Surrealism Art & Writing Activity: For Middle or High School Art or English Class

What is Surrealism?

Before you begin your surrealism art lesson, you’ll want to let your students know just what “surrealism” means and where it came from.

The Dada art movement generated “anti-art” before World War I in an intentional attempt to go against reason. Surrealism also was a reaction against reason, but sought more positive forms of expression than Dadaism had. Surrealist thinkers blamed the forces of reason for the trends in European thought and politics that led to war breaking out. Andr√© Breton, in “The Surrealist Manifesto,” wrote that the purpose of Surrealism was to join the mundane world to the realm of dream in “an absolute reality, a surreality.” The surrealists believed that thinkers who could tap into their unconscious had access to their sources of genius.

Surrealist artists included Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, and Paul Klee. Surrealist writers included Michel Leiris and Benjamin Peret.

Interpreting Surrealistic Art

This surrealism art lesson takes two surrealistic paintings and invites written responses from your students.

One of Paul Klee’s foundational surrealistic paintings is Remembrance of a Garden. The elements of a garden have been strewn all over the painting, as the lines, crosses, circles and dabs suggest attempts to lay out a formal plot. However, these have been scattered widely and covered with a multi-colored patchwork. This could suggest the frailty of human reason, and how it is powerless in the face of external events, or in the face of passions.

Show this on the projection screen in your classroom, and ask your class the following questions. This can be done in writing, or in group work with oral answers.

1. What does the word “remembrance” mean to you? (Guide students toward the idea of a eulogy, if necessary). How can this painting be said to be a “remembrance” of the idea of a garden?

2. How is logic involved in the design of a garden? How does this painting turn this sort of logic on its head?

3. What is the significance of the multiple colors in the overlays?

Salvador Dali’s Three Ages: Old Age, Adolescence, Infancy is an excellent example of the Surrealist idea of blending fantasy and reality. Look, for example, at the old man at left. What looks like an old man’s head at first glance is actually a combination of a twisted landscape (hair and eyebrows), a boulder (one eye), and a rock formation around a waterfall (nose, mouth and mustache).

Have your students break down the figures for adolescence and infancy in the middle, and at right. What are the specific images that combine to make those figures? How does each figure blend visions from fantasy and reality? What elements are specific to the idea represented by the figure (adolescence and infancy)?

Encountering Surrealist Writing

This surrealism art lesson may be too advanced for some classes, and your students may need a great deal of help with the literature.

“Spilled Blood” is a poem by the Surrealist writer Benjamin Peret (translated in this link by Keith Hollaman). Put the text of the poem up on your projection screen, or give each student a copy to read as you read aloud. Then, while you are reading aloud, have students draw the images that come into their minds.

After you’ve finished reading, and the students have finished drawing, lead them through a thematic discussion of the poem. Note the random, almost comic death of the gasman (he was hit by a broom), followed by the tragic consequences of his death, particularly for his wife. Also note the absurd “why didn’t he” lines indicating nonsensical ways the gasman could have avoided death. The theme, of course, is that we can’t avoid our fate, no matter what constructs we build to stave it off. When “the sun in [our] pocket” dons its “cap,” it is our time to go.

Now, have students draw or paint a full-size work that expresses this theme. It can use some of the images from Peret’s poem, or it can use original imagery. However, it should strive to emulate Surrealist style in some way.