Dadaism and Surrealism 1916 - c. 1940
Dadaism and Surrealism were closely linked movements which were developed in direct response to World War One. Key themes were the lack of meaning and reason in life following the death of so many in the conflict, which lead to art which was itself meaningless, or by chance. Surrealism in particular was also influenced by psychoanalysis, with writers and artists attempting to tap into the repressed realm of the unconscious mind in order to 'liberate' culture from conscious logic and reason.
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929
(The text reads "This is not a pipe".)
Dada and Surrealism can be identified by the following features:
'Meaningless' art, including readymade objects;
The 'law of chance', such as torn paper;
Geometric shapes and organic forms and lines;
Juxtaposing objects in an irrational manner;
Art bypasses literal perception to tap into unconscious awareness;
'Automatic' drawing and painting.
Artists from this period include:
Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Varvara Stepanova 1894-1958
Man Ray 1890-1976
George Grosz 1893-1959
René Magritte 1898-1967
Eileen Agar 1899-1991
Hans Arp 1887-1966
Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966
Sophie Taeuber 1889-1943
Max Ernst 1891-1976
André Masson 1896–1987
Joan Miró 1893-1983
Méret Oppenheim 1913-1985
Férnand Leger 1881-1955
Salvador Dali 1904-1989
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Dadaism 1916 - 1924
World War I had a profound influence on many artists of the time, but more than any other movement, Dadaism was a direct reaction to the slaughter, propogranda and inanity of the conflict, and the society that allowed it to happen. A number of artists, poets and musicans concluded that the very idea of human betterment was a pointless illusion. For this group, the main lesson of the war, if anything, was the bankruptcy of reason, politics, technology, and even art itself.
Several artists and poets founded a movement, initially in Zurich, whose members ridiculed anything having to do with culture, politics, or aesthetics. It was led by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet and writer, along with fellow Romanian Marcel Janco, who had gone to Zurich to study architecture, Richard Huelsenbeck, a German poet, and Hugo Ball, a German dramaturge and author.
Hugo Ball had moved to Zürich in May 1915 with Emmy Hennings, a cabaret singer, who became his wife in 1920. In 1916 they opened a 'literary' nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, the venue for a Dada 'cabaret' of poetry readings, music and performances. Ball decorated the club with art by Dada members.
In 1916, members of the Zürich group had randomly found the word "dada" in a French-German dictionary, which means "hobby horse" in French but can also be a child's first word or "there there" or "yes yes" in a Slavic language. For the group, the name was purposely meaningless and considered that dada was "a state of mind." (Swiss neutrality allowed the group to perform plays and shows, to publish manifestos, plays, books and articles, and to create art under the name Dada without fear of reprisals.)
Dada later spread to Berlin, Paris and New York. The Dadaists sought to embody the absurd in their work on the basis that absurb art reflects an absurb society. They attacked the idea of art by creating collage constructions from discarded junk. Many of the artists affiliated with Dada made collages and updated Picasso and Braque's papier collés with the addition of ‘chance’ procedures and the addition of painting, photo-montage, and photo-mechanical processes.
The leading art exponents were Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and George Grosz. While Duchamp built machines with spinning disks that created surprising spiral patterns, Picabia covered canvases with disorienting stripes and concentric circles—an early form of optical experimentation in modern painting. Other key Dada artists included Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber, Max Ernst and Man Ray. Arp believed in a “law of chance,” which he said “embraces all laws and is unfathomable like the first cause from which all life arises [and] can only be experienced through complete devotion to the unconscious.” Between 1916 and 1917, he created a number of collages from torn, geometric pieces of coloured paper that he dropped into gridded arrangements on paper grounds.
Man Ray, whose photographs documented Duchamp’s optical machines, put his own stamp on photography by manipulating images in the darkroom to create illusions on film.
When Dadaists did choose to represent the human form, it was often mutilated or made to look manufactured or mechanical. The multitude of severely crippled veterans and the growth of a prosthetics industry, “struck contemporaries as creating a race of half-mechanical men.”
Dada was short lived, and during the 1920s, its ideas were absorbed into Surrealism, a linked movement that also questioned the status quo and the accepted notions of reality.
Marcel Duchamp - Readymades
Readymade was a term applied from around 1915 to a commonplace prefabricated object isolated from its functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection - it is generally a product of modern mass production, and it tends to be presented on its own without mediation.
In Paris in 1913, Marcel Duchamp had broken new ground in sculpture by creating his first readymade sculptures that incorporated mass-produced everyday objects that he sometimes combined with other objects (assisted readymades). As Braque and Picasso did with their assemblages, Duchamp rejected the traditional means of making sculpture: modelling clay, carving stone or wood, or casting in bronze. He also went a step further by making his sculptures completely from one or more found objects. He didn't add any artistic touches, like colour or handcraft. His readymades were simply the objects themselves.
Duchamp's first readymade was Bicycle Wheel, in 1913, which was a bicycle wheel mounted on a painted stool. Its subject refers to a popular Parisian mode of transportation. The photograph on the right is an authorised reproduction from 1951, as the original was lost.
The Fountain (1917, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), is considered to exemplify Dadaism. It was an ordinary, mass-produced urinal, which was transformed into a work of art simply by being exhibited in a gallery and receiving a new title. Duchamp wished to ridicule traditional ideas of art, creativity, and beauty. The artist (although Duchamp always denied being “an artist”) would no longer create works of aesthetic merit based on inspiration or talent, but would select prefabricated everyday objects. And although these objects, which Duchamp dubbed ready-mades, had originally been functional, Duchamp denied their utilitarian function by putting them in a new context—a gallery or museum—and by changing their title.
Recently there has been some controversy about the Fountain with claims that it was the idea of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
According to several articles, on 11 April 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne and said that, "One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it." As he was already submitting the urinal under an assumed name, there does not seem to be a reason why he would lie to his sister about a "female friend". The strongest candidate to be this friend was Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She was in Philadelphia at the time, and contemporary newspaper reports claimed that "Richard Mutt" was from Philadelphia.
Read the attached article and form your own view.
Hans (Jean) Arp was one of the most significant visual artists involved with the Zürich Dada movement in neutral Switzerland.
Arp believed in a “law of chance,” which he said “embraces all laws and is unfathomable like the first cause from which all life arises [and] can only be experienced through complete devotion to the unconscious.” Between 1916 and 1917, he created a number of collages from torn, geometric pieces of coloured paper that he dropped into gridded arrangements on paper grounds.
An account by his friend and fellow artist Hans Richter describes how Arp made “chancecollages” like the one top right. Apparently frustrated with a drawing he had been working on for some time, Arp “[. . .] finally tore it up, and let the pieces flutter to the floor of his studio [. . . .] Some time later he happened to notice these same scraps of paper as they lay on the floor, and was struck by thepattern they formed. It had all the expressive power that he had tried in vain to achieve. How meaningful! How telling! Chance movements of his hand and of the fluttering scraps of paper had achieved what all his efforts had failed to achieve, namely expression. He accepted this challenge from chance as a decision of fate and carefully pasted the scraps down in the pattern which chance had determined.1
To remove his own artistic intervention even further, Arp sometimes used a paper cutter to cut the squares rather than tearing them by hand. While chance was undoubtedly the point of departure for this and other works in the series According to the Laws of Chance, the relatively ordered appearance of Arp’s collages suggest he did not fully relinquish control.
source: Museum of Modern Art
Hans Arp - Laws of Chance
Sophie Taeuber - Applied Arts
“Everything to do with Taeuber-Arp has the luminosity of sunlight, and is the miracle which has replaced tradition. She is full of invention, whim and extravagance."
Sophie Taeuber became one of the only Swiss participants in Zurich Dada activities. Taeuber's previous work with abstract geometric compositions in her designs for textiles formed the foundation of collaborative duo-collages with husband Hans Arp, which were composed of cut paper arranged in strict horizontal and vertical patterns.
Taeuber also produced weavings from her own and Arp's designs and was one of the first artists in Zurich Dada to demonstrate the contribution of the applied arts to the development of abstract art. Throughout her years of involvement with Dada, Taeuber was also a Professor of textile design and techniques at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich.
Since 1916 Taeuber had been studying dance with Rudolf von Laban, a Swiss modern dancer and choreographer who advocated a radical form of expressive movement. In April of that year, Taeuber and Mary Wigman, a student of Laban's who would go on to become a prominent modern dancer, began performing at the Cabaret Voltaire dressed in costumes designed by other members of the Dada circle. Because the Zurich School of Applied Arts disapproved of their professors taking part in Dada activities, she danced under a pseudonym.
In 1918 Taeuber received a commission to design the stage sets and marionettes for a production of Carlo Gozzi's play Il re cervo, adapted by Werner Wolff and René Morax. It was the first performance of its kind to integrate Dada and psychoanalysis. Taeuber created marionettes whose inherent freedom from the constraints of human anatomy and motion allowed them to manifest interior, or psychic, states in their physical forms.
Wherever you are, right now, search around for several unrelated items and fashion these into a dadaist work.
Was it fun? Did you still need to think creatively, or did you just see how things could physically sit together?
Surrealism 1924 - c. 1945
Surrealism was an intellectual, literary and artistic movement, founded in France in 1924, before spreading across the globe. Deeply influenced by psychoanalysis, writers and artists attempted to tap into the repressed realm of the unconscious mind in order to liberate culture from conscious logic and reason.
'Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which it is intended to express ... the true functioning of thought. Thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.'
So defined Surrealism by French poet Andre Breton in his First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. Breton had experimented with psychoanalysis as a medic during the First World War. As a leader of the new movement, he proposed that the unconscious had the creative potential to revive postwar culture.
Like Dadaism, Surrealism developed in reaction against the "rationalism" that had led to World War I. The Surrealists perceived a deep crisis in Western culture and responded with a revision of values at every level, inspired by the psychoanalytical discoveries of Freud, who had argued that the human mind was split between the conscious mind and the inaccessible unconscious mind, where a person’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires lay repressed, as well as the political ideology of Marxism. Surrealists were also responding to other scientific discoveries, such as Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.
The surrealists set out to gain access to their private thoughts and feelings through dream imagery, random association of words, and art. A key Dadaist practice had been to abandon decisionmaking in the creative process in favour of automatism and this method was adapted by some Surrealist artists.
Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico concentrated on repressed memories and desires, painting works that blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality. Sexuality often appeared sinister in Surrealist paintings, and threatening motifs included masks, dolls and mannequins. Ernst also created collages and pioneered frottage pieces, laying paper sheets on textured surfaces and then rubbing them with a pencil.
The Catalan Salvador Dali produced what he called 'hand-painted dream photographs': realistically rendered hallucinatory scenes full of unexpected juxtapositions. Dali, Man Ray and the Swiss artists Meret Oppenheim and Alberto Giacometti combined disparate readymades in their sculptures, in order to highlight the uncanny character of those objects.
André Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924.
Alberto Giacometti, Torso, 1925-26
André Masson's automatic drawings of 1923 are often used as the point of the acceptance of visual arts and the break from Dada, since they reflect the influence of the idea of the unconscious mind. Another example is Giacometti's 1925 Torso, which marked his movement to simplified forms and inspiration from preclassical sculpture.
Another example of the line to divide Dada and Surrealism is the comparison of Max Ernt's 1920, the Hat Makes the Man, with his 1921 Celebes and The Kiss from 1927. You can see the progression over a few short years from the purely whimsical pun, through to the more serious reflection of the subconscious mind, and a greater sense of 'chance'.
Max Ernst, The Hat Makes the Man, 1920
'Celebes' is one of a group of paintings done by Max Ernst between 1921 and 1924 at the time of the transition between Dada and Surrealism. The atmosphere of violence and the half mechanical, half elephant-like monster may be related to Ernst's traumatic experiences in the German army during the First World War which he mentions in his autobiography. The monster is somehow reminiscent of a military tank and the mechanical element on top has a single eye looking out as if from a periscope. It appears to be standing on an airfield and the trail of smoke in the sky suggests an aircraft being shot down. However, not all is simple, since also in the sky are two fish, swimming. More specifically, the artist has revealed some of the associations which produced the monster. The shape was derived from a photograph, found in an anthropological journal, of a corn storage bin used by a tribe in Sudan. Its elephant-like appearance and non-European origin must then have reminded Ernst of a playground chant about elephants when he was at school: 'the elephant from Celebes, / has sticky yellow bottom grease' is one couplet of it. Celebes is a large island in Indonesia next to Borneo.
source: Tate Gallery
Max Ernst, Celebes, 1921
Max Ernst moved on to celebrations of uninhibited sexuality in his Surrealist works. His marriage to Marie-Berthe Aurenche in 1927 may have inspired the erotic subject matter of this painting and others of this year. The major compositional lines of this work, The Kiss, may have been determined by the placement of string that Ernst dropped on a preparatory surface, in accordance with Surrealist notions of the importance of chance effects. However, Ernst used a coordinate grid system to transfer his string configurations to canvas, thus subjecting these chance effects to conscious manipulation. Visually, the technique produces undulating calligraphic rhythms, like those traced here against the glowing earth and sky colours.
source: Guggenheim Museum
Max Ernst, The Kiss, 1927
Ernst's appreciation for visual and linguistic puns was probably fostered by Freud’s book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Here, Ernst cut, pasted, and stacked photographs of men’s hats clipped from a sales catalogue to make phallic towers. This visual pun relates to Freud's identification of the hat—the requisite accessory of the bourgeois man—as a common symbol representing repressed desire, adding new meaning to the cliché inscribed on the work, "C'est le chapeau qui fait l'homme" ("The hat makes the man"). source: The Museum of Modern Art
"What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it." Salvador Dali
Organic Abstraction and the Nonsensical
Some artists, such as Dalí and Magritte, attempted to suggest dream imagery by depicting objects accurately, but juxtaposing them in an irrational manner (organic abstraction).
René Magritte, Time Transfixed, 1938
René Magritte had a particularly disturbing talent for placing the commonplace next to the strange. In this domestic setting, a mantel clock sets the theme of passing time, while barelling out of the wall, a steam engine freezes in motion.
The artist later explained this picture: "I decided to paint the image of a locomotive. . . . In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery— the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined." The surprising juxtaposition and scale of unrelated elements, heightened by Magritte’s precise realism, gives the picture its perplexity and allure. The artist transformed the stovepipe of a coalburning stove into a charging locomotive, situating the train in a fireplace vent so that it appears to be emerging from a railway tunnel. Magritte was unhappy with the English translation of the original French, La Durée poignardé, which literally means "ongoing time stabbed by a dagger." He hoped that the painting would be installed at the bottom of the collector’s staircase so that the train would "stab" guests on their way up to the ballroom.
In a letter of 1959, Magritte commented at length on this painting, emphasizing that his goal was to unveil or evoke "the mystery" of things "that seem familiar to us [out of error or habit]". Having decided on a locomotive as his subject, "the problem," he explained, was "how to paint this image so that it would evoke mystery". Magritte added, "The image of a locomotive is immediately familiar: its mystery is not perceived. In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined with the image of the locomotive".
source: Art Institute of Chicago
Organic abstraction is often characterised by "the use of rounded or wavy abstract forms based on what one finds in nature."
An example is Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, 1931, (Museum of Modern Art, New York City). In this painting, pocket watches hang limply, whilst a dead branch, insects, a tabletop, and a distorted face lie in a barren landscape that leads back to a seashore and cliffs. The merging of these incongruous elements suggests an alternative, or a sur-reality, as the movement’s name implies.
Salvador Dalí frequently described his paintings as “hand painted dream photographs.” He based this seaside landscape on the cliffs in his home region of Catalonia, Spain. The ants and melting clocks are recognizable images that Dalí placed in an unfamiliar context or rendered in an unfamiliar way. The large central creature, which was comprised of a deformed nose and eye, was drawn from Dalí’s imagination, although it has frequently been interpreted as a self-portrait. Its long eyelashes seem insect-like; what may or may not be a tongue oozes from its nose like a fat snail from its shell.
Time is the theme here, from the melting watches to the decay implied by the swarming ants. Mastering what he called “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” Dalí painted this work with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” but only, he said, “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.”
Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
Other surrealists attempted to allow the hand to wander across the canvas surface without any conscious control, a technique they called automatism. The automatists reasoned that if the conscious mind were allowed to relax its hold, the unconscious could begin to manifest itself. The lines of the painting would then be motivated not by the conscious mind, which conforms to social convention and training, but by the powerful store of emotions hidden in the unconscious. As with the Ernst example in the Kiss above, many such paintings involved both a level of 'chance' or 'automatism', and then a level of control by the artist to complete the work to their satisfaction.
Automatic drawing was pioneered by André Masson (see above) and the technique was transferred to painting by artists such as Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Jean Arp and André Breton. Spanish artist Joan Miro painted bright biomorphic forms instinctively, declaring: "As I paint, the picture begins to assert itself under my brush".
Delicate linear forms float on the open blue that Miró associated with dreams in Painting, 1927. Whilst he often worked with a limited palette, the colours he used were bold and expressive.
With André Masson, Miró was the first to create imagery using automatic techniques in which forms seemed to emerge directly from the unconscious.
From this he developed his own personal sign language, which simplified familiar things such as stars, birds and parts of the body. He later revealed, for example, that the white shape in this painting signified a horse. (source: Tate Gallery)
Miró's art never became fully non-objective. Rather than resorting to complete abstraction, the artist devoted his career to exploring various means by which to dismantle traditional precepts of representation. He balanced the kind of spontaneity and automatism encouraged by the Surrealists with meticulous planning and rendering to achieve finished works that, because of their precision, seemed plausibly representational despite their considerable level of abstraction.
Joan Míro, Painting, 1927
The poetic quality of Surrealist images proved highly popular. The movement had an impact on other disciplines from film to fashion, and spread to artistic circles as far as Egypt, Japan and Mexico. In England, painter Paul Nash and sculptor Flenry Moore came under its influence; in America, Joseph Cornell - known for his assemblages in boxes - was an admirer. Although Surrealism's optimism about the unconscious became unfashionable in the heyday of Existentialism after the Second World War, automatism was reinterpreted productively by movements including Abstract Expressionism and New Realism.
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Dada and Surrealism : the Dada Museum
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