange a teacup, saucer, and spoon purchased at typical department store - objects that were familiar are made disturbingly off-putting as the viewer must imagine drinking tea from a fur-covered cup.

Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Barbarians (1937)

Artist: Max Ernst

Max Ernst was known for his automatic writing techniques including frottage, grattage, and collage. Here he uses grattage, which requires taking a painted canvas, placing it on a textured surface, and scraping off paint. The method introduces elements of chance and unpredictability to the work as the artist is forced to release some control of the creative process. The grattaged canvas was then used by Ernst as inspiration for further imagery. The Barbarians is typically Surrealist as it is fraught with bizarre juxtapositions, mysterious figures, and dream-inspired symbols. The bird imagery is one of the staples of Ernst's work - he experienced a childhood trauma related to the death of his pet bird and as an adult developed a bird alter ego named Loplop.

Oil on wood with painted wood elements - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Mannequin (1938)

Artist: Man Ray

Mannequin depicts André Masson's mannequin at the Exposition International du Surrealisme, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, in Paris 1938. Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Maurice Henry, and others also designed these weird mannequins to fill a room with uncanny female forms that looked both monstrous and sexually alluring. Man Ray photographed them all as discreet characters, of which this is one example. He repeatedly photographed his assistant, artist Lee Miller, and many other women, both living and inanimate. Like Hans Bellmer, an artist peripherally associated with the group, Ray was obsessed with the female form as the perfect embodiment of male desire, and sought to capture it formally in fantastical ways. Man Ray also pioneered many photographic techniques, including rayographs, named after himself, that incorporate elements of chance and in which subjects appear to glow in dream-like silver auras.

Assemblage of wood, oil, metal, board on board, with artist's frame - National Gallery of Australia

Birthday (1942)

Artist: Dorothea Tanning

Birthday is a self-portrait that Dorothea Tanning painted to commemorate her 30th birthday. Viewed up close, one notices the infinite rooms recessing into the background, symbolizing Tanning's unconscious mind. Many Surrealists felt architectural imagery was well-suited to expressing notions of a labyrinthine self that changes and expands over time; Birthday is one of the best examples of this. Also notable is the gargoyle at the subject's feet. Tanning said this was her rendition of a lemur, which has been associated with death spirits. Tanning juxtaposed natural imagery, like the skirt made of roots, against objects representing high culture, like fancy apparel and interior design, to pay homage to culture as well as to express nature and wilderness as a feminine construct.

Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Surrealism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Dec 2011. Updated and modified regularly
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