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Surrealist Artists: Names & Paintings

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Surrealism was a major movement of the early 20th century, and one which had substantial implications for modern art. In this lesson, we'll look at some major names and masterpieces in this movement, and talk about how to interpret them.


Dreams. They're pretty powerful things. They can reveal your deepest desires, greatest fantasies, and most crippling fears. There's a reason that people across history have been fascinated by dreams, and that fascination found artistic voice in the works of the Surrealists. Surrealism was an early 20th century modern movement in art dedicated to the ability of the subconscious to reveal primitive emotion, embrace imagination, and uncover unnatural contradictions in the societies we've built. It was a revolutionary movement, inspired as much by Karl Marx as it was by Sigmund Freud's works on dream analysis and the darkest corners of the subconscious mind. Apparently, someone told these artists to follow their dreams and they did, as far into the mind as they could.

Max Ernst (1891-1976)

Surrealism was a broad movement, connected to other avant-garde modernist ideas and interpreted a little differently by every artist who practiced it. One major figure was Max Ernst, a German artist who helped pioneer both the Surrealist and related Dadaist movements. Ernst was a big fan of collage, and brought the techniques of associating seemingly random objects and real-world scenarios in obscure ways to his paintings.

A great example of this is his 1921 Celebes. The painting is focused on a mechanical elephant, modeled on a photograph of a Sudanese corn bin. The title is based on a semi-vulgar German children's rhyme (the elephant from Celebes / has sticky, yellow bottom grease). The addition of other elements, like a headless figure, imitates the strangeness of a dream, which is made all the more unsettling by the semi-normal horizon and representational space. Works like this directly engage with Freud's ideas about dreams and the subconscious, especially the method of free association in which a patient says everything that comes into their mind, letting the subconscious free and revealing deep feelings or emotions.

Joan Miró (1893-1983)

Another great Surrealist was the Spanish painter Joan Miró. Miró was a leader in several forms of modern art, and is particularly remembered for his devotion to automatism, a method of freestyle art in which the artist releases creative control to the subconscious mind and chance, unlocking ultimate creativity free of social and cultural limitations.

One of Miró's most famous automatic paintings was his 1925 The Birth of the World. To create this painting, Miro flung, brushed, and poured paint onto an uneven canvas, releasing control of the final product. He then painted various shapes and objects across it, again relying on Freud's ideas of free association. The result is unsettling, yet familiar, with simple shapes and colors against a nonrepresentational background.

René Magritte (1898-1967)

From Spain, let's head over to Belgium to meet René Magritte. Magritte's approach to Surrealism relied less on abstractions than artists like Miro and tended towards extremely accurate representational art. However, while the figures and scenes themselves seem realistic, Magritte's paintings always feel a bit…off. There's something odd or unsettling in the details, evoking that dreamlike state of the subconscious.

A great example of Magritte's style is The Son of Man. Its image is of a man, standing in front of a brick wall with the sea behind it. Sounds normal enough, right? There's also an apple, hovering in front on the man's face. Magritte often covered the faces of his subjects, drawing a boundary between viewer and figures and evoking primal concerns about what is seen versus unseen. One of Magritte's intentions here was to explore the idea that all physical objects are hiding or covering something else. It's only when we take them out of context that this becomes unnerving.

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

We've saved perhaps the most famous of the Surrealists for last. Noted for his personal eccentricities (i.e., the mustache) as much as his trademark style, no list of great Surrealists is complete without Salvador Dalí. Dalí took Freud's ideas about dreams very seriously, and even subjected himself to what we call the paranoiac-critical method of painting. Basically, he would self-induce paranoid hallucinations through systematic irrational thinking in order to connect with the deepest levels of his subconscious.

Salvador Dali was known for his eccentric personality and sense of style, including his very Surrealist mustache

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