Comparison of Dada and Surrealism




Although Surrealism supposedly grew out of or outgrew Dada in Paris, the two movements come from very different time periods and cultural contexts. Dada was a wartime movement, founded in the midst of an international slaughter of young men, led by a deluded and incompetent class of elites. Although the Dada artists advertised themselves as being “anti-art,” the exiles in Zurich were against traditional art and its vaunted ideals. Far from being opposed to the basic idea of art, the Dada artists strove to find new ways to make new art in a new ways.

Being deliberately anti-authoritarian, Dada could not, by definition, have leaders. The movement had spokespersons but no one took a position of guidance. Aside from philosophy, Dada artists scattered across Europe after the Great War ended. None of the many centers of Dada had a leader and Dada, perhaps as a result, dissolved in a few years into other movements. Surrealism had a leader, indeed, a “Pope,” André Breton. It was possible for Surrealism to be led simply because the group was self-contained in Paris. Breton was somewhat iron-fisted for a leader of an avant-garde movement, expelling members who displeased him, but he held the group together for twenty years, an astonishing longevity.

The lack of deference to commanders of any kind on the part of Dada came directly out of a world un-made by the Great War. As Robert L. Herbert pointed out in “The Arrival of the Machine: Modernist Art in Europe,” the Great War brought about a belated acceptance of modern technology. After this war, the artists reacted to machines as benign and beneficent. Le Corbusier called the home “a machine for living.” But Dada’s swerve to impersonal means of making art could be linked to the way in which impersonal machines were killing young people at random. Chance and randomness decided the fate of civilians and soldiers alike—all were at the mercy of a cultural clash between Old World notions of heroism and New World technology. There is a defiance and anger to Dada practices that links the artists and their attitudes to the War.

Surrealism, on the other hand, emerged in a decade of peace and prosperity. The wounds left behind by the War were either ignored—as in the neglect of the surviving veterans—or celebrated—as in the erections of many memorials. Surrealism is essentially a cerebral retreat of survivors who do not want to look back. The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage an psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious. Dada was inherently reality-based and overtly political. Surrealism, on the other hand, shifted away from an oppositional stance towards a more theoretical position.

The extent to which the Surrealist artists understood the theories of Sigmund Freud is debatable but their interest in Freud should be distinguished from Dada’s anti-rational stance. Although Surrealism supposedly celebrated the irrational, their ideas were based upon Freud’s very rational model of the human mind, bisected into the conscious and the unconscious mind and mapped into the id, the ego, and the superego. Surrealism also rejected the Dada disgust with self-indulgent expressionism but returning to individual vision, but the site of this vision was the untapped unconscious mind. In contrast to the deliberately disruptive and antagonistic tactics of the Dada artists, the Surrealists sought what they called “the Marvelous,” or that magically unexpected encounter when the ordinary suddenly became extraordinary.

Dada and Surrealism were both movements of writers and poets, with visual artists as being part of the larger intellectual group, but in Surrealism the artists were somewhat less innovative than those in the Dada movement. Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dali and René Magritte all painted in a very traditional manner, using old-fashioned techniques and subverting realism by painting dreams as if they were real. That said, both movements work with Chance. Dada’s use of chance was radical, a complete giving over of the artist to the oxymoronic “laws” of happenstance. Whether it is throwing pieces of paper to (not)create a collage by chance or assembling random word and reconvening them as poetry, Dada artists were anarchic when it came to giving up the creative thought process for process itself. In contrast, Surrealist artists deployed a variety of games, from automatic writing or the exquisite corpse, to approach chance from another position.

The Surrealist poets and artists sought a new way of writing “automatically,” without conscious control and a new way of finding unexpected images or ideas that would occur with collective group contributions. One could use the term “objective chance” to characterize and distinguish Surrealism because these artists use the already there, the already seen and then de-familiarizes the familiar through juxtaposition and metamorphosis. Note that the Dada photomontage may have used the technique of putting one randomly found image next to another, but the intent was to undermine meaning. Surrealism seeks new meaning, another meaning, an unexpected meaning, a sur-real meaning, but always, Surrealism wants live to mean something. And here it the crucial difference between Dada and Surrealism. For Dada, life has no meaning, no reason, no purpose, and no logic. For Surrealism, life has meaning; one has to find its logic by unlocking visual and verbal codes secreted in the chambers of the unconscious mind where one finds Freud’s “uncanny.”

The Found Object, or the oject trouvé, was the special domain of Marcel Duchamp who was preceded the Dada artists in his rejection of traditional art. Duchamp’s appropriation of anonymous factory made items was narrow and programmatic to his specific intentions, but the Surrealists were more open to the found object. Like Duchamp, the Surrealists bent the concept of a supposedly ordinary item to their own purposes, which was the search for the “Marvelous.” For Duchamp, the found object was “encountered” randomly and viewed with detachment and indifference, but for the Surrealists, the found object was the object of passion. Indeed, the object was poetic; implying a metaphor, indicating the item in question meant more or something else—-“the Marvelous.”

Duchamp’s rigorous intellectualism was hermetic but because of the theory of the “talking cure” based on hearing clues and reading codes, Surrealism expected audience participation. Duchamp himself had no aesthetic intentions, even when he “assisted” or “rectified” his Readymades, but the Surrealists returned to the aestheticism of art, making desirous and desiring works to be looked at and into. Although inherently conservative, Surrealism dominated the Parisian art scene until the next war broke out, scattering the already dated movement to distant shores where, like Dada, Surrealism would find a different and new destiny. As André Breton said, “Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe it will survive me.”

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Dada and Photomontage



“The Dadaist should be a man who can fully understand that one is entitled to have ideas only if one can transform them into life—the completely active type, who lives only through action because it holds the possibility of his achieving knowledge.” Richard Huelsenbeck

Germany, after the Great War, was a humiliated and defeated nation that could not believe that it had been defeated. Humiliated, yes, defeated, how? No enemy invaded Berlin, even Germany, and it was difficult for the citizens to understand that the war was lost on the fields of France and Belgium. Dada in Berlin was a short-lived movement but the absurdity of Dada precepts fitted well with the mood of shock and disbelief. Richard Huelsenbeck, one of the founders of Dada in Zurich returned to Berlin in 1917. Huelsenbeck found new companions, working in the Dada state of mind. The Herzfeld Brothers had founded Neue Jugend and Franz Jung, Raoul Haussmann, and Johannes Baader had founded Die Freie Strasse. In the waning year of the war Huelsenbeck was able to publish “The New Man” in Neue Jugend and moved into a leadership role of Berlin Dada.

The spring before the surrender in November of 1918, Huelsenbeck formed the Club DADA and published his own Dada Manifesto. Denouncing Futurism, he wrote,

“I was already analyzing quite clearly that the only possibility offered to Dadaism in Germany: a relativist, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist and activist Conception of life, of political and diplomatic intelligence, a manifesto of inquietude and energy in which art occupied only a minuscule place, which would even direct itself against art so long as art remained a profit-seeking product of a compact bourgeois class.”

By this time, Dada was an international movement, from New York to Paris to Barcelona, and Huelsenbeck wanted to demonstrate solidarity with an art form more suited to the present times. For him, Cubism and Expressionism were conservative forms of a now discredited avant-garde. Despite its ultimate importance to the visual arts, “fine art” even in Dada terms always played a minor role in what was mostly a literary movement.

Dada had always been a political movement, rejecting the prevailing mindset of patriotism and sacrifice. Dada questioned the very notion of meaning and how we, as humans, understand our world. Words and images can be manipulated and innocent people can be persuaded to take on the most outrageous enterprises, such as a Total War. Propaganda became a significant element in maintaining the war spirit and shielded the population from the truth. In the beginning of the twentieth century, few people understood the ways in which public information could be manipulated, but the German government routinely altered photographs to slant a news story more favorably. This “artful” practice did not go unnoticed by German artists who responded with the photomontage.

The most significant contribution of Berlin Dada to the visual arts was photomontage, akin to a common practice that dated as far back as the photo scrapbook. Ordinary people cut and pasted at will, long before collage, changing photographs for their own purposes, and the German army followed suit, realigning new faces onto old bodies for the purposes of publications. If “meaning” could be manipulated and changed, then “meaning” is arbitrary and it was the task of an activist and political artist (the very definition of Dada) to undermine the faith in meaning, especially the “truth” conveyed through photography. The person who claimed that he and his companion, Hannah Hoch, “invented” photomontage was Raoul Haussmann, who had met Dada artists, Huelsenbeck and Arp, through his friend, Franz Jung. In fact, what Haussmann and Hoch saw were photomontages in the window of a photographer’s shop and we should assume the claim of “invention” should mean the invention of the use of the photomontage technique as a subversion of the myth of the photograph as truth.

Both artists, Haussmann and Hoch, took up the photomontage and applied the collage practice to anti-art Dada statements. Haussmann’s Tatlin Lives at Home (1920) is a celebration of this new way of making art—putting pieces together, assembling, like an engineer, a monteur. The new role of the artist was to encounter elements at random and reassemble these parts piece by piece. Certainly the anti-art philosophy of the Russian Avant-Garde and the ideas of Vladimir Tatlin had reached Germany. For the Russian constructivists, “art,” in its bourgeois condition, was dead and the new art must approach the condition of the machine.

Combining photographs and drawings, Haussmann’s photomontage shows Tatlin as a machine. Francis Picabia and Macel Duchamp were also interested in the machine and with the idea of reducing a human to mechanics, organism to automatism. In contrast, post-War German artists rejected Expressionism, blaming its self-indulgent emotionalism for the longing for military heroism. The replacement of the fallible, easily misled human mind with a well-oiled machine is part of Haussmann’s objections to outmoded Expressionism

But it is Hannah Hoch who went beyond illustrating Dada principles—Haussmann’s practices—to acting them out in the dazzling photomontage, Cut with a Kitchen Knife Through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch (1919). Sometimes translated as “incision,” the “cut” could certainly refer to the act of (not)creating a photomontage, Dada Style. Unlike Haussmann’s ode to Tatlin, Hoch’s ode to the struggling Republic is complex and confusing. Devoid of perspective or ground line or unity or central focus or composition or meaning, this photomontage also undercuts the idea that a photograph is a seamless record of the reality seen through the camera’s lens. The deliberate jumble of unrelated images pulled apparently at random from the popular culture of a Germany in turmoil are not fitted together but are pasted down without consideration to making a new singular images from a collection of borrowed parts.

Hoch veers sharply away from the collages of Braque and Picasso and from the photomontages of Haussmann and the collages of Max Ernst. These artists organized their materials around a central unity or a coherent meaning. Hoch, by allowing the ground of the support to show through, reveals the inherent artificiality of art and the need of the human mind to impose meaning. The correlation between the photograph and reality is disrupted by these interjections of the ground, cutting through the jumble of photographs like a river running through the montage. Unlike Braque and Picasso’s collages, Hoch’s photomontage does not re-make language by creating a new semiotics. She deliberately disavows any semblance of meaning and any possibility of a coherent reading.

The Herzfeld Brothers, Helmut and Weiland, were deeply involved with the Berlin Dada group as left-wing writers and publishers. Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to its American version, John Heartfield, in 1915 to protest the German role in the fruitless War. Heartfield ceased the publication of Neue Jungen in 1917 but not before he became a monteur, an engineer whose photomontages mocked the bourgeois pretensions of “fine art.” Like Haussmann, Heartfield used photomontage as a tool to generate political messages that were clear and unmistakable. Heartfield was a close friend of George Gross, another dissident Dada artist who also changed his name to “Grosz” in protest against German aggression.

Of all the Dada artists, Grosz was, throughout his career in Berlin, the most confrontational towards the Weimar Republic. A Communist like Grosz, Heartfield was best known for his groundbreaking designs for the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung and for his fearless and confrontational clash with the Nazis and Hitler in the 1930s. Thanks to his brutally sardonic photomontages of Hitler, Heartfield was forced to flee to England in 1933. It is important to make a distinction between the pointed political direction of Berlin Dada, which gives a direct role to art as a weapon against the status quo and the anti-art stance of Paris Dada. The Paris anti-art position was one of indifference, while Berlin Dada was invested in an outcome.

Although the Berlin photomontages were assembled, like engines, the (non)relationships among the disparate elements were more rhetorical than real. One can question the extent to whether or not the photomontages were the result of accident, whether certain images were discovered at random, whether some pictures were encountered by chance, because, with some of the artists, especially Heartfield, chance seems to have been replaced by choice. It is important to understand that, in general, the Dada artists “found” their “objects,” the photographic objets trouvés, and even thought of these words and images as objects per se, that is, emptying them of meaning in order to push them together in unexpected juxtaposition. Today we are so used to photomontage that we tend to see it as a given and need to remember that, in its time, the photomontages would have seemed to be a complete rejection of all pictorial conventions, mirroring the meaningless chaos of the era.

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Dada and Chance


One of the key tasks of Dada was to undermine the foundations of art by eliminating the notions of artistic “talent,” studio training, and academic means of making art, i.e. planning and composing, or in other words, thinking itself. The artists stumbled upon the means of ending traditional art by chance, as it were. The anti-art anti-movement was christened “Dada,” a word discovered supposedly by chance in a German-French dictionary. “Dada” was a nonsense word, more of a sound than a noun. To the artists’ ears, the absurd word/sound seemed “primitive,” like a child’s babbling. “Dada” implied a re-set, a new beginning at zero for art. The ridiculous word reflected the meaningless of the War to End All Wars.

The role of chance became a central experience for the Dada artist and was developed in two different sites, in Paris, before the War when Marcel Duchamp fastened a bicycle wheel to a stool in a chance encounter, and in Zurich when Hans Arp ripped up a failed drawing and saw that the pieces of papers had formed a “composition” on their own. Arp’s gesture born, like Duchamp’s, out of disgust, was close to the Zurich experiments with poème simultané, a poem written for three or more voices, indicating that a work of art has its own organic destiny. Chance destroys the soothing notion of cause following effect and admits anarchy into art making, foregrounding process. Duchamp, even more than Arp, removes the artist’s hand from the process and gives himself over wholly to the randomness of chance. He ceases to make (for a time) and merely “encounters” readymade objects, appropriates these unoriginal artifacts, and anoints them “Readymades.” The original meaning or intended use of the bicycle wheel or the stool is disrupted: one knows intellectually what each object “does” but understands that what Duchamp called “a new thought” has been created.

Whether the process is that of Duchamp arbitrarily encountering manufactured objects and randomly putting them together, or Arp finding that chance could expressive on its own, these gestures rupture the link between art and the artist’s controlled decision making. The results are transformative and unexpected and a work of art that could not have been made according to the rules comes into being, on its own, organically. As Jacques Riviérè noted, “The Dadas consider words only as accidental: they let them happen. Language for them is no longer a means, it is a being.”

The central component of chance is taking one thing out of context and placing it into another context, demonstrating how meaning is fixed to a site and how meaning is unfixed when location is changed. The result is free association—what does the object mean in its new situation? What does this word mean now that it has been torn out of context? Tzara cut words out of newspapers and placed this motley collection into a bag. He then shook the words out of the bag and let them flutter to a surface. The juxtaposition of word-to-word engendered new meanings for the individual words and for the unexpected combination of words brought together by chance. The viewer or the listener or the reader is now in charge of making meaning out of meaninglessness.

For these artists, an important precursor was Stephane Mallarmé, the nineteenth century poet who first investigated the role of chance. His famous poem, Un coup de des n‘abolira le hazard works with the reader’s/viewer’s senses on many levels. First the words are scattered across the many pages of the long poem, changing positions, changes fonts, leaping and fall, tumbling as if the di were rolling uncontrollably across the surface. The reader must follow this random course with active darting eyes, and, more amusingly, the title itself has a nonsense sound: in French de and des sound the same—very close to “da” ”da.” Although the poem was written in 1897, it was not published until after death of Mallarmé in 1914. Although Martin Puchner in Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-gardes, states that his poetry was read during Dada performances, I am not trying to make a direct link between the Dada artists and Mallarmé, but merely to point to an important precedent and to a similar mind set already in evidence in the concrete poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and in the “words in freedom” of Futurist poetry.

The more important link is between Marcel Duchamp and Stephane Mallarmé on the basis of linguistic play with words noticeable in both artists. Many of Duchamp’s Readymades show evidence of the artist’s love of visual puns and manipulation of language. In Advance of a Broken Arm is a random title given to a random object. Without any relationship between the title and the object the juxtaposition between two “objects” is a chance one. During his New York period, he often worked with his patron Walter Conrad Arensberg, who shared Duchamp’s love of semiotics. Codes, readable only by those two, appear on the Comb of 1915 and on Box with Hidden Noise of 1916. Although the source of the “hidden noise” is not confirmed, nor will it ever be (only three persons knew what made the sound, Duchamp, Arensberg, and Walter Hopps, all of whom are dead), it is more than likely that it is a die rolling around inside the ball of twine, a homage to Stephane Mallarmé.


Marcel Duchamp took a wooden board studded with hooks for coats and removed the hatrack from its usual position, the wall, and nailed it to the floor of his New York studio. On the floor, the curves of the hooks ceased to be useful and became menacing, leading to the free association of renaming the object as a Trebuchet, or a Trap (1917) that the unwary could trip over. What has been removed by all of these artists, Arp, Tzara, and Duchamp, is the hand and mind of the artist and the making of art has been redirected towards a process that is out of the control of the maker. Man Ray “invented” the Rayogram in order to arrange objects of light sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun with the result that the objects disappeared into their own negative shadows, freeing Ray from the preconceived notion of what a “photograph” should be.

Francis Picabia allowed other artists to “make” L’oeil cacodylate, a painted non-painting shown in 1921 in the Salon des Indépendants, with their own inscriptions and signatures. Without composition or any concept, except that of random collection, this collective work was a redo of an early version and would be redone again and again during the next decade, not because Picabia was attempting to regain control but to continue an arbitrary process without any artistic motive. What all these artists attempted to do was to make an anarchistic anti-art that would, nevertheless, lead to a new way of making a new kind of art. Chance became a way of (not)making art, a means of (not)making an object and substituting a carefully planned and crafted work of art with a new concept, called for lack of a better phrase, the objet trouvé, the found object, “encountered” by chance.

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Podcast 42 Painting 8: Neo-Dada

Neo-Dada and anti-Moderism

It is one of the ironies of art history that at the very moment Abstract Expressionism began to gain traction in the art world, that a major challenger would emerge to steal the spotlight. Neo-Dada, somewhat indebted to Marcel Duchamp, was a non-movement made up of two painters, Robert Raushchenberg and Jasper Johns, and two performance artists, John Cage and Merce Cunningham and their associates. Neo-Dada was an underground art movement of underground artists that managed to gain the support of the Museum of Modern Art and of the cutting edge galleries in New York and Paris.


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Thank you.
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