During the art movement of Surrealism, paintings depicted the unconscious mind and dreamlike alternate realities for study and inspiration. The Surrealist movement emerged in the 1920s in Europe and allowed artists to push beyond traditional painting techniques, methods and philosophies. Until the 20th century, paintings tried to capture reality, but the more modern movements attempted to change what seemed real and gave viewers a glimpse beyond reality.
Most Surrealist artwork used realistic-looking items but placed them in a strange or unusual context. An example of this is the Rene Magritte painting "Son of Man," where a well-dressed man stands stiffly with an apple for a face. Another of his paintings, "Time Transfixed," shows a locomotive coming out of a plain fireplace. Magritte's "The Portrait" reveals a realistic table setting that appears normal, except for the single eye in the center of the entrée.
In Surrealism, people and animals often appear in seemingly normal settings, but, upon closer inspection, the settings are anything but ordinary. In "Metaphysical Interior With Biscuits" by Giorgio de Chirico, a room full of clutter becomes a Surrealist landscape. In "The Listening Room," Magritte painted a brightly lit room and an apple-not uncommon subjects for painting. However, the green apple fills the entire room from wall to wall.
Normal Objects Acting Abnormally
Surrealist paintings often took everyday objects that performed outside their normal function. In Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory," clocks and pocket watches melt all over a barren landscape. Magritte's "Not to Be Reproduced" features a man looking into a mirror, but the back of his head is reflected there, not his face.
Surrealism also conjured impossible creatures to populate the canvas. Good examples of this include Dali's "Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time," where the head of the young movie star is placed on the body of a breasted feline body. Another example is Max Ernst's "The Elephant Celebes," which features a large mechanical elephant and a nude, headless human body.