Dada and Surrealism summary and notes



Dada and Surrealism summary and notes


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Dada and Surrealism summary and notes


Dada and Surrealism





“When the infant’s brow, covered with red torments,

Implores the white swarm of vague dreams…”

                                               The Nit Pickers, by Rimbaud, translation, 1913


As the dreams of the perfection of the world via industrialization began to wear thin, and Europe lurched towards the First World War, artists began to question the cultural positivism in more aggressive ways. Rather than losing themselves in an alternative occult or anachronistic fantasy dream world, artists and writers associated with the Dada movement launched an assault on Reason itself, to expose the irrational basis driving technological progress. On February 5, 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire was founded in Zurich by poets, actors, artists, and other creative people as a focal space for their experiments. Since new mechanical technology had been lashed to the ancient vices of greed, aggression, and lust to create the inequities and decadence of Europe during this tumultuous period, the forms of the machine would be most appropriate to dismantle the corrupted matrix: fight fire with fire. All logical thought was banished, and the aesthetic of anarchy was enlisted to liberate each person’s unique, individual mind. Nonsense became the most effective weapon in the struggle for humane society; Voltaire, the 18th century enlightenment poet was an appropriate model for an artistic endeavor also critical of political evil. The work Dada meant different things in different languages, a plurality of content wholeheartedly embraced by the movement’s innovators. In French, it means “Hobby Horse,” while in German it evoked a baby’s first utterances, the pure, primitive language of the un-socialized self.

The political aspirations of the insurrectionist group were almost realized at the 1920 Dadaist Mass held at Otto Burchard Gallery in Berlin. At the exhibition of over 170 works, the stuffed figure of a German officer crowned with an actual pig’s head hung from the ceiling. The impotence of the attempted 1918-19 revolution in conjunction with internal arguments within the often volatile membership hastened the end of the group as an organized entity.


Hugo Ball, 1886-1927, The Artist Reciting the poem “Karawane,” 1916. The actor Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire with his partner Emmy Hennings in 1916, which became a meeting place for practitioners of the new Avant-Garde. His performance of Karawane gave perfect expression to the spirit of Dada; he donned a nonsensical cardboard costume (which suggests a satire of the Machine) and recited his famous nonsensical sound poem. To create a true Dada poem, the sounds should be all free from logical reference and meaning, forcing each person to construct their own, equally valid and invalid, meaning, completely subverting the Futurist idea of the collective “soul” of the nation.


Hannah Hoch, 1889-1978. After the international membership of the Cabaret Voltaire returned to their home counties, Dada went with them. The Dada work in Berlin tended to be more visual than the permutation of the style in other countries. One of the most creative and prolific of the artists working with the collage of photographic material, Hannah Hoch, worked at a major publishing house, where she wrote articles about women’s handicrafts. The photographic materials from her job proved to be a gold mine of raw matter for her ideas. Her collages often confront ethnic, sexual, social stereotypes, albeit with ambiguous messages. 


Cut with a Kitchen Knife, photomontage, 1919. The raw, anti-art feeling this communicated during the early twentieth century can barely be imagined now; Hoch used none of the charm, grace, or seduction traditionally summoned by artists in pursuit of patronage. The word Dada itself emerges repeatedly within a sea of apparently random and anarchistic images of faces, architecture, bodies and machinery parroting and satirizing the repetitive, mechanized sensations of industrial culture.


Dada Dance, photomontage, 1919-20. The dance of the irrational respects neither logic nor proportion; the baroque female in her squat gown displays herself vainly to us and the gaunt African male grimaces in his high heels. They gyrate over a field of leaf springs. The text reads “The excesses of Hell fell into the cash box for innocent criminal catchers,” the meaning of which is left entirely up to the viewer.


Collage, photomontage, 1920. The women in her collages often seem to occupy unstable or ambiguous positions of power; the doll-like woman with huge head (intelligence?) stands on the phonograph turntable. Is she made to dance as a puppet to the mechanical music, or is she the deus ex machina?


Raoul Hausmann, 1886-1971, Tatlin at Home, photomontage and gouache, 1920. Hannah Hoch’s companion, also a prominent Berlin Dada artist, was inspired to collage photographic images together after seeing the image hanging on most every family wall of a grenadier in front of his barracks—the one which impressed him most personalized the lithograph with the face of a loved one pasted on top of the anonymous body. It was an epiphany for Hausmann, and he began to produce unforgettable irrational images. This piece, inspired by the Russian visionary of machine art, Tatlin, shows a man so obsessed with machines that his brain has become a maze of moving parts. The distressed Frenchman with his pockets turned inside out represents the poverty of Tatlin, and the propeller and map his desire to travel. The fire extinguisher, as well as the anatomical chart mounted on his painting of a tailor’s dummy, are simply there.


Otto Dix , 1891-1969, Prager Strasse, oil and collage, 1920. Dix witnessed impoverished veterans on a street in Dresden where shops advertised prosthetic devices for crippled soldiers coming home from the war. Germany’s economy suffered a massive burden for reparations after the war, and financial support for maimed low-ranking veterans simply did not exist. This haunting image of poverty and despair recalls the original lyrics to the folk-song “When Johnny comes Marching home Again,” where the singer describes Johnny: “He hasn’t an arm, he hasn’t a leg, we’ll have to put him on the corner to beg.”


Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968.  TheFrench Dada artist Duchamp brought the idiom to the United States when he left Paris for NYC in 1915 out of disgust for both the French Academy and the war. He began painting a lyrical, Cubo-Futurist style, but soon felt the limits of painting to express his interests and obsessions. His work transgressed all boundaries of art; painting, sculpture, photography, poetry, and performance constituted a continuum on which he would explore freely the limits of perception. After ceasing easel painting, he began to exhibit Readymades, common manufactured objects that the artist simply chose as his visual statement, putting them on display with a minimum of modification. Constantly traveling, he organized exhibits of his work as integral parts of suitcases, opening them up as his destination, ready to display. Eventually he gave up art altogether, and played chess to experience intellectual satisfaction.


Young Man and Girl in Spring, oil, 1911. This may have been a marriage painting; Duchamp married a simple French peasant girl, early, to devastating ends. As described by his friend, contemporary sculptor Louise Bourgois, the young artist continually tried to engage his vivacious young bride with intellectual games and abstract thought, which she had no interest in. The union was never consummated, according to Bourgois, since the disconnection between the two caused his to suffer impotence. The motif of  “The Bride” became extremely important in his later work, functioning as a symbol for the sense of potential which imbues his best work.


Nude Descending a Staircase, oil, 1912. This Futurist rendition of a body in motion caused a considerable stir when exhibited in the landmark 1917 Armory Show in New York, which introduced many Americans for the first time to European Modernism, Dada, and Surrealism. Many considered the painting an insult to Cubism in its introduction of an absurd subject matter. Duchamp is said to have noted that there is no reason for a nude to descend a staircase, bringing to light the absurdity of illusion.


The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even; or The Large Glass, glass, collage material, 1915-23. Autonomist organic forms designate the female half of the glass, while the artist’s beloved machine forms represent the male half. The irony is that, in fact, the two worlds are irrevocably separated, lost in individual and floating states of desire. At one point during transit between exhibitions, the glass was dramatically cracked. In typical Dada manner, Duchamp declared that he accepted this chance event as part of his artistic choice, and the fissures remained. This is entirely consistent with his original intention of the random composition of elements which would join the original elements depending upon the place and time of its viewing.


Tu‘m, oil and objects on canvas, 1923. Duchamp finally abandoned painting altogether as a repetitive, meaningless activity. In this eclectic piece, he calls into question all of painting’s precious conceits, traditions and tricks. He traced the shadows of some of his favorite objects, including the hat rack, wheel, and corkscrew, but intervened in their illusion by adding a receding stack of color samples and a series of forms created one of his stoppages-etalon, made by dropping a string on the canvas at random and tracing the resulting lines. A hired sign painter made the pointing hand, and he topped it all off by tearing the canvas itself and projecting a cleaning brush through the picture plane. The title itself refers to a rude sexual remark, and we can be sure that the artist was trying to “violate” the illusion of art in this strangely beautiful image.


John Heartfield, 1891-1968. Have no Fear, He’s a Vegetarian, photomontage, 1936. Born in Germany, Helmut Herzfelde, anglicized his name as an expression of his growing disgust with the course of German politics and society during the rise of the Nazi party. He served dutifully in the armed forces of his homeland during World War I, but after suffering a nervous breakdown was given a post as a letter carrier. As his rage grew towards to the government, he often dumped his mailbag as a form of civil disobedience. Heartfield, like other Berlin dada artists, turned the nonsense of original dada work into a potent form of social protest. This piece warns of the danger of Hitler and how the French Premier’s support of the Fuhrer will lead to the plucking of the English chicken.


Giorgio de Chirico, 1888-1978. The Greek-born Italian artist is considered to be the forerunner of Surrealism. In 1917, with painter Carlo Carra, he founded the School of Metaphysical Painting, which aspired to create a sense of the hallucinatory and mysterious in dreamlike, theatrical settings. A common theme in this school of painting is the use of non-human stand-ins in place of human figures, such as mannequins, statues, and evocative inanimate objects. His paintings function as stages for the images of the unconscious, where the rational idea of perspective is subverted for psychic immediacy. His early work may be seen as an extension of the interests of the Symbolists; the first term describing de Chirico and his followers was actually Supernaturalism, suggesting the presence of unseen forces expressed through representational objects and spaces. Andre Breton abandoned the first phrase in favor of Surrealism, in part to distance his interests from poets more closely related to the ideas of spirituality inherent in Symbolism. The experiments of stage designers for experimental groups such as the Ballets Russes may well have influenced de Chirico, who imbues stage-like settings with the pregnant sense that something unusual is about to happen, though one cannot be sure precisely what. He accomplished this atmosphere in part through the use of what he called the “melancholy of perspective,” where the vanishing points of linear perspective subvert visual satisfaction by not totally adding up or harmonizing into a comforting whole. People seem to be in search of others, or of some elusive goal, that they never find. Human presence, suggested by silent mannequins, statuary, shadows, or architectural openings, asserts itself only as absence. The viewer is ultimately left with an overweening sensation of longing and loneliness. At various points in his career, de Chirico met with criticism from more orthodox Surrealists when he abandoned his reliance on architectural settings and the drama of the painted Surrealist stage for a kind of metaphysical classicism. Through these works, however, as through his variously costumed self-portraits, he successfully built worlds which called into question any sort of linear, clearly historical consciousness.


The Double Dream of Spring oil, 1915. Dummies, statuary, and other mute personages witness the presence of parallel realities, of diagrammatic and lived space. The architect’s drafting of a version of reality makes a certain kind of sense within itself, but its lines are continued in the surrounding landscape in irrational ways, leaving the viewer with the disturbing and quixotic notion that we can never be sure which version of our cosmos is more true, the theoretical or the dimensional.


Hector and Andromache, oil, 1916.  De Chirico uses the Greek story of Hector, warrior-hero, and his wife, Andromache, the daughter of Queen Hecuba of Troy, to make a comment on the transience and conflict of civilization.  The artist often painted serial versions of favorite motifs, such as this famed couple.


The Great Metaphysician, oil, 1917.  At twilight, when shadows grow long, de Chirico presents us with an impossible being, a consciousness seemingly composed out of its own theories. Instruments of a strange form of architectural craft form the corpus of this entity, which is unconcerned by his/her being riddled with open, negative spaces. The time of day depicted evokes the coming of dreams, where the metaphysician becomes his creation.


Marc Chagall, 1887-1985, I and the Village, oil, 1911. Born into the vibrant Jewish folk culture in a village of his native Russia, Chagall spent most of his career in Paris, recalling in dream-like canvasses the emotional memory of his home. Like de Chirico, he made the picture plane into a stage for the playing out of personal fantasy; he in fact designed costumes and scenery for a number of productions as well as stained glass and tapestries. Unlike other Dada or surrealist artists, however, Chagall seemed to revel in the nostalgic, the loving recollection of happiness, pleasure, and nurturing social ties. The strangeness in his work arises not from existential angst or intense feelings of detachment, but from the haunting and vivid presence of distant memories with the present moment. Using the devices of cubism to attenuate and mutate common images and beings into benevolent, magical mistrals, Chagall exploits the floating reverie-world of surrealism as an opportunity to experience total freedom and transcendence.  He paints his home-village in the dream-like world of memory, and we observe the artist observing his own process of remembering the images of his beloved recollections. Images of things, places, and people of his past overlap and float within the same space of his present self-image. Although all things are separated by cubist demarcations, all things are united in rhythmic unity and radiant color; unlike de Chirico, Chagall finds hope and warmth in the psychological presence of things past.





“The chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table,” is a famous definition of Sur(higher)realism.  The poet Andre Breton, Dada writer, put forth his Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, in which the architecture of absurdity melded with his view of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams:  man’s psyche is a battleground between unconscious and conscious desires, and art should expose that theater of conflict, thereby freeing the individual to satisfy their own desires. Breton was the quasi-leader of the group at its inception, which included some of the most creative artists of the era, including: Man Ray, Max Ernst, the poet Paul Elouard, and Salvador Dali. Breton embraced Marxist socialism devoutly and without argument; he threw Dali out of the group after the Spaniard painted a likeness of Lenin with a huge, apparently 10-foot long, buttock. Rather than trying to influence society and politics through disruption, Surrealist artists attempted the liberation of the individual imagination, which they considered to have been bound up tightly by middle-class conservatism and repression. As the power of unfulfilled sexual desires was emphasized and exposed through Freudian psychoanalysis, Surrealist art explored and confronted the psychic meaning of sexuality as a primary subject.


Man Ray (Emmanuel Rudinsky), 1890-1977, Gift, assemblage, Replica of 1921 Original. A native of Philadelphia, Rundisky changed his name to avoid constant ethnic discrimination and attack. He began working as a painter, but branched off into a variety of media, including photography and sculptural assemblage, after meeting Duchamp in New York. Supporting himself as a commercial photographer and designer, he created his own images of irrational, dreamlike image in a distinctively seductive style. In this piece, he confronts the viewer with objects traditionally representing male and female genders by combining them into a potentially dangerous appliance. At Duchamp’s urging, he moved to Paris permanently in 1921, where he created some of his most influential and memorable works. This simple juxtaposition both fascinates and repels, seducing the viewer to imagine hitherto unimaginable scenarios.


Joan Miro, 1893-1983. Although the Spaniard Miro expressed indifference to Breton’s political mission for Surrealism, he became the group’s consciousness with what the “Pope” referred as a “turbulent entry.” One of the most formally inventive of the Surrealists, Spanish painter Miro developed a fertile cross-referencing system of biomorphic abstract composition with eccentrically representational images of humans, animals, and otherworldly creatures. Using a form of automatism, where the artist allows the brush to guide itself at random across the surface, and the flat patterns of synthetic cubism, Miro created a credible and magical alternative reality. His early landscape paintings transmogrified, by his account, into images of strange worlds under the hallucinatory effects of hunger as he stared at the cracks in the ceiling of a farmhouse. His paintings document a sort of poetic delirium, a dizzy and attenuated state of mind existing in a world without gravity or architectural structure. His personal revelations become manifest in his paintings as both highly intimate and somehow universal; we feel both at home and completely alien in the presence of his scenarios.


The Farm, oil, 1921-22. His breakthrough from early experiments in cubism and fauvism seem to have taken place literally at the aforementioned farm. The painter cross-sections nature, helping the viewer to envision an impossibly magical place within living things and their environment, lending objects both inanimate an living an unnerving and fabulous grace.


The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), oil, 1923-24. After exploring ideas and dreams spontaneously in a sketchbook, Miro began to take the leaves from the book (which were labeled alphabetically) and develop their underlying themes and motifs fully on canvas. During this intensely prolific phase, the artist created paintings in almost a cinematic manner, with one “frame” leading naturally to the next. The stickman, smoking a pipe, seems to observe the phantasmagorical world around him as a huge eye on the horizon observes him. The artist roams through the vivid wilderness of his own psyche, on the hunt for his own thoughts.


Dutch Interior (I), oil, 1928. In the late 20’s Miro used his own paintings as his subject, resetting creatures from his earlier notebook stories in wildly rearranged Dutch domestic interiors. After resolving his first set of theories in this period, he gave up painting for a time, exploring sculpture and collage, eventually returning to the easel to recreate his world again. The whimsical delicacy of his line belies the intense internal processes he engaged in to create paintings he felt were worth creating. He invented an entirely new vocabulary of figurative subjects, completely alien yet charmingly familiar. The opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics in Spain featured monumental puppets and parade props based on his ouvre.


Salvador Dali, 1904-1989.  Perhaps no other Surrealist artist pursued the celebration and embodiment of the life of the subconscious mind more than the flamboyant Salvador Dali. His parents, solid, respectable middle class citizens, were still mourning the infant death of their first boy, also named Salvador, when the young grand jester of the psyche was born. He felt both an intense attraction and repression to the legendary status of his dead brother, and declared that it had a profound influence on his preoccupations as an artist. He was admitted to the Madrid Academy, where his found camaraderie with avante garde filmmaker Luis Bunuel and poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. He was thrown out of the academy after declaring in an exam that he knew more about Raphael than the entire faculty put together would ever know. After retreating into his dreams back in his family home for a time, he finally moved to Paris and stormed the ranks of Andre Breton’s group. Though at first celebrated by the other artists, he came to be virulently criticized for his lack of a proper political stance or interest; he declared himself to be apolitical. Fascinated with his own psycho-sexual history, he often evoked the landscape and early “erotic events” of his childhood in his hyper-real paintings. He used something he called his Paranoic-Critical method, a creative process by which he focused on his fears and obsessions until images conveying “delirious associations and interpretations “ sprang to life, as well as direct, photographically vivid transcriptions of his most lucid and powerful dreams. Summarizing his reaction to public questioning of his sanity, he replied that “the only difference between Dali and a madman is that Dali is not crazy at all,” and defended his sometimes outrageous and violent behaviors by the New York Times’ publishing of his personal manifesto, the “Declaration of Independence of the Imagination and of Man’s Right to Madness.”


Persistence of Memory, oil, 1931.  Dali described this small painting as a pivotial work in the development of his mature art. He had begun painting a diminutive version of his memory of the shoreline Cadaquez, near his father’s birthplace of Figueras, his childhood home; he claimed to have been became seized, during a meditation on the softness of cheese, on the incredible softness of time in the presence of memory, and added the melting watches and symbolic face of sleep. The ultimate clarity of form is called into question, with all objects and symbols made ultimately malleable by his charting of the activity of the unconscious.


Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, or, Premonition of Civil War, oil, 1936. Painted during the period of conflict between the followers of the fascist party of Francisco Franco and more republican interest, this piece was described by Dali as an image of Spain devouring herself with civil war. Although avowedly apolitical, the artist was interested in the fantasy and eroticism of hierarchy and monarchy, and the personal acquisition of wealth. After his break with Breton, the poet ridiculed Dali’s escalating financial success with an anagram of his name, Avida Dollars. A small image of Freud may be seen peeking over the gruesome spectacle, encouraging the viewer to consider the monstrosity as an expression of psychic desire and conflict. 


Corpus Hypercubicus, oil, 1955. After a visit to Cadaquez by Paul Elouard and his young wife Gala, the “Surrealist Muse,” Dali becomes obsessed with her, and the two subsequently marry. Elouard had called her the “woman who can see through solid walls,” and she becomes Dali’s constant companion, inspiration, and collaborator in his career. He often painted her, as in this work, as the divine Virgin, which would seem only appropriate as the couple were said to have never, throughout their many years together, to have consummated their union. His faith in Gala became increasingly parallel with his pursuit of mystical symbolism. This icon-like work fixes the crucified Christ floating in front of a three-dimensional cross, a painting illustrating his period of “nuclear” works, inspired by the terror of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a world where all things are “suspended, disintegrated, and separated,” but for Dali this emerges as a hopeful strategy, where objects and persons are freed from gravity and isolation to mingle and dance in a new world of mystical unity. He seemed to have been in search of some great underlying code, whether in the sexual psyche, mystical religion, DNA, or nuclear physics, with which to portray the irrational but pervasive connection between things and people existing above their conscious awareness. “I know God exists, but I do not believe it.”


Rene Magritte, 1898-1967. Although the Belgian artist’s work before 1925 followed a logical path through the prevailing Cubo-Futurism movements of the European avant-garde, after that date his work took a enigmatic and eccentric course that was truly his own. Originally a member of Brussels’ avant-garde, he moved to France and joined Paris circle of Surrealists, finally returning to Brussels to build his own ouvre. Rather than trying to capture or picture images that would communicate and reveal directly his personal traumas and childhood events, he sought instead to create the atmosphere of one’s highly personal encounter with the unknowable and mysterious in ordinary life. His paintings tread the unstable ground between the symbol and the thing itself, in both work and image; he was one of the first artists to consciously bring word-play into visual art. His uses of or allusions to words highlight, however, their very inadequacy to communicate or give form to experience. Representing “certain visions of half-sleep,” Magritte allows the viewer to linger in that transitory moment between sleep and wakefulness, where fleeting images and reveries seem to the hold all the weight of the psyche in their ghostly hands.


The Treachery of Images, oil, 1928-1929. Magritte makes the clear, but arresting point that we assume the belief that an image is the thing itself for a moment; this “lie,” this illusion, is the basis of art, and the key to its strange and compelling mystery. This twilight world between the real and the illusion was the stomping ground for the artist’s ouvre, where he explored the relationship of rational and irrational thought as two sides of the same irreducible coin.


The Use of the Word, oil, 1930. The French word for bell, sirene, is the foundation for this piece. Lying passively on the floor, one letter is given heightened presence by its rendition as a finger about to tinkle the bell, itself posing as the dot of the “i.” After reading the word, our eyes follow a staircase into a wall, and we are forced to go back to the beginning. The artist, perhaps, is telling us that the sound of nature can never be adequately represented by abstractions such as words, and the whole enterprise of symbolism is, in the end, a dead end.


Time Transfixed, oil, 1939. In reference to this painting, Magritte said, “As regards the locomotive, I have this charging out of the chimney opening of the fireplace in a dining room instead of the usual stovepipe.” This metamorphosis is called La Duree poignardee, a sort of image in words joined to a painted imageIn his clear perspective presentation of the subject, he creates a frisson in normal thought which allows us to reflect upon movement, time, propriety, and the idea of waiting. We pause to wonder if the clock, or the train, will actually begin to move.


Max Ernst, 1881-1976.  Each painting constituted a complete and irrational reorientation to reality in the work of Ernst, who sought random and unexpected beginnings and incidents to drive his creative process. A self-taught German artist, Ernst founded a Dadaist movement in Cologne, later becoming associated with Breton’s movement in Paris. His paintings are filled with surprisingly inventive and mutant creatures and figures, cavorting in strange environs. Proving to be extremely gifted in the use of automatism, Ernst often initiated works by rubbings, or frottages, where he laid paper or canvas over a textured surface and transferred the patterns by rubbing the support with a crayon. He also used grattage, or decalcomania, pressing a canvas onto a surface prepared with layers of wet paint, pulling an unpredictable image from the moist slurry. Highlighting and developing images discovered in the processes, Ernst would discover his unconscious ideas through a chance encounter with his materials. He engaged fully in the ritual of creative destruction of the surrealists, where the artist becomes constantly vulnerable to regenerative, ongoing revolution. Taking part in the controversial 1925 Dada exhibition in the Winter Beer House in Cologne, Ernst rebuffed rumors that he used “gastric reflexes to increase the luminosity of my paintings, I only use ‘belching tweezers’.”


Two ambiguous figures, collage and gouache, 1919-20. Ernst’s early work borrows from the Dadaist trope of animating mechanism or mechanical parts as mannequin actors in an unsettling drama. This small piece illustrates his tendency towards the inspiration of dreams by chance artistic “events” rather than the illustration of dreams.


The Robing of the Bride, oil and frottage, 1939. Inspired in part by Sigmund Freud’s work in psychoanalysis, artists began to see sexuality as the prime mover, the essential force behind human behavior, and sought to reveal the essentialist nature of sex in all forms and images. Sexuality and violence were often directly linked as well, with sex associated more with the Nietzschian “Will-to-Power” rather than more traditional associations of nature, reproduction, and pleasure. Sharp daggers and teeth crowd the sensual feathered contours of the Bride along with repellant and menacing figures: seduction and fear coexist.  


L’Europe après la pluie, oil, 1940-42. Ernst’s father, Phillip, greatly influenced the young Max both by his life and his death. An amateur painter and teacher of deaf/mute children, Phillip was quiet and reclusive, speaking more with his hands than his tongue. He enjoyed painting in the German forest, sharing with his son his imaginings of fantastic inhabitants of the mysterious woods; Max explored this motif via frottage frequently, conjuring up a forest of the subconscious suggestive of the bizarre denizens residing within.


Jean Arp, 1887-1966. Born in Alsace while the small country was subject to the German Emperor Wilhelm I, Jean and his younger brother Willi enjoyed playing word games with their native Alsatian, German, and French. The brothers stayed close throughout their lives, and the playfulness of their relationship seems to find physical expression in Jean’s sculpture. Encouraged by his father, who owned a cigar factory in Strasbourg, Arp experimented from an early age with music, sculpture, and poetry. He eventually attended the Academie Julien in Paris, which he eventually found as unsatisfying as his native academies. Traveling back and forth between Paris, Lucerne, and Cologne, he began to organize exhibitions of cubists, symbolists, and the artists of the Blaue Reiter, who made a profound impact on the artists. He made contact with the artists of the early Dada movement, and in fact decorated the Cabaret Voltaire for its opening in 1916. He reveled in their revolt against the war and the academy, but found his most authentic personal expression in an air of discreet, humorous whimsy. Arp became the most celebrated sculptor of the Surrealists, making his most lasting influence through his “human concretions,” where he melded human and organic forms with an intense spirituality. His aesthetic was embraced by the Swiss modernist movement Allianz, and wrote prolifically for their journal championing modern art. Making his allegiances known by changing his artistic name from Hans to Jean with the beginning of World War II, he found refuge in France along with other Surrealists such as Max Ernst, Andre Breton, and Wilfredo Lam.


Owl’s Dream, limestone on wood pedestal, 1937-38. In one of his early concretions, Arp turned away from Mondrian-influenced geometric austerity, turning instead outwards to the world of nature, where he discovered greater freedom and variety. Evolving out of earlier paintings, collages, and reliefs, these works began to take on the lyricism and liberty of his poetry.


Pistil, gray limestone, 1950. His post-war sculpture extended his passion for growing, living forms into seemingly an infinite celebration of spontaneous delight. In apparently endless variation, Arp explored the universe of feelings aroused when the human body encounters its double in nature, with the resultant three-dimensional image constituting a perfect, pristine moment in that spirit-dance.


Balthus, (Balthasar Klossowski), 1908-2001. The enigmatic painter Balthus does not fall easily into one specific category, nor can he be linked in an unequivocally historical sense into any particular movement, but he was immersed in the same milleu as the Surrealists. His mother lived with the mystic poet Ranier Maria Rilke during a formative period in Balthus’ childhood, and the painter seemed to likewise be fascinated with ecstatic and overwhelming states of mind emerging from otherwise common scenarios. Clearly addressing the broad issue of the “décor” of the sub-conscious mind, his canvasses, which evoke the solemn, transcendental clarity of his fifteenth century Italian hero Piero della Francesca, depict a reality where each object and character reverberate with a powerful but unsteady symbolic resonance.


La Rue (The Street), oil, 1933. The clarity of the stage-like architectural space presented for us is confounded by the inexplicable actions of the occupants of an otherwise normal, serene European back street. Both intense, mesmerizing sexuality and almost comatose detachment seem to walk hand in hand through Balthus’ street scenes, with the promise of intimacy and desolation equally plausible.


Nu Devant Le Cheminee, (Nude Before a Mirror), oil, 1955. The artist remained fascinated throughout his life with the ambivalence of adolescence, when childhood delights and fears quietly transform into sexual dramas. Often using female models in the midst of puberty, he evoked the pristine sense of possibility and otherworldliness of the adolescent, freezing it in time for our discomfited contemplation.


Theater and Music


            The playwright most closely associated with Surrealism, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) established a new idea for Drama, the “Theater of Cruelty,” in his treatise “The Theater and its Double.” He, as well as contemporaries such as Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill, brought into question the Western theater’s rituals, forcing the audience into an uncomfortable new set of experiences; their aspiration was no less than to liberate the unconscious mind from repressed feelings. Although Artaud’s struggle with drug addiction and mental illness ended with his death in 1948, his theoretical writings had a profound influence on later productions after their translation into English in 1958. He called for the play to be propelled forward by “explosions of passion,” the release of buried primitive instincts through the false and brittle veneer of overly civilized social identity. The tormented playwright’s call to action inspired a number of successive practitioners of provocative theatre, including Peter Weiss, Peter Brook and Edward Bond.

            Although experimentation by classically trained composers inspired by Shoenberg continued, the best analogy in music took place in the improvisations of Jazz. Innovators in the nightclubs such as John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie traversed the musical equivalent to automatic painting and free-associative thinking in their art-for-art sake performances. Although they attracted smaller audiences than their Big-Band contemporaries, they had a lasting influence on the path of 20th century music, allowing the anti-hierarchical nature of the Blues to become integral to the practice of a range of musical art forms.   


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Dada and Surrealism summary and notes


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Dada and Surrealism summary and notes