Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Collaborative Art Making - Exquisite Corpses Inspired by the Surrealists

René Magritte. Je ne vois pas la [femme] cachée dans la forêt, in La Révolution surréaliste, Paris, no.12, December 15th 1929

When discussing the Surrealist artists with my students, I feel it is important to begin the conversation by discussing the artists' identity as a group, their shared interests, and some of their innovative methods.  I start our class discussion by sharing some quotes from Andre Bretón's Manifesto of Surrealism (I choose to use quotes directly related to Freud). The Surrealists were profoundly inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud and his investigations of dreams and unconscious desire.  The work of the Surrealists tended to focus less on control over the creation of an end product, and more on the creative process and liberation from the rational.

Drawing by Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Max Morise, Joan Miró, c. 1926.

The Surrealists often experimented with techniques to help them relinquish control over the creation of an artwork and to encourage spur-of-the-moment creativity.  One such activity was a game called "Exquisite Copse" in which a piece of paper would be folded and each person would draw in one section, starting from the tail end of the last person's drawing (with the rest of the image covered as the paper would be folded over before it would be passed to the next participant so they would not know what the rest of the piece looked like), to create a unified image.

After leading a class discussing the manifesto excerpts and the Freudian revolution with students, I then briefly introduce the idea of the "Exquisite Corpse" and hand out a sheet of blank paper to each student. I ask them to fold the paper into thirds.  It is especially important at this point to reinforce the execution of the game, making sure that students understand that they need to draw slightly over their third of the sheet to provide a starting point for the next student. I then put on some music that aligns with Surrealist thought (typically I use some Varese, but I recently found a great article from the American Symphony Orchestra where they describe their rationale for selecting particular repertoire for a concert that was created in conjunction with a René Magritte exhibition that lists some other composers you might want to consider). I give students a few minutes to work on the first section, give them a minute warning, and ask them to fold their section over, leaving just a slight bit extending past to fold and to trade with someone else. They then work on the second section in a similar manner, and then, after passing again, complete the "Exquisite Corpse" without having any idea of what is in the first two sections. I then let students take a look at what they have created and encourage them to pass the papers around the room, and allow some time for discussion of how they felt during the process, what surprised them, and how it helps them better understand some facets of Surrealism. 

This has proven to be a highly engaging activity with my students, and one which does not seem to intimidate those who have less artistic experience than others. I've found it to be a great way to introduce students to Surrealism and help them better identify with some Surrealist artists.

Have you done something similar in your class? Do you have another method for engaging students during discussions of Surrealism? I'd love to hear your input!!!

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