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Dadaism and Surrealism

28 Dec 2016Arts Essays

Dadaism is both an artistic and literary movement which sprung from the internal realizations of artistic and literary thinkers during the First World War. It originated in Zurich Switzerland under the influence of Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Hugo Ball and Hans Richter to name a few. It is their direct defiance to the bourgeois class and the rise of capitalism which they consider as the major factor that triggered World War I. The official establishment of the group was declared through what was referred to as the Dada Manifesto in 1916 at Cabaret Voltaire. A portion of the manifesto states the following:

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I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it. . . I don't want words that other people have invented. . . . I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own.

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It is a call for freedom of expression and rejection of categories and labels which are dictated by society. It is a revolution towards artistic and literary liberation and is criticized for its non-conventional, chaotic and expressive approach which greatly shocked society. After four years of making its presence felt not only in Switzerland but also in other parts of Europe, Dadaism felt its decline. In its decline, a new movement emerged – surrealism

Surrealism no doubt had its roots in Dadaism. It shares with its angst against conventionalism yet practiced a peculiar way in presenting artistic order. It accepts that ordinary expressions are important aspects of life but to see reality only in that picture would lead man to an illusion. Thus surrealist artist tend to depict ordinary objects in a different angle as their way of enticing other’s mind to see beyond the ordinary. It is influenced by the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic which believes that there is a constant struggle, a thesis and an anti-thesis, in the world which most people during that time fail to acknowledge.

Artists tried to incorporate these philosophical ideas together with Freudian psychological method of free association, a process where an inpidual is allowed to experience and eventually discover reality through integrations of thought, feeling, agency and selfhood, in order to liberate man’s imagination. Ultimately, the movement aims to free the mind from restrictive customs which only forms false reality of the world through juxtaposed and peculiar depiction of images of common objects.

Andre Berton is the main artist responsible for the birth of this movement. Together with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupalt, they experimented with automatic drawing. Through the inspiration of Freudian psychology, they started to reflect how the unconscious mind influences man artistically through automatic drawings. This is done spontaneously wherein the hand is simply allowed to move freely. It allows chance and accidents to create work of art which is direct defiance to rationality which has conquered the 21st century mind.

Soon, this technique was used in other forms of media but by abandoning particular traces of representation in the mind, other artists found alternative avenues of further expounding the surrealists’ ideology. Man Ray is one of those artists who moved an extra mile and challenged social conventions. In his words he stated,

I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.

He managed to invent the technique of solarization wherein areas of a photograph which normally should appear dark appears light and vice versa. In his view, there is more to photography before it can be considered an art. It should show more than what the object or picture wants to imply. It should be able to show the soul and character of it which he effectively executes with the use of solarization. He further defines this as the ultimate expression of surrealism because it is a completely new view on the world. Some of his other works also include ordinary objects, mostly associated with tailoring, which are modified to fit the category of “art”.

Some of his famous work includes “Gift”, a flat iron with metal tacks attached to the bottom and “Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, an unseen object which is wrapped in common cloth that is tied with natural chord. These works exemplifies how he manipulates objects so these will serve as a mind’s catalyst for imagination. It is to be noted that in the 1913, prior to the onset of surrealism, he together with Katherine Dreier and Du Champ managed to found Société Anonyme. This served as the very first modern art museum in the U.S. since it caters innovative and experimental work of arts made by artists.

Du Champ also influenced the artistic community through his “ready made art”. He rocked the artistic community with his work entitle “Fountain”, which is simply a urinal signed with a pseudonym R. Mutt. Such an idea was never brought to mind by anyone. Urinals are never used to as a work of art but with a few revisions and additions together with the proper play with color, he managed to transform it into a masterpiece. Only a surrealist artist will have the talent to think of that.

The creativity and logical nature of Du Champ is shown in his painting which depicts movement, transition and change. He is one of the earliest artists who use cubism in order to display movement. One of his most celebrated works is “Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2” depicts a nude human figure climbing the stairs. His vivid imagination and artistic skills masterfully displayed how a stagnant painting can exemplify motion through the angles and shapes the artist places into it. Moreover, his playfulness is well known in the artistic world through his parody of Monalisa. His boldness gave him liberty to use the painting of Monalisa to make known to the public his disgust about conventionality and support of liberal thinking. Only a combination of Dadaist and Surrealist artist can ever do such a thing to a classic work of art and yet stand justified.

Surrealism managed to outlive Dadaism due to many reasons. The very radical approach of Dadaism lead most people to reject it but the boldness and cleverness of exposing psychological truth by stripping ordinary objects of their common appearance and essence in society which surrealist artists displayed gained the viewer’s acceptance. It became a way for man to communicate with his unconscious mind. It became an avenue for man to contemplate his own being which is one of the main goals of art. It is suppose to convey a message towards the deepest part of the soul.

By providing juxtapose images and hard to distinguish objects, the mind is triggered to pause and look beyond the ordinary. Surrealism managed to combine the depictive, the psychological and even the abstract or logical aspect of the mind together. It is a true reflection of society. It showcases how man became truly devoid from his own being because of capitalism and rise of industrialization. The movement reached its height in the 1930’s through the works of Salvador Deli, Yves Tanguy and Peggy Guggenheim. Soon, international exhibitions were organized as more and more people appreciated the new artistic technique.

At present, surrealism managed to give birth to new styles. It has further tackled other subjects mostly political in nature. The Orange Alternative by Waldemar Fydrych used symbolisms and terminologies to express their anti-regime philosophies. It has further made its way through music, film and theater. It has become a part of the modern life simply because the desire to challenge the limitations of society which are posted through conventionalism has always been defied by man. We are born free and our desire to practice this liberty will never leave us. Surrealism and Dadaism offered freedom in so many ways thus man learned to appreciate and value it even more.


  • Biography Resource Center, “Man Ray: Artist’s Biography”, Gale Group: Minneapolis, 2001
  • Breton, Andre, “Manifesto of Surrealism”, 1924, retrieved on 9 May 2010
  • "Duchamp's urinal tops art survey", BBC news 1 December 2004. retrieved on 9 May 2010, < http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4059997.stm>
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  • Ghanem, Nadia, ‘Cabaret Voltaire’, translated
  • Howard, Ll. Williams, Hegel, Heraclitus, and Marx's Dialectic. Harvester Wheatsheaf 1989
  • Manor Friedman, Tamar (ed.), Dreaming with Open Eyes: The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (revised edition 2008), 2000
  • Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1
  • Marting, Marco De, "Mona Lisa: Who is Hidden Behind the Woman with the Mustache?". Art Science Research Laboratory, 2003, retrieved on 9 May 2010
  • Bronislaw Misztal). "Between the State and Solidarity". The British Journal of Sociology 43 , (1): March 1992
  • Sanjaya, Michael "Surrealism Paintings - Impressive." 13 Apr. 2010 EzineArticles.com. rertrieved on 9 May. 2010 .
  • Schellekens, Elisabeth, Conceptual Art, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 7 June 2007, retrieved on 9 May 2010,
  • Tomkins, Calvin, Duchamp: A Biography, U.S.: Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1996
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