Modern Art and Ideas, Unit 5: 1913–1936

Setting the Scene

Dada and Surrealism were two artistic and literary movements that grew out of a dissatisfaction with tra-ditional social values and conventional artistic practices. The artists affiliated with these movements did not share a common style so much as the desire to experiment with new techniques and forms.

Dada began during World War I (1914–1918), when eight million servicemen and an estimated matching number of civilians were killed. This unprecedented loss of human life was a result of trench warfare and technological advances in weaponry, communication, and transportation systems. Dada artists were disil-lusioned by the social values that led to the war, and sought to expose accepted, and often repressive, conventions of order and logic by shocking people into self-awareness. This international network of art-ists employed unorthodox techniques and materials to create new forms of visual art, performance, and poetry as well as alternative visions of the world.

Led by André Breton, Surrealism began in Paris in 1924, and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud's writings on psychology, this literary, intellectual, and artistic movement was interested in how the irrational unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world.

1. Chance Words

In 1920, one of the founding members of Dada, Tristan Tzara, wrote instructions for making a Dada poem, leaving the responsibility of selecting words and communicating ideas up to chance rather than the artist. Here are Tzara's instructions:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

[Ibid, 63–64]

Following Tzara's instructions, direct your students to make their own Dadaist poems from one or two paragraphs of a newspaper article. After they are finished, have your students read their poems aloud to the class and discuss. Ask them to reflect upon their experience of making and hearing these poems. What are their favorite or least favorite word combinations? What is the effect of reading words that have been put together without logic?

Encourage your students to try Chance Words, an activity available on Red Studio, MoMA's Web site for teens.

2. Artistic Collaboration

Beginning in the early 1920s, the Surrealists revived a modified version of Exquisite Corpse. Like the original word game, the new version required artists to surrender their creative control and be open to un-expected possibilities. One person would draw a portion of the body, fold his or her section over to hide it, and pass it on to the next participant, who would repeat the steps until the drawing was complete.

Divide your class into groups of four students each to play Exquisite Corpse. Many Exquisite Corpse drawings follow the human figure, and incorporate any number of elements, including animal and me-chanical ones. Each student in the group should start one drawing, folding a vertical sheet of paper hori-zontally into four equal parts (dividing the “body” roughly into head, neck, torso, and legs). After com-pleting a section, he or she should fold it over and pass it on to the remaining students in their group until the picture is done. Your students may look only at the marks on the side of the fold they are working on as a reference and starting point for their section.

After the class completes their drawings, direct your students to examine and discuss similarities and dif-ferences among the drawings. Ask your students to discuss the experience of drawing an Exquisite Corpse. What was it like to draw without seeing the other sections?

Ask your students if they are pleased with the results of their four-person drawing or if they would prefer to have had total creative control. Ask how they think their drawings would have differed if each partici-pant had seen the previous contributions.

Go to Lesson 1: Transforming Everyday Objects →