MELTING clocks, floating torsos and lobster telephones. In the largest exhibition of Surrealism ever mounted in Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art brings together work from four outstanding Surrealist collections, now held in Edinburgh, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam and the Hamburger Kunsthalle, in an exhibition which manages a certain intimacy despite its considerable size. The works of Picasso jostle with those of Dali, Carrington with Breton, Magritte with Ernst. The dreamlike squiggles and symbols of Miro float in the air in one room whilst in another the ticket-stub collages and constructions of Paolozzi are built from the off-cuts of contemporary culture.

The intimacy is down to the nature of the exhibition, a construction of works taken from the collections of four prominent collectors, two of whom were peers of the Surrealists (Roland Penrose and Edward James), two of whom collected retrospectively and exhaustively some years later (Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch), and all of whom did so for different yet personal reasons.

For Roland Penrose, himself a Surrealist artist represented in this exhibition, art was a fundamental part of the fabric of his surroundings. An avid “accidental” collector, he had Picassos above the Aga and his own Surrealist frescoes above the fireplace in his Sussex farmhouse. His house contained glass cases full of assorted objects, a rational/irrational mish-mash that seemed to embody the heart of Surrealism. On the Gallery walls, here, there is a hint of that in the clusters of artwork on warmly painted walls, the vitrines of objects and books. It was Penrose’s library and archive that came to the National Galleries in the 1990s, works which provide a fascinating insight into the world of the Surrealists.

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Indeed, alongside all the artistic big guns on the walls which reward prolonged viewing, you could spend many happy hours working through the glass topped cases scattered throughout the rooms. The contents, drawn particularly from Penrose’s and Gabrielle Keiller’s collections, provide fascinating insights, from letters written between artists and collectors to collections of artist’s books and published books illustrated by the Surrealists.

In one cabinet, Miro and Breton’s book, Constellations, is signed with a personal note to Roland Penrose. In another there is a fabulous array of Picasso’s artist’s books, publications, etchings and lithographs. This is Picasso to hold in the hand, tantalisingly under glass. There are photos of the ever-changing line-up of Surrealists in the 1930s, studio snapshots of these “vibrant, young” artists who clung to childhood dreams and the unconscious, or to “psychic automatism” as the guiding light in the creation of their works.

Marcel Duchamp, in later life, boxed up his works in fold-out cases with temporary stands, each mini-gallery containing reproductions of his key works and one original. Laid out, here, the National Gallery’s Boites (Keiller collection) look like the equipment of a travelling salesman, peddling Surrealism, or a visual reproduction of the bizarre internal workings of the mind – which of course, they are.

Elsewhere, the aristocratic poet Edward James, “born a Surrealist”, philanthropically bought paintings from young Surrealists, collecting without meaning to collect, a collector without ever having wanted to be one. A major champion of Leonora Carrington, James actively collaborated with Dali and Magritte in the creation of works, many of which line the walls. He eventually sold a greater part of his collection to fund Las Pozas, the fabulous Surrealist architectural wonderland which he built in the lush Mexican rainforest, some day’s journey from Mexico City.

Las Pozas features in Melanie Smith’s film Xilitla, a 25 minute wander through the “abandoned” structures of James’ architectural fantasy, constructed by the poet and his many local collaborators after the Second World War. In Smith’s film, workers cart a mirror around the structures, rather like Miro’s mirrors, a potent symbol of Surrealism, reflecting and recalibrating.

Movements come and go, and the Surrealists were no exception. By the threatened third iteration of Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, the movement had given way to Abstract Expressionism, just as Dada had given way to Surrealism. But the call of their dreamland still holds sway, as this very impressive and fascinating exhibition attests. And if you still remain unmoved, you can always have a go on the Magritte slide in the grounds outside.

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh until September 11