18. Dada and Surrealism

The spontaneous, the unexpected, the subconscious, the outrageous, the irrational. These were the central concerns of Dada and Surrealism, two closely associated revolutionary artistic movements which flourished between the wars in this century, and continued to have a lasting influence thereafter.

Dada originated in Zürich with the activities of Arp, Tzara and others, and quickly spread to Cologne, Berlin, Hanover, New York, Paris, London and Barcelona. Surrealism, which grew alongside and partly out of Dada, was equally cosmopolitan. Among the first leading lights were Picabia, Man Ray, Duchamp, Schwitters, and the writers Breton, Aragon and Soupault. (Man Ray's photographs of many of the confrères feature in a mesmeric sequence in 'Man Ray', filmed in his studio).

Seeking to overthrow all traditional constraints, Dada tended to break away from the usual media of painting and sculpture. Man Ray and Duchamp, for example, created curious constructions from found objects (objets trouvés) which they provocatively exhibited as artworks. Much use was also made of ephemeral forms of publicity - magazines, tracts, bizarrely staged events and addresses. Through artists like Cocteau and Picabia there were strong links with theater and performing arts. Strong Dada influence can be seen in subsequent artistic trends toward events, happenings and body art. (See for instance the crazy machines of Tinguely or the deliberately shocking mutilations of Mark Prent.)

Less wholly anarchic and 'anti-art' than the Dadaists, the Surrealists were not so sweeping in their rejection of the traditional forms of painting. Painters such as Dali and Magritte, de Chirico, Tanguy and often Ernst employed deliberately conservative techniques such as a pseudo-Renaissance chiaroscuro with which they depicted strange, dreamlike, exotic, impossible juxtapositions of objects and symbols. Forerunners of Surrealist painting are the fantastical images of Bosch and Bruegel and later Ensor.

The name Dada was chosen from a dictionary and adopted for its absurdity and arbitrariness; Surrealism, established by Breton, who rejected Dada's extreme nihilism, denoted a less anti-intellectual movement. Yet Surrealism was still very much preoccupied with irrationalism, with Freud's researches into dreams and the unconscious, and with release from conformity and convention. It was opposed to what it saw as the dominant rationalism of Cubism, and many of the major artists of Modernism who strove to establish new forms of expression have some affinity or association with Surrealism: Picasso in his post-Cubist distortions of the body, Miró in his eccentric and mysterious organic forms, Klee in his nervous imagery, Henry Moore in his dreamy, recumbent figures.