Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, The Tiled Room 1935. Tate. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023.

International Surrealism

Grace Pailthorpe, May 16, 1941  1941

A surgeon during the First World War, Pailthrope later trained in psychological medicine and criminal psychology before undergoing Freudian analysis. With her partner, Reuben Mednikoff, she made paintings which they submitted to detailed analysis. They showed in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and, in 1940, moved to the United States, where Pailthorpe made this painting. Unconscious images from the earliest moments of life fill her work, here in the form of an unborn foetus. She wrote of their research that ‘Surrealism can lead to a greater understanding of the world around and within us’.

Gallery label, February 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

Leonora Carrington, Eluhim  1960

Whilst informed by theories of the unconscious mind, Carrington developed a personal language of Surrealism which extended beyond Freud. She attributes her affinity with the movement both to the Irish folktales recounted by her nanny and the imaginative inner world of her mother, whom she described as a ‘complete mythologist’. Having been involved with the Surrealists in Paris before the Second World War, she settled in Mexico in 1942. This new, visionary stage in her work was influenced by Early Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450 - 1516) and by her interest in alchemical imagery. Eluhim, the title of this work, is a Hebrew word for ‘God’ or ‘gods’.

Gallery label, January 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

John Tunnard, Tol Pedn  1942

Tol-Pedn, Penwith, near to Tunnard’s home on the Lizard Peninsular, is the most southerly point of the British mainland. Its concrete landmarks appear to have inspired this abstract landscape. Tunnard is said to have turned three somersaults at the opening of his exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s London gallery in 1939. He was among a number of British artists attracted to Surrealism between the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 and the outbreak of the Second World War, when he served in the coastguard in Cornwall.

Gallery label, January 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

Hans Bellmer, Peg-Top  c.1937–52

This image began as a plan for a sculpture, which Bellmer never completed. A ghost-like figure, painted in shades of grey and set against a dark smoky background, fills the centre of the canvas. Bellmer's interest in fetishism led him to draw out sexual associations between objects and the body. Here, Bellmer uses the peg-top to symbolise a woman turning the heads and hearts of men on her spinning top. This was an ongoing theme for Bellmer. He joined the French Surrealist group in 1938, having left his native Germany to escape the Nazi regime.

Gallery label, August 2020

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artworks in International Surrealism

Jackson Pollock, Birth  c.1941

Pollock explored mythic themes in his early paintings, having undergone Jungian analysis. He was among a group of New York artists open to the Surrealist ideas of repressed unconscious impulses. This may be seen in the energy of Birth, an image of desperate struggle in sharp, clashing forms. The faces reference masks and carvings by Inuit and Native American artists. Pollock believed their work reflected fundamental human fears and desires, and were untainted by the ideological violence associated with the plunge into the Second World War.

Gallery label, January 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

Man Ray, Cadeau  1921, editioned replica 1972

By adding a row of nails, Man Ray transformed a household flat-iron into a new and potentially threatening object. The nails and burning metal suggest a violent eroticism at odds with the work’s title, the French word for ‘gift’. The original version, given to the composer Erik Satie, was lost but became well-known through Man Ray’s photograph of it. Although made at the height of Paris dada, Cadeau, like Man Ray’s other objects, anticipated the exposure of hidden desires found in subsequent surrealist objects.

Gallery label, January 2016

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André Masson, Ibdes in Aragon  1935

Masson painted this view of Ibdes, a village in Aragon in 1935. He produced a series of paintings of Spanish landscapes from 1934 to 1936. He made them while living in Catalonia, the autonomous region to the north of Aragon. ‘In these completely recognisable landscapes there is always an element of fantasy, either in the sky, or on the ground, or underground’, he wrote. Here, Surrealist double-images are provided by the cocks woven into the landscape and the crocodile formed by the rocks in the background.

Gallery label, June 2021

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artworks in International Surrealism

Yves Tanguy, The Invisibles  1951

Tanguy moved from Paris to the United States in 1939 to escape the war in Europe. In France he had generally painted small-scale works of biomorphic beings set in strange landscapes. Influenced by the light and space of his new home in Connecticut, his later works were on a larger scale, featuring partly mechanical, partly organic beings set against awesome skies. The title of this painting can be related to the Surrealists’ preoccupation with the theme of otherworldly beings that escape rational understanding.

Gallery label, January 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

René Magritte, Man with a Newspaper  1928

Magritte’s deadpan style is seen clearly in these four simply painted scenes. Each section seems to be exactly the same, apart from the disappearance of the man reading the newspaper. There are slight changes of perspective between the four panels. This can be seen by focusing on the view out of the windows. This shift adds to the slightly unsettling effect in the painting. It may relate to the displacement of images in early 3D viewing devices. This subtle undermining of the everyday was typical of Magritte and his Belgian surrealist colleagues. They preferred quiet subversion to obvious public action.

Gallery label, August 2020

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Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, The Tiled Room  1935

The Tiled Room was a breakthrough work for da Silva. Her paintings often resemble mazes or cities seen from above. The web of lines here suggests what one critic called her ‘absorption in space’. The lines of colourful squares have been connected to her experience of feverish imaginings when she had jaundice. She was also haunted by memories of her lonely childhood. After her father died, her mother withdrew into mourning. The unsettling space she creates here could relate to these experiences.

Gallery label, April 2021

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artworks in International Surrealism

Paule Vézelay, Curves and Circles  1930

Vézelay was one of the first British artists to explore abstraction. Born Marjorie Watson-Williams, she changed her name after moving to Paris in the 1920s, perhaps to identify more closely with France. In Curves and Circles she brings together a series of abstract shapes, with elegant, twisting curves that seem to trace the movement of the artist’s hand. The background resembles a cloudy sky, as if the lines were floating in air.

Gallery label, January 2019

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Francis Picabia, The Handsome Pork-Butcher  c.1924–6, c.1929–35

The features of this pink-faced man were originally made up of collaged elements including string, measuring tape and curtain rings. Some years later, Picabia ripped these off, an action which also removed areas of paint, leaving patches of bare canvas visible. During the second phase of work, Picabia added combs for the hair, and painted in the head and hands of a woman. These dramatic alterations reflect Picabia’s humorous and irreverent approach to picture-making.

Gallery label, November 2005

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artworks in International Surrealism

Max Ernst, Celebes  1921

The central rotund shape in this painting derives from a photograph of a Sudanese corn-bin, which Ernst has transformed into a sinister mechanical monster. Ernst often re-used found images, and either added or removed elements in order to create new realities, all the more disturbing for being drawn from the known world. The work’s title comes from a childish German rhyme that begins: ‘The elephant from Celebes has sticky, yellow bottom grease’. The painting’s inexplicable combinations, such as the headless female figure and the elephant-like creature, suggest images from a dream and the Freudian technique of free association.

Gallery label, October 2016

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artworks in International Surrealism

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Arshile Gorky, Painting (Apricots)  c.1938

The form and structure of this painting appears to be abstract. But the colouring and the title of the work are rooted in Gorky’s childhood memories. The sight or smell of apricots seem to have transported him back to the Armenian orchard that he called ‘the garden of wish fulfilment’. Gorky emigrated to the United States in 1920 and entered into a long period of familiarisation with contemporary painting. He later developed a style of energetic abstraction, drawing him into an association with surrealism

Gallery label, June 2021

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artworks in International Surrealism

Pierre Roy, Boris Anrep in his Studio, 65 Boulevard Arago  1949

This is a painting of an imagined sculpture head. Here, Roy turns his friend and fellow-artist Boris Anrep, to stone. Roy uses his usual style of manipulation of perspective to create a sense of great scale. The bust appears to tower over the studio. Though the painted sculpture is solemn and restrained, Roy’s perspective creates an odd effect. The size of the bust creates the feeling of a cinematic zoom, in which an object is suddenly brought into dramatic focus.

Gallery label, August 2020

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Paule Vézelay, Forms  1936

Vézelay started drawing on canvas in the late 1920s. She discovered what she called ‘a special quality’ in drawing with charcoal. Focusing on form, she explored various ways of creating an illusion of space on a flat, two-dimensional surface. She was particularly interested in the spheres and circles. She wrote that 'they can be used to indicate directions or movements, in order to balance or counter-act the movements of other elements in the composition’.

Gallery label, August 2020

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artworks in International Surrealism

Alberto Giacometti, Hour of the Traces  1932

The fragile construction of this sculpture suggests the mysteries of the unconscious mind. The cage-like structure supports delicate organic forms. The upper shapes have been seen as skeletal or phallic. The lower suspended form could be a beating heart or a clock’s pendulum. Together these might relate to themes including space and time, eroticism and death. Giacometti said that when making his sculptures he reproduced images that were ‘complete in my mind’s eye... without stopping to ask myself what they might mean’.

Gallery label, April 2021

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artworks in International Surrealism

Max Ernst, The Entire City  1934

A crumbling city looms oppressively below the ring-shaped moon. Ernst made a whole series of such works. The imagery may reflect his pessimism as Nazism took hold in his native Germany. The ruined cityscape was created using a technique that Ernst called ‘grattage’ (scraping). It involved placing the canvas over planks of wood or other textured surfaces, then scraping paint across it. The shapes that emerged formed the basis of the image. Grattage was one of a number of techniques that Surrealist artists explored as a way of letting a chance element into their work.

Gallery label, January 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers  1925

With its emphasis on violence and sex, The Three Dancers was greatly admired by the surrealists. It started off as a realistic representation of ballet dancers rehearsing. While Picasso was working on it his old friend Ramon Pichot died. Twenty years earlier, Pichot and another friend, Carlos Casagemas, fell in love with the same woman, Germaine Gargallo. Casagemas took his own life, having first shot at Gargallo. Recalling these events transformed Picasso’s approach. The distorted angular figures, harsh colours and thickly worked paint surfaces seem to express violent emotions.

Gallery label, April 2019

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artworks in International Surrealism

Paul Nash, Harbour and Room  1932–6

In 1930 Nash travelled to the South of France, staying in a hotel by the sea. This image derives from a reflection of a ship in the large mirror which hung in front of his bed. The dream-like quality indicates Nash's interest in Surrealism, and in the unconscious. Read admired the way Nash managed to respond to the European influence of Surrealism, while maintaining the English character of his work. He wrote: 'The striking peculiarity of Paul Nash is that, alone in his generation, he has dared to transform the English tradition.'

Gallery label, January 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

Jean Arp (Hans Arp), Winged Being  1961

Arp was inspired by the organic and fluid shapes found in nature. Very interested in ancient mystic philosophy, he believed that nature expressed the dynamic force of life and wished to imitate this energy in his work: ’I tried to make forms grow’, he wrote, ’I put my trust in the example of seeds, stars, clouds, plants, animals, men, and finally, in my innermost being’.

Gallery label, June 2003

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artworks in International Surrealism

Cecil Collins, The Cells of Night  1934

This is one of the earliest paintings in which Collins expressed his ideas about the life of the human spirit. The human head in the foreground represents the psyche. The landscape behind, seen in dramatic recession, represents infinity. The distortion of the head symbolises the human psyche’s yearning for infinity. The ‘Cells’ of the title refer to the organisms and natural phenomena that make up the Universe. The breaking of dawn, indicated through the light colour of the sky, signifies the possibility of re-birth. These were all important themes in Collins’s work at the time.

Gallery label, June 2021

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artworks in International Surrealism

Paul Klee, Ships in the Dark  1927

A series of interlocking triangles form the sails of a group of boats strung across this canvas. The surging line suggests a gently rocking, wave-like motion. This rhythmic composition recalls a diagram by Klee in his teaching notes for the Bauhaus art school in Germany. He noted it showed ‘an active line, limited in its movement by fixed points’. The nautical imagery also seems to draw upon Klee’s recent trip to the south of France and Corsica.

Gallery label, April 2021

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artworks in International Surrealism

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Arshile Gorky, Garden in Sochi Motif  1942

Gorky reconstructs his childhood memories of Armenia in this painting. The central shape, though difficult to explain, was an important symbol for Gorky. It appears in several of his paintings. It has been read as different items from his native Armenia. Some scholars have interpreted it as an Armenian butter-churn made of goatskin, familiar from Gorky’s youth. Others suggest it is a pair of red slippers his father gave him before he left for the United States.

Gallery label, August 2020

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artworks in International Surrealism

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Juan Batlle Planas, The Message  1941

The Message (El mensaje) 1941 is a painting in tempera on canvas that presents an ambiguous encounter in a room between six figures. On the left a red figure wearing a black hat stands balancing on a stone and points towards a group of four persons opposite. In the foreground another lies on the floor and reaches upwards and outwards, suggesting perhaps some kind of plea. Of the four figures standing on the right, the foremost reaches or points downwards; the others seem to stoically observe the scene. All of the figures are rendered with vertical blocks of colour, giving each a crystal-like three-dimensionality. The figures stand in a room rendered in shades of blue and aquamarine; low doorways frame the composition. In the background, the heads of three additional figures peer out through a rectangular window.

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artworks in International Surrealism

Jean Arp (Hans Arp), Constellation According to the Laws of Chance  c.1930

Arp felt that modern society had lost touch with nature and had become too dependent on reason. He hoped to address this by creating art that consciously evoked the forms and laws of nature. The rounded shapes in this painted relief suggest clouds, while the ‘laws’ in the title are those of flux and chance that characterise the ‘inaccessible order’ of nature.

Gallery label, January 2022

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artworks in International Surrealism

Henry Moore OM, CH, Composition  1932

Moore drew inspiration from many sources, including natural forms and ancient sculptures. He also responded to the work of other artists working at the time. This sculpture is both organic and abstract. But its form and structure also link it to traditional portrait busts. This reflects Moore’s belief that ‘all the best sculpture I know is both abstract and representational at the same time’. Composition is an example of his radical inventiveness. Moore argued that surrealism and abstraction were not in conflict. He wrote of the importance of the ‘nonlogical, instinctive, subconscious part of the mind’ in his artistic process.

Gallery label, August 2020

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artworks in International Surrealism

Art in this room

T15034: May 16, 1941
Grace Pailthorpe May 16, 1941 1941
L02877: Eluhim
Leonora Carrington Eluhim 1960
T03227: Tol Pedn
John Tunnard Tol Pedn 1942
T00713: Peg-Top
Hans Bellmer Peg-Top c.1937–52
T03979: Birth
Jackson Pollock Birth c.1941
T07883: Cadeau
Man Ray Cadeau 1921, editioned replica 1972

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