Surrealism is an art-historical, literary and intellectual movement originating in Europe during the inter-war years of the twentieth century. With a focus on freeing the subconscious mind and championing chance and irrationality, surrealists such as André Breton, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, Meret Oppenheim and Dorothea Tanning used art as a means for uncovering the workings of the mind. These artists blurred the lines between dream and reality and explored repressed desires to expose deeper realms of the human psyche.

Surrealism adopted a number of the art-making methods established earlier by the dadaists, a generation of artists who revolted against the horrors of the First World War. These included opening up the artistic process to chance, using games to create art, and producing art in groups or collectives. They also developed a number of new artistic techniques, including automatic drawing and writing, rubbings taken from uneven surfaces (known as frottage) and decalcomania – the impression of paint onto a surface to create abstract and uncanny effects. These methods helped the surrealists to explore hidden dream worlds and unlock the mysteries of the mind.

Investigate surrealist works of art by South Australian artists Dusan Marek, Jacqueline Hick, Ivor Francis, Peter Purves Smith and Jeffrey Smart. What makes these works surreal?

After looking at a variety of surrealist works of art, brainstorm common characteristics. Write a definition for surrealism based on the works you have seen.

Using collage create a hyper-real scene featuring a surreal creature or figure placed in a contemporary world.

Select three images – of an everyday object, an animal and a landscape. Combine these elements to make your own surreal collage.

Place an interesting object in the centre of the room. Using this object as stimulus write automatically for a timed period. Relax your mind and allow your writing to flow spontaneously. Use this writing to create a short story about this object and compare your writing with that of others. Record your dreams for a week and create a work of art inspired by your dreams. Tip: Try to use only blue biro so that you aren’t tempted to edit your work – let your imagination run free!

Make a series of blobs onto paper using watercolour paint or diluted acrylic paint. Move the paint around by tilting the paper to create random shapes. Once dry, draw over or around these shapes to transform them into something else.

The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.

Art Gallery of South Australia staff Elle Freak, Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade contributed to the development of this resource.