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Grove Art: Subject Guide

Dada and Surrealism

Introduction

Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Composition of Circles and Overlapping Angles, oil on canvas, 495×641 mm, 1930 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY International in scope and diverse in artistic output, both Dada and Surrealism were artistic, literary and intellectual movements of the early 20th century that were instrumental in defining Modernism. The Dada movement, launched in 1916 in Zurich by poets and artists such as Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp, was a direct reaction to the slaughter, propaganda and inanity of World War I. Independent groups linked by common ideas sprung up soon afterwards in New York, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. These various groups did not share a universal style, but rather were connected by their rejection of idealism, stale artistic and intellectual conventions and modern society’s unchecked embrace of ‘rationalism’ and ‘progress’. They condemned the nationalist and capitalist values that led to the cataclysm of the war and employed unorthodox techniques, performances and provocations to jolt the rest of society into self-awareness. The absurdity of Dada activities created a mirror of the absurdity in the world around them. Dada was anti-aesthetic, anti-rational and anti-idealistic. Key figures such as Marcel Duchamp disturbed the art world with his ready-mades such as Fountain (which is simply a urinal). Dada’s challenge to conventional notions of ‘high art’ radically impacted later developments in conceptual art, performance art and post-modernism among others.

After the war, many of the artists who had participated in the Dada movement began to practice in a Surrealist mode. Surrealism was officially inaugurated in 1924 when the writer André Breton published the Manifesto of Surrealism. Similar to Dada, Surrealism was characterized by a profound disillusionment with and condemnation of the Western emphasis on logic and reason. However, Breton wanted to create something more programmatic out of Dada’s nonsensical and seemingly unfocused activities. Consequently, Surrealist works were bound up with the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud relating to the irrational and instinctual drives of the unconscious. Through the use of unconventional techniques such as automatism and frottage, Surrealist artists attempted to tap into the dream-world of the subliminal mind, visualizing its secrets and mysteries. Some of these artists include René Magritte, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. In its intention to undermine established values, the oppositional stance of both Dada and Surrealism served as an important precursor to late 20th century artistic developments such as Neo-Dada, Nouveau Réalisme and Institutional Critique while still inspiring artists today.

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