The 10 Most Surreal Moments of Surrealism

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It must have been fun to be a Surrealist. The movement, which arose in the 1920s and was given its raison d’etre by Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, embraced the subconscious in all its weirdness, allowing the mind to flow where it will and finding joy in random, strange juxtapositions and aesthetic combinations. Comte de Lautreamont once wrote that Surrealism is “as beautiful as the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table,” a fittingly off-the-wall metaphor for one of art history’s wackiest movements. Here, we’ve pulled together the 10 most surreal moments of Surrealism, a collection of bizarre gallery installations, weird paintings, and crazy parties that might inspire some new adventures in subconscious exploration.

Salvador Dali’s Surrealism Party

In 1941 during the run-up to the American involvement in World War II, Salvador Dali, who would become the world’s most famous Surrealist, held a fundraising party for displaced European artists in California’s Hotel del Monte. The event was dramatically entitled “Night in a Surrealist Forest.” News footage shows Dali’s wife in a unicorn costume, a tame baby tiger, and a fish course served in satin slippers. Partay.

M.C. Escher, Relativity, 1953

Image credit: M.C. Escher, “Relativity,” 1953. Image courtesy of 11square.wordpress.com

Printmaker and draftsman M.C. Escher took a mathematical approach to surrealism, crafting impossible landscapes that nevertheless seem to come together perfectly. Relativity, with its cascading staircases going in three dimensions, is the ultimate example.

Giorgio de Chirico’s Empty Landscapes

Giorgio de Chirico, Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), 1914). Image courtesy Moma.org

Though not an official Surrealist himself, the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico was a chief source of inspiration for the Surrealists, who loved the artist’s expansive urban landscapes that seem emptied out of human life, as in Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), seen above. De Chirico’s other work included still life paintings that juxtaposed strange combinations of objects: a glove and a marble bust, for example.

Max Ernst’s The Elephant Celebes, 1921

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

The Surrealist style of painting celebrated visual coincidences, and the eyes and the brain that make it possible to misinterpret one thing as another. What causes us to look at the clouds and see faces, animals, and machines? That’s the possibility that Ernst took advantage of in his piece The Elephant Celebes, which sees a rusty, ordinary vacuum cleaner or heating boiler transform into a trumpeting mechanical elephant, with a headless, naked human figure in the foreground. The painting has been heralded as the first masterpiece of Surrealism.

Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, 1929

In this icon of Surrealist cinema, Salvador Dali worked with director Luis Bunuel to depict, among other famously creepy scenes, an eyeball being sliced open, and ants crawling out of the flesh of a hand. Known for its special effects and disjointed plot, Un Chien Andalou has become a consistent touchstone for art house film ever since.

Rene Magritte’s Empire of Light, 1953-54

Rene Magritte, Empire of Light, 1953-54

Painter Renee Magritte was the master of what might be called “quiet” Surrealism. The scenes he depicts in his realistic painting style often look normal, until one strange detail sets off an epiphany — not all is as it seems. In this canvas, Magritte depicts a quiet suburban street that looks average except for the fact that while the house is engulfed in night, the sky remains light, still bright blue spotted with puffy clouds.

Vija Celmins’s Untitled (Comb), 1970

Vija Celmin’s Untitled (Comb) at LACMA

Vija Celmins, an artist who often works in a photorealistic, trompe l’oeil mode, took inspiration from Magritte for her Untitled (Comb), appropriating the oversized aesthetic tool from Rene Magritte’s painting Personal Values . The comb, as seen above, is almost as tall as a person, a jarring juxtaposition turning the domestic into the gigantic.

Marcel Duchamp’s Mile of String, 1942

Marcel Duchamp, Mile of String, 1942. Courtesy abdn.ac.uk

For Andre Breton’s 1942 exhibition of Surrealism in New York, First Papers of Surrealism, the inveterate art prankster strung the gallery with a gigantic web of string for his piece Mile of String.

Frida Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospita, 1932. Image courtesy of tqn.com

Kahlo painted this extremely painful self-portrait soon after her second miscarriage, after she realized that she would never have a child. The painting was created while she accompanied husband Diego Rivera to Detroit, where he was completing a mural for the Detroit Institute of Arts. The images linked to Kahlo by red ribbons (or are they umbilical cords?) are a mixture of biological and mechanical, commenting on the frailty of the human body and the coldness of modern industry.

Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, 2002

Video artist Matthew Barney might be the most prominent latter-day Surrealist. Barney is a full-scale filmmaker, turning huge budgets toward engineering dramatic spectacles that have little logic but powerful narrative arcs. For his five-part Cremaster Cycle, he explored the Guggenheim dressed in a pink wig and a kilt, among other strange scenes.