Michael Sowa: Master of Comic Surrealism

My ongoing search for bear images online often leads to the discovery of some pretty amazing artists. 

Michael Sowa

Take German surrealist Michael Sowa, for example. Years ago, I ran across his painting of a teddy bear sitting alone at a table with a slice of bread and a glass of milk. When I saw that same bear hanging by his ears from a clothesline, that was it – I became a forever fan.

Little did I realize that the paintings were part of a book called A Bear Called Sunday, written by Axel Hacke (Bloomsbury, 2004).  Sowa has also illustrated two other children’s books: Esterhazy: The Rabbit Prince, by Irene Dische and Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Creative Co., 2000), and The Little King December, another title by Axel Hacke (Bloomsbury, 2002). 

Wonderful as these books are, Sowa is more widely known for his paintings of animals in darkly comic, surrealistic settings. But whether depicting animals or humans, his unique sense of whimsy is refreshingly surprising, sometimes thought provoking, always interesting. I say surprisingly because one wouldn’t ordinarily expect an “Old Masters” style of art laced with such subtle humor and irony.

His work has been described as having the other-worldly look of a whacked-out fairy tale, a wry Brothers Grimm for grown-ups, featuring flying pigs, sheep with computers, giant spiders, and lots of rabbits (some standing on their ears). Of course I love that in addition to the teddy bears in his book, he also paints real bears, including this fun piece showing polar bears licking iced penguins (the sign translates as “Ice Floes for Rent”).

Born in Berlin in 1945, Sowa studied at the Berlin State School of Fine Arts for seven years and worked briefly as an art teacher before focusing his career on painting and illustrating. Sowa’s Ark: An Enchanted Bestiary (Chronicle, 1996), features about 50 of his most famous paintings.

Sowa’s work has also graced album and magazine covers, and he gained a new following when his art appeared in the film “Amelie” (2001). Do you remember when the paintings on her wall came to life? 🙂

Sowa contributes illustrations to the satirical German magazine Titanic, and works for newspapers such as Die Zeit.

One of the most notable artists in Germany, he was awarded the Olaf-Gulbransson-Preis (1995), the Berlin Prize for his children’s book Prinz Tamino in 2004, and the E.O. Plauen Prize (2020).

His paintings have been exhibited at the Wilhelm Busch Museum Hanover, Kuntshalle Oldenburg, The Liebenweintrum in Burghausen, and repeatedly in Japan.

His work is widely available as prints, notecards, posters, postcards and calendars at such online sites as Amazon, Art.com, iCanvas.com, and AllPosters.com.

View his Online Portfolio here (wish I could read German). 

*Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Michael Sowa: Master of Comic Surrealism

  1. Good morning, Jama! Those are some really interesting paintings! I love the sheep working on all sorts of gadgets! I wonder if it’s a commentary on the world’s obsession with the virtual world! Usually if I ride the subway, my husband and I are the only two reading a book. Everyone else has their eyes on their phone!

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  2. I’ve always enjoyed Sowa’s work. I used to sell his prints and posters in my gallery. It’s interesting to me, now how AI images from apps such as Dall-e seem tohave that same sensibility.

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  3. Sorry I’m so late looking, Jama, but glad to have some time to really enjoy this artist – amazing works & so truly full of humor. I may need to find some of his postcards! Thank you!

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