The term “surrealist” brings to mind all manner of strange and wonderful things: clocks melting into desert sands, warped bodies nestled in fragmented dreamscapes and cities floating in the clouds. The landscapes featured in the works of artists such as Salvador Dalí, Rene Magritte, Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington are frequently otherworldly, bizarre and disturbing – hybrid worlds that seek to blend the rational with the subconscious in an attempt to revitalise the human imagination.
As Dali’s The Elephants and Kahlo’s Roots demonstrate, landscapes were a popular subject from the birth of the surrealist movement in the 1920s to its eventual decline in the 1960s. Before surrealism got underway, some artists had begun to use non-naturalistic colours and other experimental methods to craft visions of the world that were not simply reflections of nature but evocations of the human experience of being in the natural world. Despite this, many artists still chose to paint landscapes with photographic accuracy.
In contrast, many surrealists crafted deliberately fantastical landscapes to use the natural world as a mirror of the subconscious – that hidden landscape of the mind. While many of these landscapes might look completely detached from the world we know, there are countless examples of sites that evoke the mind-bending grandeur of surrealist paintings. Here, we’ve bought you ten of the most jaw-dropping.
10 locations worthy of a surrealist painting:
Bomarzo Garden, Italy
Just north of Bomarzo in the Italian province of Viterbo, you will find a garden of mind-bending proportions. Known as the Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters), this unlikely sculpture garden was conceived of by 16th-century Italian prince Pier Francesco Orsini, who suffered greatly in his lifetime. After being held for ransom and seeing his friends killed in a bloody conflict, the prince returned home from war only to find his wife on the cusp of death.
To express his grief, Orsini hired Pirro Logorio, a talented architect and garden designer who had crafted the fountains at Villa d’Este at Tivoli for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Est. He asked Logorio to create a park that would fill its visitors with wonderment and fear. This disorienting masonic marvel is what he came up with. Blending the classical with the fantastical, the Bomarzo Garden features some of the most eye-watering sculptures in Italy, including a giant tearing another giant in half, a war elephant and the cavernous mouth of an ogre. It is said the site caught the attention of Salvador Dali when he visited in 1948, who was so inspired he used elements of the sculptures in Bomarzo Garden in his own work.
Located in the mountains northwest of Morocco, the city of Chefchaouen is a serpentine swirl of a place. Known to some as ‘The Blue Pearl’, the district of Medina in Chefchaouen is famed for its forget-me-not blue doorways, which, when set against the ivory white walls that flank the winding streets, serve as a mirror of the powdery skies above.
The city was originally founded as a refugee camp in 1471 after European Jews and Muslims were forced into exile by the Spanish Inquisition. It is said that the Jewish refugees painted their homes blue to remind themselves of God’s grace. As the Jewish population gave way to a predominantly Muslim one, the tradition continued and does continue to this today.
Known as one of the lowest and hottest parts of the world, Dallol – otherwise known as the Afar Depression – is not the kind of place you’d like to visit barefoot. This bizarre yellow-green salt formation is surrounded by boiling hot springs that exude toxic gases.
As you would expect, Dallol’s unique geological features mean that the area is completely uninhabited. Walking through the area’s strange rock structures and burnt technicolour springs feels like stepping onto some distant planet unwelcoming to life. Indeed, the Dallol sulphur springs, which consist of extremely hypersaline and hyperacid pools, have been found to contain absolutely no biological lifeforms, even on a microscopic level.
Las Pozas, Mexico
In the small town of Xilitla, Mexico, you’ll find an enduring monument to the surrealist movement: the garden of Las Pozas. Created by the English poet, artist and surrealist patron Edward James, Las Pozas dates back to 1947, when the Oxford-educated collector was living in exile in Mexico, a country he’d been introduced to by West Coast spiritualists during his time in Hollywood.
The 20-acre site was originally a garden, but after a sharp frost killed most of his plants, James decided to transform it into a sculpture park. When construction started in 1962, he poured millions of dollars into crafting this “surrealist Xanadu”, employing local artists, stonemasons and craftsmen to bring his fantasy realm to life. Named for the nine pools that flow through the grounds, La Pozas features over 30 structures, including Escher-esque staircases that lead nowhere, cathedral follies and towering plant sculptures.
Bisti Badlands, USA
This blasted alien landscape in the northwestern part of New Mexico is home to some of America’s most striking rock formations. Formerly known as the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, the area was named after the crane petroglyphs that were found here – “De-Na-Zin” being the Navajo word for the bird.
The landscape is utterly bizarre. Mushroom-cap rocks (hoodoos) rise out of the rusted earth while a broad blue sky forms an endless canopy above -gradually fading into lavender hues as the day nears its end. The strange geological formations that populate Bisti were formed over millions of years by the water wearing away at the rock’s surface, leaving a selection of unlikely natural sculptures.
Sur Lípez, Bolivia
This rock strewn desert in Bolivia’s Reserva Nacional De Fauna Andina Eduardo Aboroa is perhaps the closest many of us will ever get to stepping into Salvador Dali’s 1931 work The Persistence of Memory – that’s the one with all the melty clocks.
But forget about melty clocks: with the sun beating down from above and the heat rising from the rubble below, this arid landscape has left a good number of tourists with melty brains. Perhaps the strangest feature of the area is the Árbol de Piedra (Stone Tree) or Stone Tree, the base of which has been weathered away over hundreds of years while the top has remained untouched. At 23 feet tall, the structure is the highest point for miles around and seems more like a sleeping giant than it does a lump of rock.
Tarot Garden, Italy
Nestled in the sun-baked farmland that surrounds the medieval village of Garavicchio in Tuscany, the Tarot Garden is one of the most otherworldly sculpture parks anywhere in the world. The 14-acre site was the magnum opus of Niki de Saint Phalle, a lapsed aristocrat, model and artist who first conceived of the idea in an asylum for the clinically insane in the 1950s.
The artist’s dream was to create a garden featuring every entity from the Tarot deck. She wanted to craft an alternative reality that would help heal others as art had healed her. Populated by towering ceramic figures painted in vibrant colours and decorated with mirror glass and stain glass windows, the part was imagined as “a sort of joyland” where visitors would be able to lose themselves in childlike reverie.
Sown into the rusted plains of the Chihuahua Desert lies a town caught between worlds. Located just ten miles from the Mexico/US border, Marfa is home to a unique community and a rich, layered history. Revitalised by the artist Donald Judd in the 1970s, the acid-tinged town is home to a thriving community of creatives and has served as the setting for a number of iconic films, including George Steven’s 1956 classic Giant and, more recently, No Country For Old Men.
Today, a collection of large-scale installations and sculptures by 13 different artists can be found dotted around the grounds, framed by the blue sky above and the sepia grasslands below. These works are evidence of the artistic manifesto Judd laid down in the Chinati Foundation catalogue: “Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again,” he wrote. “Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be.” It’s also the only place you’re likely to see a faux Prada outlet standing in the middle of the desert.
Boasting an incredible variety of endemic flora and fauna, the island of Socotra, nestled between the Guardafui Channel and the Arabian Sea, is one of the most isolated non-volcanic landforms on the planet. It’s little wonder, then, that this hidden enclave inspired Jules Verne’s dinosaur-inhabited landscapes in Journey To The Centre of The Earth.
Socotra has changed hands many times. It was once occupied by Indian settlers and later by Greeks, while the current inhabitants are of Sub-Saharan African origin. 825 of Socotra’s plant species and 90% of its reptilian life don’t live anywhere else on the planet. With its UFO-shaped Dragon Blood Trees, lofty peaks, and casts of brightly-coloured blue and red freshwater crabs, wandering through Socotra really does feel like venturing through a landscape conjured up in some opium-induced dream.
The Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan
If you happen to find yourself in Turkmenistan, drive three miles north of Ashgabat. Once you’re out of the gold-paved capital of one of the world’s most insulated dictatorships, you’ll soon find yourself trundling through the empty desert. At night, the sky becomes a thick blanket of indigo, speckled with constellations of flickering milk-white stars. But just ahead, a greater fire burns down on earth: the Darvaza gas crater, a deep chasm of orange flames more commonly known as ‘The Gates of Hell’.
The fires in this inferno have been burning unaided since the 1970s – and some say even earlier. But now, Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has unveiled plans to extinguish the flames, citing safety concerns and economic loss as an ever-spiralling crowd of methane works its way up into the atmosphere.