Let’s play … Dada and Surrealism! (LS-GR-529)

As a Literature teacher, I have heard a thousand times the phrase “I could paint/write like this myself”, when I show students a modern painting or when we read a modern poem in class. So, I decided to do something in order to help them appreciate this kind of art and change their attitude towards it. Many of the challenging features of modern art and poetry are the legacy of Surrealism. In order to familiarize students with the subversive and provocative nature of Surrealism and its predecessor, the Dada movement, I opted for a playful and experiential approach that would make them more receptive to modern art and poetry. Having fun is always the best path to knowledge and can lead to a change of attitudes.

Adapting to the Circumstances

I had planned a LS with an extended use of Europeana resources to be implemented in class, but just as we were about to begin, all classes were moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I needed to adjust the LS for remote learning. At first, I wasn’t sure I could manage to implement all of the designed activities remotely. I was particularly worried that it was impossible to have students try out techniques like the “exquisite corpse” or create a Dadaist poem online and remotely.  In the end, we managed to translate them to remote versions using online tools and taking advantage of interactive and collaborative features of the platform we used for online meetings (breakout sessions, polls etc). In many cases, I discussed the designed activity with students and asked for their help in order to find a way to implement it remotely. As you can imagine, students proved to be more creative and imaginative, finding solutions and alternatives that I couldn’t have thought on my own. Minor problems came up, mainly because of some student’s slow Internet connection, but nothing too serious. Some activities were carried out during web meetings, while others were done by the students asynchronously. 

Tapping into the Subconscious

The first part was implemented synchronously. I invited students to narrate some of the strangest dreams they had ever experienced. Meanwhile, I showed them slides with phrases from the Surrealist manifestos and lines from surrealist poems, without any explanations. We discussed the common characteristics of dreams and then I showed them some Surrealist paintings and asked them if they could be scenes from a dream. During the same session students were invited to draw and write randomly across a piece of paper for a couple of minutes. Our last activity was a short poll with a list of words to which students were asked to respond immediately with the first word that came to their mind without thinking or reasoning.  By the end of the meeting they were surprised, puzzled and their curiosity was piqued. For homework, they were asked to choose one of the paintings shown, assume that it was a scene from a dream they had dreamt and create a post about it on Instagram.

Fake Instagram posts based on Surrealist paintings from the Europeana collections. On the left, Compoziție cu portret, Victor brauner, INP – National Heritage Institute, Romania, PD and on the right, Compoziție suprarealistă, Jules Perahim, 1931, INP – National Heritage Institute, Romania, PD.

Researching and delving deeper

During the second synchronous meeting students were divided in groups in breakout rooms and were asked to visit the Europeana exhibition From Dada to Surrealism and read the Wikipedia articles on Dada and Surrealism. Each group was asked to create a list of their main characteristics. They were also invited to read certain chapters of their History textbook and define the historical events and the wider cultural context of the time that led to these artistic movements. At the end, the groups compared their findings in plenary. 

Exquisite Corpse 

For the third and final synchronous meeting students were divided into groups of 3 or 4 and were invited to try out one of the most famous games played by the Surrealists, the Exquisite Corpse. In break out rooms, each student drew a certain part of a body and then they photoshopped them together. They were encouraged to try it at home with their families!

“Exquisite Corpse” played remotely (left) and with family at home (right).

How to make a (collaborative) Dadaist poem (remotely)

After the breakout sessions, we followed Tristan Tzara’s instructions on “How to make a Dadaist poem”, in a remote and collaborative version. All students were asked to find a title from a newspaper article. Students’ names were entered into an online tool that picks a random name by spinning a wheel. This way students randomly took turns in sharing their chosen title in the chatbox, creating this way a remote collaborative equivalent of a Dadaist poem. For homework, they were asked to choose at least 2 techniques used by the Dadaists and the Surrealists and try them out, adding slides with their outcomes to a collaborative presentation, creating a digital exhibition! They enjoyed the playful activities tremendously, proving once again that having fun is the best path to knowledge. But, most importantly, I witnessed the change of their attitude towards modern art step by step. Activity by activity, they seemed to understand more and more the underlying concepts of such artworks and to be more and more receptive to even the most unfamiliar among them. 

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, 1665, Mauritshuis, Netherlands, PD edited digitally (left) and by hand (right).
Calligrams based on Surrealist poems created by students.
Dadaist poem (left) and assemblage (right) created by students trying out Surrealist and Dada techniques and methods.

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CC0 1.0: the featured image used to illustrate this article has been found on Europeana and has been provided by the INP – National Heritage Institute, Bucharest.

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