DADA AND SURREALISM (1)
Dada was an artistic movement that preceded Surrealism. While Salvador Dalí
was not part of the Dada movement, their ideas shaped his work. Like the
Dadaists, Dalí's work seeks to provoke. The following sections describe
what the Dadaists and Surrealists sought to accomplish.
In the second and third decades of the twentieth century, a new kind of artistic movement swept
Europe and America. Its very name, "Dada"--two identical syllables without the obligatory "-ism"-
-distinguished it from the long line of avant-gardes which have determined the history of the arts
in the last 200 years. Its proponents came from all parts of Europe and the United States at a
time when their native countries were battling one another in the deadliest war ever known.
They did not restrict themselves to being painters, writers, dancers, or musicians; most of them
were involved in several art forms and in breaking down the boundaries which kept the arts
distinct from one another. Indeed, the Dadaists were not content to make art.
They wanted to affect all aspects of Western civilization, to take part in the revolutionary
changes which were the inevitable result of the chaos of the First World War. They were not
interested in writing books and painting pictures which a public would admire in an uninvolved
manner; rather, they aimed to provoke the public into reacting to their activities: to the Dadaists,
a violently negative reaction was better that a passive acceptance.
Virtually every artistic principle and device which underlies the literature, music, theater, and
visual arts of our time was promoted, if not invented, by the Dadaists: the use of collage and
assemblage; the application of aleatory (chance, uncertainty) techniques; the tapping of the
artistic resources of the indigenous cultures of Africa, America, and Oceania; the extension of
the notion of abstract art to literature and film; the breaking of the boundaries separating the
different art forms from one another and from "everyday life"; the notion of art as performance;
the expropriation of elements of popular culture; the notion of interaction or confrontation with
the audience--everything which defines what we loosely call the "avant-garde."
The artists and writers of Dadaism... wanted to open the way to a new art and a new society by
undermining and exposing what they saw as the stale cultural conventions of a decayed
European civilization which had led the world into the conflagration of the Great War of 1914-18.
Timothy Shipe, The International Dada Archive
As Timothy Shipe alludes to above, World War I was a turning point. Prior to the war most people
of the middle and upper classes had great faith in the power of modern technology. Consider that
at the turn of the century many cities were receiving electricity for the first time and new
machines were being invented to make life easier; modern technology promised a utopia
on Earth. Everything changed with World War I. Instead of helping people, the power of technology
was turned to create killing machines. Airplanes had scarcely been invented
when it occurred to someone to toss bombs onto unsuspecting people below. Flamethrowers were invented.
When a Dadaist or Surrealist spoke against 'rational thought', it was in the context of a
scientific rationality that had created a hell on Earth.
The (Dadaists and) Surrealists were constantly fighting a society they despised. Their principal
weapon wasn’t guns, of course, it was scandal. Scandal was a potent agent of revelation,
capable of exposing such social crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist
imperialism, religious tyranny - in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that
had to be destroyed. The real purpose of (dada and) surrealism was not to create a new literary,
artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.
Surrealists placed great emphasis on the importance of dreams. To a Surrealist, dreams are
an entry into another reality that is just as valid as our waking consciousness. Dalí was
influenced by Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis of dreams. The importance
of exploring these 'other realities' added a mystical, if not religious, element to some
Some years ago I myself made some observations... it is that our normal waking consciousness...
is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it... there lie potential forms of
consciousness entirely different.
No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of
consciousness quite disregarded.
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
How did Surrealists create their artwork?
PURE PSYCHIC AUTOMATISM
Spontaneous creation, chance activity,
spontaneous improvisations, and explorations of the unconscious.
Stream of consciousness
Following is a review of one of the most famous surrealist films, created by Luis Buñuel and
Salvador Dalí (both from Spain). Considering everything that you have read about surrealism,
write a list of all the characteristics that make this film 'surrealist'.
UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928)
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
Luis Buñuel said that if he were told he had 20 years to live and was asked how he wanted to
live them, his reply would be: "Give me two hours a day of activity, and I'll take the other 22 in
dreams--provided I can remember them."
Dreams were the nourishment of his films, and from his earliest days as a surrealist in Paris to
his triumphs in his late 70s, dream logic was always likely to interrupt the realism of his films.
That freedom gave them a quality so distinctive that, like those of Alfred Hitchcock and Federico
Fellini, they could be identified almost immediately.
His first film, written in collaboration with the notorious surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, was "Un
Chien Andalou" (1928). Neither the title ("an Andalusian dog") nor anything else in the film was
intended to make sense. It remains the most famous short film ever made, and anyone halfway
interested in the cinema sees it sooner or later, usually several times.
It was made in the hope of administering a revolutionary shock to society. "For the first time in
the history of the cinema," wrote the critic Ado Kyrou, "a director tries not to please but rather to
alienate nearly all potential spectators."
That was then, this is now. Today, its techniques have been so thoroughly absorbed even in the
mainstream that its shock value is diluted--except for that famous shot of the slicing of the
eyeball, or perhaps the shot of the man dragging the grand piano that has the priests and the
dead donkeys on top of it. . . .
- Roger Ebert
(1) The text in italics are my own comments whereas the actual quotes are attributed to each author
within the text. All emphasis within the quotes are mine, not the original author's. The selection of quotes comes from Roger Vail, professor of art at California State University
(Sacremento). See his class website: http://classes.asn.csus.edu/vail/art101/home/fall04/101home_f03.html