Dalí & Desnos

Surrealism in Art and Poetry


Key Staff

Primary Instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


In this lesson, students will enhance their creative writing skills and develop their individual writing voices through surrealist techniques. They will learn about the history of the surrealist movement, including major players like André Breton, Robert Desnos, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró. Students will pinpoint poetic devices in the poems and images of the surrealist movement. The lesson will culminate in students creating an original poem using surrealist techniques. Students will be able to revise these after participating in a writer's workshop with their peers.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Discuss the origins and influences of the Surrealism movement
  • Identify poetic devices in Desnos's poetry, including anaphora, repetition, alliteration, consonance, and assonance
  • Ccompare and contrast two stylistically different poems by the same poet
  • Role-play to promote a particular poem to gain an appreciation for both poetry based on free association and poetry that is based on a particular subject matter
  • Aanalyze imagery in works by Dalí and Desnos
  • Compare surrealist visual art and poetry
  • Apply surrealist techniques to their own original work, incorporating imagery and musical poetic devices
  • Participate in writer’s workshop to provide constructive criticism on peers' poetry
  • Revise their work based on self and peer feedback

Teaching Approach

  • Arts Integration
  • Thematic

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

  • Teachers who are not familiar with Surrealism will find these resources helpful: Gooding, Mel. A Book of Surrealist Games. Compiled by Alastair Brotchie. London: Redstone Press, 1991.
  • Nadeau, Maurice. History of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.
  • Salvador Dalí Museum
  • Tate Gallery
  • Golden Ratio

Prior Student Knowledge

Students may have some general knowledge of Surrealism, but this is not necessary. Students should have some knowledge of poetry and poetic devices.

Physical Space



Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual disabilities may need modified handouts or images.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Have students engage in a free-writing exercise. Tell students that they will be working to enhance their creative writing skills. To encourage them to be imaginative and spontaneous in their writing, and not be hindered (for now) by grammar and punctuation, begin with a free-writing exercise. Tell students they will have three minutes to write. They can write about anything they want, but they must write the very first thing that comes into their head, and they cannot stop writing. If they can't think of anything to write down, then they should write, "nothing to write" over and over until another thought comes into their heads. Ideally, students should be "recording" the leaps made by their subconscious mind rather than "writing" logical prose. Inform students that André Breton, one of the movement's founders, has defined Surrealism as "pure, psychic automatism, by which an attempt to express either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true function of thought."

2. Process the free-writing exercise and introduce automatic writing and Surrealism. When the three minutes are up, tell students that they have just engaged in a technique practiced by writers in the Surrealism Movement—a technique called automatic writing. Explain to students that Surrealists believed automatic writing freed them from the constraints of rational order and logic, allowing words to appear through chance.

Tell students that the Surrealists also believed in the power of a collective creativity, since collaborating with another person also allows individuals to break from logical thought.

3. Have students complete a collective creativity exercise. Have students take out a piece of paper. They should write down a hypothetical statement that begins with "If" (i.e., "If hamsters had wings" or "If there were no such thing as guns"). Encourage students to be as creative and/or funny as they want. Now students should fold back their pieces of paper so that their statement is concealed, leaving room for someone else to complete the statement. Students should then pass their papers to a classmate, and the student should write a statement in the conditional (i.e., "purple would smell like tin") or future tense ("believe me, all the seats at the opera will sell out"). Now students should fold the paper so their statement is concealed, then pass the paper to another classmate, who will write another hypothetical statement, and so on, for one or two more rounds.

4. Have students unfold the pieces of paper and read some examples to the class. Note that the results may not be logical statements, but they are imaginative and unique-characteristics that all writers strive to achieve in their works.

Build Knowledge

1. Discuss the history of Surrealism. Provide students with additional background on Surrealism. Inform them that Surrealism began in Paris in the 1920s between the world wars with a group of artists who were influenced by the Dada movement [Webmuseum, Paris] and were profoundly affected by World War I. In 1924, André Breton published the Manifeste du surrealisme (Manifesto of Surrealism), describing the beliefs and practices of the Surrealists. (See a biography about Breton on the Tate Gallery Web site for more information.)

Writers like Breton, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Peret, and others had served in the military, and reacted against the way they saw people as mutilated, alienated, and obsessed with "doing" and "having." The Surrealists' interest in chance operations and free association (as utilized in automatic writing and collaborations) stemmed from an interest in the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud (see the Library of Congress's site, Sigmund Freud: Conflict & Culture for more information) and their desire to break from logic—from the restrictions of reason and societal limitations—which has led humans to disastrous results. Surrealist poets do not pay attention to the arrangement of a poem, instead choosing to dictate the unconscious in a kind of "dream narrative."

2. Discuss the relationship between music and Surrealism. Inform students that Breton believed music can function outside of the moral, political, and social constraints that language is often limited by. (Consider, for example, how Desnos was incarcerated due to his critique of the Nazis in his essays.) Because of the ability of music to be unhindered by such limitations, as well as its inherently abstract qualities (rather than representational or narrative as is usually the case with illustrations and language) the Surrealists believed music could more naturally capture the unconscious. Tell students that one composer celebrated by Breton was John Cage. His investigations in chance operations in music compositions were closely aligned with the Surrealists. Re-enact the basic premise of Cage's famous 1954 work, 4'33'', a piece in which the performer sits at the piano and lets ambient noises such as an audience member's cough, raindrops on the roof, a door shutting take up four minutes and thirty-three seconds while the 'performer' does not actually play anything. You may re-enact the piece's concept by pretending to sit at a piano then raising the pretend keyboard's lid. Let the room be silent for a minute and take note of the ambient noises that you hear in the classroom while you are silent. After a minute is up, point out to students that such noises created a kind of 'music' based on chance - a kind of symphony of random noises.

3. Discuss the relationship between visual arts and Surrealism. Inform students that although the Surrealist movement originated with literary artists, visual artists such as Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí incorporated surrealist techniques in their works. Have students view the Surrealist Artists interactive slideshow. Encourage students to take notes and discuss their observations.

Have students look at Joan Miro's The Potato, the first image in the slideshow. Ask students whether they can find similarities between automatic writing and the shapes and lines in Miró's painting (i.e., automatic writing is comparable to the imaginative composition resulting from the flow between various organic shapes in Miró's work). You may wish to pass out copies of André Breton's poetry for a point of comparison. Excerpts of his cycle of love poems, The Air of the Water, is available in the article, "André Breton: Classic Poet" by Bill Zavatsky & Zack Rogow in Poetry Magazine.

4. Discuss surrealist ideologies and images. While Breton and others were content to explore the vastness of the unconscious as a revolutionary act against society and the devastations of war, poet Robert Desnos believed that revolution must be political and social, and separated himself from the Surrealist group, despite being denounced by Breton. While his poetry after the departure retained the adventurous, experimental quality of his earlier Surrealist work, Desnos became more direct and paid more attention to the musical quality in his later poems. Desnos, who had served with the French resistance during World War II, published a series of essays critical of the Nazis, which led to his incarceration first in Auschwitz, then a concentration camp in then-Czechoslovakia.

5. Pass out Desnos's poems, " Identity of Images ", translated by Louis Simpson, and " The Voice of Robert Desnos ", translated by William Kulik. (Both are available on the Web site of Poets.org . Tell students to work with a partner and compare and contrast the poetic devices used in each poem, specifically the poet's attention to music (i.e., repetition, anaphora, alliteration, consonance, and assonance) and use of imagery. Ask students to write down examples of striking imagery in each poem. (For definitions of poetic terminology, see the Poetry Glossary in Poets.org Web site.)

6. Have students work in groups to promote one of two poems. Divide the class into two groups. Tell students on one side of the room that they have just been hired to promote Desnos's "Identity of Images," and are competing with the individuals on the other side of the classroom who have been hired to promote "The Voice of Robert Desnos” for a spot in a new anthology. Give students a few minutes to discuss with their classmates and come up with valid arguments as to why their assigned poem should be the one included in the anthology, incorporating the notes they took earlier regarding music and imagery. To begin discussion, ask students to pick one representative from each group to make a statement about the strengths of their respective poems. After the statements are made, open the floor for discussion. Prompt students with questions such as: Which poem is more powerful or meaningful? Which poem sounds better? Which poem sounds more unique? Which poem is more indicative of the Surrealist style? Should it matter that a particular poem is more indicative of the Surrealist movement than the other?

7. Discuss intentional vs. subconscious imagery. Like Desnos, painter Salvador Dalí was also respected and admired by the Surrealist's inner circle and later ostracized. Dalí's incendiary political statements, including his admitted fascination for Hitler, caused tensions among the Surrealists, and in 1934, a "trial" was held in an attempt to expel him from the group. Moreover, he was not just interested in Freud's psychoanalytical theories, but was interested in how his own personal fears and obsessions could be represented intentionally through symbolic imagery rather than revealed through automatic writing. Dalí began using the term paranoia—criticism to describe his visual representations of his delirious interpretations of—and associations with-real phenomena in the world.

Discuss the symbolism of the seashells in Dalí's painting, The Average Bureaucrat. (Note: This is the last image in the interactive slideshow.) You may wish to print the image and pass it around your class. Explain to students that Dalí not only disliked bureaucrats, but also was expelled from his home by his father who held a bureaucratic position. Ask students what they think the seashells represent in the painting, pointedly located in an otherwise empty head. Also ask students what the shadow represents. (According to the Dalí Museum's Web site, the shadow is "reminiscent of the shadow of Mt. Pani which overlooks the Bay of Cadaques,...It's presence adds an ominous tone to the realistic portrayal of the landscape so familiar to Dalí." [Dalí's family had a summer home in Cadaques.]

8. Have students compare Desnos’ poems. Turn back to the poems by Desnos. Ask students to explain which poem utilizes imagery that seems to represent an intended theme and which poem seems more arbitrary (more a result of chance). For example, compare the lines "the gravediggers abandon the hardly-dug graves/ and declare that I alone may command their nightly work" from "The Voice of Desnos" to the lines, "The beautiful swimmer who was afraid of coral wakes/ this morning/ Coral crowned with holly knocks on her door/ Ah! coal again always coal", from "Identity of Images". Ask students how analyzing the titles might help to understand the poems. (Since "The Voice of Desnos" includes the poet's name in the title, we get the sense that the poem is autobiographical and the speaker in the poem is Desnos himself. The title, "Identity of Images", on the other hand, announces to readers even before they read the poem that the focus of the poem will be on the characteristics of images themselves rather than the identity of, for example, Desnos.)


1.Tell students that they will create original poetry using a variety of surrealist techniques: chance, collaboration, and free association. To begin, students must create a quick drawing on a blank piece of paper, using fluid, organic shapes and lines in the style of Miró (as seen in his painting The Potato).

2. Next, students should pass their drawing to a classmate, who must write a line inspired by something that strikes them about the drawing—it could be the way a particular shape reminds them of a specific object, event, or person. Students must then pass this poetic line to another classmate, who must immediately write the first thing that comes to his/her head after reading the line. Now, students should fold the paper so the first line is concealed and the second line is revealed and pass the piece of paper to another classmate, who should write a third line based on the second line.

3. The last student to hold the paper should complete the poem for homework, using all three lines in their own poem. Just as Desnos paid attention to music in his work, tell students to include anaphora, assonance, consonance, and alliteration in their work, as well as imaginative imagery.

4. Students should also write a paragraph pointing to their use of devices such as anaphora, assonance, consonance, imaginative imagery and alliteration in their poems. Their poems will be graded on their use of all five devices.


1. Refining and Revising

Spend the next class period doing writer’s workshop and discussing the students' work (see the ARTSEDGE How-To: The Better the Poem, the Better the Performance). Students will then revise their poems based on peer and self evaluations.

Divide students into groups of two or three and have them exchange work. They should give each other concrete and constructive feedback. Students giving feedback can write directly on their peers’ papers.


Assess the students based on the following criteria:

  • Evidence of understanding through insightful and frequent participation in class discussions.
  • Use of the following poetic devices: anaphora, assonance, consonance, alliteration, and imaginative imagery.

You may also use an Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.

Extending the Learning

Prepare students to read their completed poems aloud in a poetry reading (you could invite other classes to this or even parents and faculty members). The Surrealist movement was very influential among the Abstract Expressionist visual artists and the New York School poets. Teach students about the New York School in the ARTSEDGE lesson, The New York School: Action & Abstraction.

Teach the ARTSEDGE lesson, Rhythm & Improv, Jazz & Poetry, which builds on the concept of free association, makes connections to improvisation in jazz, and provides a more in-depth exploration into sound in poetry.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Theresa Sotto
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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