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Surrealism Art: High School Lesson

written by: Mildred Wilson • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 2/20/2014

Do your students scoff at art that might be difficult to understand? This surrealism art lesson plan coupled with your students' prior knowledge of art elements, such as line, shape and color, will enable them to analyze and interpret a contradictory art movement.

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    Whoa! Is This Art?

    th surreal11 You might notice that when you introduce the topic of surrealism art to your students, some might gasp! Some might even call it junk! On the other hand when you remind them that for some time now students have been fascinated with the fantasy in the Twilight and the Hunger Games series, they might find learning about surrealism art is inspirational and fun.

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    • Students will be able to list and discuss the work of five artists that were a part of the surrealism art movement.
    • Students will be able to critique a surrealism painting using prior knowledge of commonly accepted art elements.

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    Brief Overview

    (Note: It would be helpful to have a surrealism art poster and a traditional art poster available for handy reference during the preliminary discussion.)

    Webster defines 'surrealism' as the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural juxtapositions and combinations.

    Until the twentieth century, artists tried to capture reality in their paintings. Surrealism surfaced in the 1920s when young artists wanted to create something more than a mere copy of what they saw. This surrealism art lesson plan for high school will help students gain insight as to why artists in their desire to become 'primitive' or childlike consulted scientific textbooks on what constituted the primitive mind. During the period between the World Wars, key among these influences were the discoveries of Sigmund Freud, who had shown that when our wakening thoughts are numbed, the child and the savage in us takes over.

    The American surrealists were considered smart individuals. However, they were not content with a classic representational technique. They felt the need to combine what was known with eccentric and psychologically acute subject matter.

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    Pertinent Terms

    • Sigmund Freud - Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis
    • psychoanalysis - a method of analyzing psychic phenomena and treating emotional disorders that emphasizes the importance of the patient's talking freely about himself while under treatment, especially about early childhood experiences and about his dreams
    • inter-war movement - between World War I and World War II
    • surrealist automatism - belief in the intelligence of the unconscious that directs the hand meaningfully to make automatic paintings
    • naturalism - thought based only on natural desires and instincts
    • grattage - scraping paint from the canvas
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    • poster board
    • drawing paper
    • drawing pencils
    • colored pencils
    • pastels
    • markers
    • paint (acrylic, tempera, oil*)
    • brushes
    • watercolors
    • computer

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    1. Instruct the students to search surrealism art and artists on the Internet. (One site is Have them take sufficient notes on at least five artists. Have them pay attention to surrealism that have the following characteristics:

    • a. realistic items that have been used out-of-place
    • b. unreal scenes
    • c. normal objects acting abnormally
    • d. fantastic creatures

    2. Divide the class into four groups and have an open discussion on the artists that used the four characteristics.

    3. Provide the following prompts and have the students write a short essay.

    • a. Write about a dream you've had that seemed strange. Provide sufficient details.
    • b. Write about an interesting and/or unusual experience that you've had recently or sometime ago. Provide sufficient details.

    4. Instruct the students to analyze their essays for material to create a surrealistic painting. Have them write down what they plan to draw, if needed.

    5. Have the students create a surrealistic painting. Have them write their names on the back. (Normally, artists write their names on the front, but since the students will be critiquing each other's work, this might avoid a lot of hurt feelings. Of course, students usually know who can draw in their class, but at least this makes for a level playing field.)

    6. When paintings are completed, display them for critiquing. Critiquing should be based on whether or not the paintings have included the general elements of art, e.g., good composition, balance, color harmony, etc.

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    Based on the participation of the student during this lesson, consider the following questions:

    1. After researching five artists, did the student demonstrate an understanding of what surrealism was all about?

    2. Were the surrealist art critiques based on the general elements of art? Based on the four common characteristics, was the student able to separate out the surrealistic influence from the traditional part of the painting?

    3. Did the student create a surrealist painting which included some of the general elements of art, e.g., composition, color harmony, value, etc?

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    Knowing What We Like

    When discussing art, some people are prone to say, "I don't understand art, but I know what I like." This is a fair statement, because in art, music, literature, or film, there is much to like and much to dislike. The goal is to remain open to the possibilities which oftentimes will help one get a sense of what the artist is trying to do. To be sure, understanding doesn't necessarily mean liking or acceptance, nor should it.


  • Geldzahler, Henry, American Painting in the Twentieth Century, New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1965.

    Gombrich, E. H., The Story of Art, Oxford University Press, New York, 1966.

    Mish, Frederick C., editor in chief, Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Publishers, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1985.

    Image Credit: findstuff22/Photobucket licensed under Photobucket Terms of Use