How to Identify a Surrealistic Painting. The term "surrealism" means "beyond reality." Surrealistic paintings heighten reality through creating scenes that can only be experienced in dreams. To identify a surrealistic painting, focus on the images that are presented rather than the way that it's painted.
Look for juxtapositions of recognizable images in the painting, which are usually presented in a fairly realistic manner. The objects may have qualities that they don't have in real life. They might be especially large or small, or may behave in ways that they wouldn't in real life. For example, Salvador Dali painted giant clocks that appeared to be melting.
Seek out transformations in the painting. Surrealists often present ordinary things in such a way that they transform into something else. For example, a human figure may transform into a landscape, or a machine may transform into an animal.
Examine the painting for elements of the unconscious that are presented in a positive, though perhaps disturbing, way. Surrealists embrace idiosyncratic imagination and exploration while rejecting the notion of a dark subconscious or insanity underlying anyone's imagination.
Explore the potential meanings of the painting. A surrealistic painting uses a symbolist approach for a wider range of interpretations. By providing only enough information for the viewer to construct her own meaning, a surrealistic painting makes the viewer an active participant.
Check the date of the painting to see if it was part of the original surrealistic movement, or if it is a modern painting that uses a surrealistic approach. Though a painting of any date can be considered surrealistic, the original movement lasted from the mid-1920s to the 1940s.