Most Famous Surrealist Paintings

The Song of Love

Artist: Giorgio de Chirico

Year: 1914

Giorgio de Chirico was an Italian artist famous for his Metaphysical style of painting, which was marked by dream-like scenes with unexpected juxtapositions of objects. The early works of Surrealist artists, including The Elephant Celebes and Mama, Papa Is Wounded!, were inspired by Chirico’s Metaphysical art. This painting depicts an outdoor architectural setting with the main focus being a Greek sculpted head and a surgeon’s glove on a small wall. The Song of Love is considered an early example of the Surrealist style though it was painted several years before Surrealism emerged as an art movement. It is one of the most famous works of Giorgio de Chirico and a prime example of his Metaphysical style.

Forest and Dove

Artist: Max Ernst

Year: 1927

Max Ernst was a German artist who was a pioneer of Surrealism as well as the Dada movement, from which Surrealism evolved. In this painting, he depicts a nocturnal scene of a forest of bizarre and abstract trees. In the thick of the forest is a childlike depiction of a dove, probably portraying Ernst in his post-war traumatic state. Grattage is a surrealist painting technique, pioneered by Ernst, that involves laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping the paint off to create an interesting and unexpected surface. Forest and Dove is an influential work in Surrealism as it exemplifies Ernst’s grattage technique; and as the forests and dark enclaves of the painting later became a Surrealist metaphor for the human imagination.

Mama, Papa Is Wounded!

Artist: Yves Tanguy

Year: 1927

Yves Tanguy was an influential French surrealist painter. He often depicted vast, abstract landscapes populated with various abstract shapes. In this painting, he shows a cactus-like shape tied to a geometric spider-web, and floating near the horizon. The title of the painting, which was taken from a textbook of psychiatric case studies, complicates rather than clarifies the meaning of the work. There are various interpretations of the painting including it being a reference to the violence of World War I; and that the standing yellow figure may represent a father, the cactus a mother and the amorphous mass a child. Mama, Papa Is Wounded! is the most famous work of Tanguy and one of the best-known paintings of Surrealism.

Self-Portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse

Artist: Leonora Carrington

Year: 1937 – 1938

Considering that renowned Mexican painter Frida Kahlo declared that she was not a Surrealist, Leonora Carrington is perhaps the most famous female Surrealist artist. Unlike the other Surrealists, Carrington was not interested in the writings of Sigmund Freud. She is instead famous for her haunting, autobiographical paintings that incorporate images of sorcery, metamorphosis, alchemy and the occult. This self-portrait, also known as The Inn of the Dawn Horse, is her most acclaimed work. In it, she has painted herself posed in the foreground on a blue armchair with her hand pointing toward a female hyena. A white rocking horse appears to float on the wall behind her head while a white horse gallops freely in the window in the background. The distorted perspective, the mysterious narrative and autobiographical symbolism of this portrait perhaps demonstrate the artist’s attempt to re-imagine her own reality.

The Elephant Celebes

Artist: Max Ernst

Year: 1921

This painting was inspired from a photograph of a Sudanese bin for storing corn; which Ernst has turned into an elephant-like mechanical being. The headless nude woman wearing a surgical glove shows irreverence to the realist art world in which the human form is idealized. There are several other interesting details in the artwork including two fish ‘flying’ at left and a trail of smoke in the right. The Elephant Celebes, with its odd juxtapositions of disparate objects, is based on the Dream Theory of Sigmund Freud. The title of the painting is derived from the opening words of a childish German rhyme with sexual connotations: “The elephant from Celebes has sticky, yellow bottom grease”. The Elephant Celebes is considered one of the earliest masterpieces in Surrealist painting.

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