Comparison of Dada and Surrealism

DADA AND SURREALISM

1916-1920

1924-1939

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.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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