Lesson: After Nature: Visions and Visionaries

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, Art History
  • "Beyond Our Vision, The Entanglements of Time, Conquest of the Unknown," 1955."Beyond Our Vision, The Entanglements of Time, Conquest of the Unknown," 1955.
  • "Celestograph," 1894."Celestograph," 1894.
  • "Celestograph," 1894."Celestograph," 1894.


Written by Education Intern, Ariana Bayer.
Students will discuss two examples of nontraditional artists’ work and consider how the technique and resulting image reflects the artist’s time. Students will use the technique of decalcomania to experiment with chance in their own artistic creation.
The artworks in this lesson are part of the exhibition “After Nature,” which features an inclusive roster of artworks and objects integrating traditional and nontraditional artists, blurring the line between fact and fiction, to form a contemporary vision of life after nature. Werner Herzog, a German filmmaker who directed Lessons of Darkness, one of the fundamental works of the exhibition “After Nature,” writes that truth is best constructed: “There is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” This lesson, like the exhibition, focuses on visions of constructed truth, considering how visions are formed through artistic practices and cultural circumstance.


  • Students will discuss and compare two artists’ works
  • Students will examine how historical events and eras are represented in works of art
  • Students will create a work of art using the technique of decalcomania
  • Students will asses how current relationships to nature can be represented


Decalcomania derived from the French, décalquer, means to copy by tracing. The art or process of transferring pictures and designs from specially prepared paper or decal. Artistic technique in which paint is pressed between two surfaces (paper to paper, glass to canvas), then separated to create abstract images by chance.
Surrealism refers to a movement in art history. The principles, ideals, or practices of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations.
Self-taught art also known as outsider art, art brut, visionary art, is art created by artists working outside the traditional fine arts tradition.
Automatism is a term appropriated by the Surrealists from physiology and psychiatry and later applied to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing, and painting. In physiology, automatism denotes automatic actions and involuntary processes that are not under conscious control, such as breathing; the term also refers to the performance of an act without conscious thought, a reflex.


Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s images in the Digital Archives
August Strindberg’s images in the Digital Archives
Gouache, acrylic paint, paper of various thicknesses, and general classroom tools; books, paintbrushes, or unsharpened pencils, jars, scissors, and card stock paper to create stencils.

Lesson Strategy

Have students read this article before class: “The Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on Our Environment,” if they aren’t currently studying the Industrial Revolution.

Open discussion:

  • How is truth constructed?
  • How do different artistic practices construct truth?
  • What do we know about the Industrial Revolution?
  • How were things made?
  • What changed? For workers, for farmers, for artists? For the environment?

Look at both of August Strindberg’s, Celestograph , 1894

  • What do you think the subject matter of these works is?
  • Why do you think the artist has chosen the night sky as his subject matter?

Ask students to read the following quote and paraphrase it in writing or discussion.
Strindberg wrote in 1894: “ Imitate nature in an approximate way; imitate in particular nature’s way of creating!”
– “On Chance in Artistic Creation,” (Revue des Revue, 1894)

Look back at the Celestograph as a group:

  • What is nature’s way of creating, in the case of the Celestograph?

Strindberg believed that by placing photographic paper outside at night he could collect the light of the stars, without a camera.


  • These works were created when photography was a relatively new process. Why do you think Strindberg didn’t want to use a camera lens?
  • Based on Strindberg’s relationship to nature, how do you think the human relationship to nature changed during the Industrial Revolution?
  • How is Strindberg’s thinking different from current thinking about the environment?
  • What are some of the major ways we think of the environment today?

1. Energy
2. Leisure
3. Science
4. Danger to society (global warming, natural disaster)
5. Disappearing

Look at Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Beyond Our Vision, The Entanglements of Time, Conquest of the Unknown , 1955

  • What materials is this artist using?
  • Can you describe the tools/movements that made these marks?
  • What does the palette (choice of colors) evoke in your mind?
  • Reading the date on this work, 1955, what was going on in the world at this time?

This painting comes from a series called the “Atomic Series,” possibly inspired by media images of the H Bomb.

  • Consider the advent of the H Bomb: The major and sudden destruction of nature and humanity was directly caused by humans.
  • What is the result for nature? For human nature?
  • What was the mood in the country?
  • How does fear of destruction, such as America faced after September 11, shaped the way we see the world?
  • What inspires this kind of destruction?
  • Who creates these weapons? Why are they created?

Decalcomania Art Activity
Decalcomania is a technique popular with Surrealist painters who transformed chance and natural markings into landscapes, animals, and profiles.

Demonstrate processes for students:
1. Secure paper to work surface.
2. Apply paint to the surface and place another piece of paper on top of the paint.
3. Apply pressure to the top piece of paper, flattening the paint to a thin layer.
4. Lift off the top piece of paper.


  • Viscosity of the paint
  • Colors of paint
  • Thickness and texture of the paper
  • Speed with which the papers are pulled apart
  • Direction in which the papers are pulled apart
  • Pressure applied to the top paper, more or less, or with fingertips, a palm, book, end of a paintbrush, or lip of a jar
  • Reprocessing, press together, pull apart, and repeat a few times
  • Reprocessing with rotation (press together, pull apart, rotate the top page, repeat)


  • Add a stencil of a shape/form between the papers
  • Alter the resulting image based on interpretation of the found image, while paint is wet


Evaluate student participation in discussion.

Extending the Lesson

Have students research one of the following artists. Ask students to discuss how the artist used automatism in his work.

Oscar Domínguez (1906-1957) Spanish Surrealist painter often cited as introducing decalcomania into the Surrealist practice.
Max Ernst (1891–1914) German painter recognized as part of Surrealism as well as Dadaism. He used decalcomania, but also experimented with other techniques including frottage.
Automatism is central to the practice of Surrealist artists, including practices such as automatic writing and automatic drawing.

Additional Resources

Herzog, Werner The Minnesota Declaration
Cabinet magazine article about Strindberg’s Celestographs
Cabinet magazine English translation of Strindberg’s 1894 article, On Chance in Artistic Creation
Visionary in the Basement, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein
Art in America, Sept. 2001, by David Ebony
The Industrial Revolution in World History by Peter N. Stearns The social impact of the Industrial Revolution, p 70.
The Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on Our Environment May 19, 2008. Ecology.com
Hydrogen Hysteria Time magazine, Monday, Mar. 06, 1950
Into the Hydrogen Age Time magazine, Monday, Nov. 24, 1952
Wikipedia Ivy Mike H bomb test article
Definition of decalcomania at moma.org
Decalcomania and fractals class at Yale
Definition of automatism at moma.org

Lesson Plan: After Nature: Visions and Visionaries

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