Surrealism: The Art of Disquiet

Sometimes life becomes so strange, so patently absurd, so like a bizarre waking dream that we say it has become surreal.

Life is strange. Sometimes life becomes so strange, so patently absurd, so like a bizarre waking dream that we say it has become surreal.

I got to thinking about surrealism last Monday night when I found myself in a cowboy club, drinking beer with folks from my home town and watching a faux Mick Jagger prancing onstage in front of a Rolling Stones tribute band. That wasn’t even the weirdest part of my day, but sitting there, watching absurdity after absurdity pile on top of one another, I began to think about surrealism.

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings. The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.” Surrealistic art uses images to bend reality, to make us question our basic assumptions about reality and space and time.

surrealistic-images03GigerIt’s not actually that far removed from fantasy and science fiction art. Fantasy and science fiction illustration has a definite surreal edge to it, particularly if it is taken out of the context which led to its original creation. And, indeed, in some cases, as with surrealistic swiss artist H. R. Giger, the line between surrealistic art and fantasy illustration becomes considerably more blurred.

But surrealistic art does more than just juxtapose disparate elements. It is more than just absurdity. The best surrealistic paintings aim to unsettle, to disturb, to make us feel uncomfortable. It should lead to us questioning our own sense of reality.

the-persistance-of-memorySurrealism’s most recognizable proponent is, of course, Salvador Dali. His iconic painting is The Persistence of Memory. It is the famous image of the melting clocks. Here Dali questions the nature of space, of physicality and of time by taking what should be solid and depicting it as rubbery, deflated material. There is also the suggestion of human flesh in the image which ads to the viewer’s disquiet.

There are other classic surrealists but I’m just going to highlight one or two modern surrealists whose work is somewhat akin to fantasy and science fiction illustration.


I will start with Sam Weber, an artist who, as well as being an extremely talented fantasy and science fiction illustrator also produces personal images which verge on the surreal. Weber is an extraordinary realistic painter and it is precisely that sense of realism that lends a disturbing quality to his surrealistic pieces. Take a look at a piece of his called Dandelion. It is a portrait of a woman, rendered realistically, and yet is is split down the middle. The abrupt discord in the middle of the image has no explanation and is rendered in such a realistic manner that our mind tries to make sense of it. Naturally, it cannot which leads to a sense of disquiet, similar to a dream state.


Ray Caesar is an artist whose surrealistic paintings depict strange, child-like women in situations and poses that are suffused with an uncomfortable sexuality. According to Caesar he paints “…a separate reality, with distinct characters and settings. Some characters are girls, some are boys, and some have mixed genders…. I put in elements of humor, horror, sexuality, darkness, kindness and joy. Some pieces also have a hunter/prey component, which expresses an emotion of attempting to recapture a lost innocence, or of the power that a prey has over the hunter.”


Caesar’s images are, on the surface, beautiful and doll-like yet his paintings hint at a deeper, less benign reality.


Gottfried Helnwein is an Austrian/Irish artists whose large format paintings are almost photographically realistic. His images juxtapose the innocence of children with disturbing elements of war and Nazi regalia. His work is unnerving in that it examines the victimization of innocence through the horrors of war.


I’m just going to mention a few others and show some samples. Erik Thor Sandberg’s work has been said to depict “…secular scenes of vice and virtue from a standpoint that human nature is inherently flawed.” Sandberg’s images are also disturbingly sexual in nature. For that reason I am careful which images I share here but do encourage you to look further if you are not easily offended by nudity.


Christian Rex Van Minnen creates images which are disturbingly grotesque. His portraits are of faces that are so distorted as to be unrecognizable as human beings and yet rendered in such an unflinchingly realistic, almost clinical way as to make us turn away in disgust.


These images are meant to disturb and unsettle, to provoke a feeling of disquiet. They are designed to make us question or reality. This is something that all the best art should strive to do, especially fantasy and science fiction art.

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