What Is That?


What has a lobster got in common with a telephone? Why paint a fish flying?
Find out here!

Salvador Dalí, ‘Lobster Telephone’ 1936
Salvador Dalí
Lobster Telephone 1936
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2018

Salvador Dali (one of the most famous surrealists) once wrote:

'I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone'.

A bit confused? Don’t worry, so are we.

What's it all about?

Let’s start at the beginning. Surrealism began in the 1920s. It was all about experimenting with imagination. Surrealists were inspired by a famous psychologist called Sigmund Freud. (A psychologist studies behaviour and how people think). He thought and wrote about the mind, memories and human instincts. He was also interested in people's dreams and their subconscious thoughts. Subconscious thoughts are thoughts that we don't even know we're having!

Marcel Mariën, ‘Star Dancer’ 1991
Marcel Mariën
Star Dancer 1991
© DACS, 2018

Surrealists liked to put together things that are not normally seen together – such as a starfish and a shoe!

What unexpected things would you put together? How about drawing a tree wearing a scarf or a squirrel with a monocle?

Types of surrealism

Paul Nash, ‘Landscape from a Dream’ 1936–8
Paul Nash
Landscape from a Dream 1936–8

There are two main types of surrealist artworks.

The first type of surrealist art was inspired by dreams. Here is Paul Nash’s Landscape from a Dream 1936-8. What do you think about when you look at it? Does it look like your dreams?

If you drew one of your dreams what would it look like?

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ 1943
Dorothea Tanning
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943
© DACS, 2018

The painting above looks a bit like a nightmare! Surrealist artists liked spooky subjects and things that couldn’t be easily explained. The girl looks as if she has had a bit of a shock! What do you think is happening in this painting?

The second type of surrealist art is called ‘automatism’. Automatism is when people do things automatically without thinking – like doodling or word-association. For example, when I say ‘green’ what do you think about? Grass? Grapes? Slithery snakes?

Joan Miró, ‘The Great Carnivore’ 1969
Joan Miró
The Great Carnivore 1969
© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018

This painting looks a bit like a big doodle that has been made into a monster. It is by an artist called Joan Miró and is called The Great Carnivore. (A carnivore is an animal that eats meat!).

Have you ever drawn a scribble and then tried to find characters in it?

Sir Roland Penrose, ‘Le Grand Jour’ 1938
Sir Roland Penrose
Le Grand Jour 1938
© The estate of Sir Roland Penrose

Quite a bit of surrealist artworks are made using collage, like this artwork by Roland Penrose.

If you cut up a magazine and then put the different images together, what kind of story could you tell?

Do you like surrealism? Which surrealist artist is your favourite?

More to explore