Surrealism 101

Surrealism 101: All the Surrealist Art you need to see today

Written by Enakshi Sharma

What is common between software clocks, elephants with saxophone heads and flying pigs apart from our dreams? Yes, it is surrealism, the most enigmatic and probably the most delightful of all art movements in a manner. While the movement has officially ended in the 60s, it continues to inspire and fascinate artists who want to explore the deepest recesses of the human mind and express them in manners beyond ordinary. So, let us explore surrealism through some of the seminal works of this movement.


 The Elephant Celebs

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921, oil on canvas

One of the best known and earliest surrealist masterpieces, The Elephant Celebes contains a colossal mechanical elephant with a hose protruding like a trunk. This entity almost fills up the whole frame, indicating the size of it. There is also a headless female figure wearing sort of a glove but more interestingly there are a few flying fishes in the sky making some to believe that it is an underwater scene which again does not make any sense in the conventional sense.

In a way, it contains all the major elements of surrealism. The fanciful and dreamy juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated characters indicates the influence of Freudian free association which played a major part in the surrealism movement. Originally Ernst was inspired by a primitive African artefact but he made the main object look like a sinister post-apocalyptic machine monster. So, while he drew from non-European cultures in true surrealist spirit, he also made an oblique comment on civilization in a not easily decipherable manner.


Giorgio de Chiciro, The Red Tower,1913,oil on canvas

Giorgio de Chiciro, The Red Tower,1913,oil on canvas

It is in fact a precursor of other surrealist works. It inspired the whole bunch of surrealists that came after Chirico. Through a simple tower, this painting is able to evoke feelings of a nostalgic painting, a distant and unattainable object that leads to nothing but melancholia. There is half of a statue visible on one side, which probably depicts a character from the past who times has long elapsed. The tower looms large but does not naturally fit in with the pastoral landscape.

In a way the panting perfectly captures one of the primary obsessions of the surrealists, the time itself or the passage of time to be precise. That is why we see an eerie landscape where there are many man-made objects but no human beings in the picture, suggesting that the place has been deserted over time but at the same time Chirico himself mentioned certain metaphysical, concealed entities in his works that can probably be spotted by someone with a similar mind.


 Yves Tanguy, Indefinite Divisibility, 1942

Yves Tanguy, Indefinite Divisibility, 1942

A comparatively lesser known work, Indefinite Divisibility depicts a series of inanimate object placed on what looks like a beach. They have been arranged in a manner that it looks like a man on a ladder surveying the horizons. With the long shadow of the same, it has also managed to add a tinge of realism to it, thus making it more relatable.

It is hard to explain this painting. The calm blue expanse probably also depicts the vast ocean of unseen and unknown that lies beyond human consciousness. So, basically in true surrealist traditions it is transcending the human consciousness and aiming at the subconscious that is able to overcome the physical barriers of the material world.


Rene Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, oil on canvas, 45.67 x 35″

Rene Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, oil on canvas, 45.67 x 35″

This iconic work by Magritte is apparently a self-portrait. There is a well-dressed man with a hat bit is face has been obscured by an apple. However, parts of the face, especially the eyes can still be seen through the edges. Magritte himself explained that there is a interplay between what is hidden and what is revealed in this painting.

However he does not explain any further. So, we are left to assume that the he is hinting at apparent lack of clarity in the material world. We only see what falls in our line of vision but there is a huge expanse of unknown. He uses the sea just like Tanguy probably to depict the unknown by the sea behind the person who is simple-looking save the fruit obscuring his face.


Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, oil on canvas, 9.5 x 13″

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, oil on canvas, 9.5 x 13″

Well, you cannot talk about surrealism without talking about Dali. It is hard to choose only one from the vast oeuvre of the Spaniard maestro but we have chosen Persistence of Memory simply because it transcends the barrier of arts and delves into the world of science and in fact certain concepts that are even beyond science. Basically it just contains a few clocks, however the clocks are “soft” and melting.

Through this simple representation Dali comments on some of the most important scientific realizations of those times, the theory olet us explore surrealism through some of the seminal works of this movement.f relativity. It was the time when the mankind’s understating of the physical universe was literally going through a quantum shift. Surrealists such as Dali probably found justification of their own work through such developments because what consisted of “real” no longer seemed to be absolute anymore and the surreal began to look as probable as the real. So they felt the need to pay tribute to such scientific developments that took our thinking beyond the obvious and the ordinary.