The Key Difference between Dada and Surrealism

Joan Miro

Emily Porter

As an artistic movement, Dada was born in Zurich 1916. The word Dada derived from a word in the French Dictionary  the Petit Larousse “Dada child rocking-horse”. In some other version it is from the slave expression dada, which means “yes” or a name picked at random from a dictionary.

Whatever the name means or however it was chosen, it is significant because it means “nothing”. The total lack of meaning in the word and in the deliberate and contradictory plurality of its origins implicitly contains the sense of nihilism that had assailed a considerable proportion of European intellectual circles on the eve of the First World War.

Europe was being violently shaken on a worldwide scale. In that war thousands of people died under the auspices of an alleged rationalism. In the eyes of the intellectuals, who were for the most part socialists or Marxists, the war was a collective folly involving unjustifiable genocide. These intellectuals refused to take part in it.

Dada was essentially a denial of the whole of Western culture and its mechanisms. The destruction of contemporary logic seemed to be systematic. Whilst the Dada movement was destructive, it was at the same time liberating, infantile and sarcastic. It overflowed into nihilism and provocation.

The Dada spirit was something shared by a number of extreme individualists of various nationalities who were in revolt against the whole of the epoch in which they lived. There is hardly a better expression of it than these words of Ribemont Dessaignes:

            “What is beautiful? What is ugly? What is great, strong, weak? What is Carpentier, Renan, Fock? Don’t know, what am I? Don’t know. Don’t Know. Don’t know.”

And of Klans Arp’s words:

            “I affirm that Tristan Tzara discovered the word Dada on the 8th of February, 1916 at 6 o’clock in the evening. I was there with my twelve children when Tzara pronounced for the first time this word which aroused a legitimate  enthusiasm in all of us. This took place at the Terrace Café in Zurich, and I had a roll of bread up my left nostril. I am persuaded that only imbeciles and Spanish professors can be interested in dates. What interested us is the Dada Spirit, and we were all dada before Dada began. They did not call it a Movement; they declared it a word.”

Negativism, revolt, destruction of all values, Dada was a violent protest against art, literature, the existing moral society. It spat in the eye of the world. Life is a disgusting riddle. Dada was a spectacular form of suicide, a manifestation of almost lunatic despair. To many intelligent people at this time suicide seemed to be the one remaining solution to the problem of living.

A typical example of this state of mind was Jacques Vashe, who committed suicide in 1918. A sophisticated anarchist, he was Dada in his life rather than in anything he produced, for he was neither an artist nor a writer. In 1916 he came in contact with André Breton in a hospital at Nantes and he seemed to have had, at the time, influence over the future leader of the surrealist movement.

The roots of Dadaism must be sought before the First World War, in Paris; the cultural climate in the French capital was without doubt sensitive and perceptive.

Between 1912-1913 Marcel Duchamp abandoned the Cubist/Futurist vocabulary of pictures like Nude Descending a Staircase. Instead he constructed artefacts that looked out of place (Bicycle Wheel, 1913). These are his so-called ready-mades: industrial objects taken out of context and presented in an aesthetic guise, and his masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by her own Bachelor, for instance, for which hundreds of notes and rough sketches were made was begun in 1911. Duchamp exercised a deeper influence over Dada in France and America as well. His work was coldly planned and was far away from all contemporary logical works of art.

It was nevertheless within the group of artists and writers who frequented the Café Terrasse in Zurich and, more particularly, Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire, that the Dadaist ideology became more overt. Hugo Ball himself was a philosopher and a writer and he played host to several customers such as Tristan Tzara who will become Dada’s leading theoretician, Marcel and George Janco, Hans Arp and Sophie Tauber.

In the Dada manifesto of 1918 Tzara set forth his theory: “there is important destructive, negative work to be done, sweeping and cleaning. The cleanliness of an individual can come about only from a state of madness-aggressive, complete madness and from a world handed over to bandits who destroy themselves, and destroy the centuries too”.

In May 1916 Tzara and Ball published Cabaret Voltaire “a literary and artistic collection” with contributions from Apollinare, Arp, Janco, Kadinsky, Picasso and others. From July of the following year the review Dada started to appear. By publishing and distributing the Dada publication to intellectual circles throughout Europe, Dada found much fertile ground in both France, Germany and New York. In Paris, as early as 1917, Dada had created a certain stir and interest.

Tzara arrived in Paris in January 1920 to a “messiah’s welcome”. The first Dada show was held at the Palais des Fêtes (Festival Palace) on 23 January. Duchamp and Picabia had returned from New York. It was Picabia above all, who had created various scandals with his works, which used many different materials and an assembly techniques. These works combined a futurist vision with a purely abstract chromatic formalism, deliberately

stripped of all cultural or spiritualistic references. Using *Frottage/Collage and photomontage as a means of expression this became a characteristic feature of Dada This technique contained within it a dramatic and social charge.

The German group expresses more politically committed orientation, in contrast to the more intellectual and theoretical emphasis of the groups in Zurich and Paris. Another Dadaist group developed in Cologne out of the association between Hans Arp, Max Ernest and Theodore Bargeld.

These three artists were joined by the “Stupid” group “Heinrich and Angelica Hoerle, Wilhelm Fick, Otto Freudlich and Franz Selwert”. In the United States the situation was parallel to that in Zurich although there was no interchange of contact or influence between them. In fact. Marcel Duchamp moved to New York, to be jointed some months later by his friend “Picabia”.

Pictures by both artists had been exhibited two years earlier in the Armory Show “officially entitled the International Exhibition of Modern Art” in New York, the First Exhibition of European avant-garde art in the USA. So both Duchamp and Picabia were well known in the avant-garde intellectual milline of New York City.

Duchamp Fountain

The leading figures in this group were Man Ray, the poet Arthur Cravan, the composer Edgar Varese and the painted John Covert. The group was destructive towards all forms of artistic idealism and influenced by the abstract intellectualism of Duchamp.

Duchamp referred to the subversive force of Dada in his own conceptual meaning as: Dada was very useful as a purgative. It was a sort of nihilism, which still claims all my sympathy ….. The others were for or against Cezanne. There was really nothing to it beyond the physical aspect of painting. Nobody ever taught any concept of freedom.

Duchamp achieved the desecration of the beautiful by presenting a ready-made. This gesture pinpointed the artist’s position not as the creator of an artistic product but rather as an intellectual operating in the realm of aesthetics; there was a need to achieve something that is so indifferent that will not evoke on the viewer any aesthetic emotion. The idea of ready-made is based on visual indifferences and at the same time on the total absence of good or bad taste.

In Paris in 1922, a rift developed between the movement’s theorist, Tzara, and Andre Breton. Breton had the idea of organising a congress “To determine our Directives and to defend the Modern Spirit”.

* A technique of creating a design by placing a piece of paper over a rough substance such as wood and rubbing with crayon or pencil until it acquires the quality of the substance beneath. 

There was a manifest desire to get away from negative ties and lay down the foundation for a new ‘modern’ form of creativity and activity. Tzara was opposed to any such thing, while Max Ernest indicated a possible way out of the nihilistic stagnation of Tzara’s Dadaism. According to Breton, Surrealism confronted Dada like “a wave, which covers the previous wave”. There had been lengthy preparation for the Surrealist movement, involving meetings between Louis Argon, Andre Breton and others.

Surrealism itself actually bubbled up in the form of a planned manifesto in 1924. In fact Surrealism carried on, in a far-reaching transformed way, the nihilist liberation of the unconscious and the automatic mechanism of the mind that had been triggered by the Dada movement.

Surrealism was reinforced by a syncretic interest in the expressions of the past, of history, and of culture. Where art, in Dada’s was a “return to zero” and a desire for a scandal for its own sake, art in Surrealism involved the elaboration of theories and works based on unusual aspects of history, philosophy, “alchemy and magic” and literature with particular attention to censored and scandalous literature such as that of De Sade, Lautreamont, etc.

Scandal was proposed no longer as aprioristic destruction of meaning, but rather as intellectual liberation and led art to become independent of the suffocating convention of society. Moreover the dialogue between art and life took on a social tinge with political commitment of a Marxist shade.

The Dadaists realised that the futility of Dada was even greater than the futility of the reality against which it protested. From then on the attitudes of revolt for revolt’s sake ceased.

The Dadaists transformed themselves into Surrealists and sought a philosophical foundation for their art. What they needed was supporting evidence for their dream-wish that something more resourceful than logic might be found to endow life with fuller significance. They found support in Hegel and they looked into the investigation that Freud had made into unconscious and dream.

The simplest and most obvious influence on Freudian psychology can be found in the accounts of dreams written by every one of the Surrealist periodicals. Both writers and artists, more in the spirit of experimentation and investigation than of pure creative expression, participated in the activity of relating or writing dreams. There were various categories of dreams: the natural dream, the prophetic dream and most often the self-induced one, such as the flamboyant libido-ridden dreams of Dali.

Another aspect of Freudian influence was the practice of automatic writing, which was considered a safer road toward the subconscious mind than the interpretation of dreams. This process became for the Surrealists a form of self-administered psychoanalysis. They tried to shut out all outside disturbance and to give free play to the inner powers of association of words and the images, which these suggested. 

Breton stressed automatic thinking as the common basis of Surrealist poetry and art. He claimed that a work of art cannot be called Surrealist unless it embraced the entire psychophysical field.

A third form of Freudian experimentation was the intentional simulation of states of mental abnormality. The Surrealists writers set themselves a triple aim, to imitate delirium artificially, assume the various forms of insanity, and establish a method of investigating the widest range of mental activity.

Breton finds the work of the insane unwittingly closer to secrets of life. His plea for greater tolerance of the insane found its most eloquent terms in ‘Nadja’.

These exercises in uninhabited, and sometimes erotic, writing and exploration of sensations beyond the control of reason were to sharpen, to renovate poetic imagery.

Some elementary words like “table, homme” and images like clocks, stairs, and umbrellas played a central role in Surrealist works of art.

The other element, which influenced the Surrealist and derived from Freud, was the black humour which guards the creative artists from giving in to the suffering inflicted on him by the exterior world.

All those elements put into practice in the Surrealist painting as in André Masson (1896-1987) and Joan Miro (1893-1983). Masson embarked on a series of pen drawings following the uncontrolled instinct of the psyche, creating crisscross lines, from which unexpected images emerged as projection of the subconscious in a sort of half way between dream and reality. Miro affirmed that his painting was “invariably produced in a state of hallucination, caused by some kind of shock, be it objective or subjective.  I was in no way responsible”.

As far as painting is concerned there was never a truly Surrealist “style” but rather Surrealism in painting. References to Surrealism can be detected in art littoral and painting from Young to Swift, Blake, Rimbaud, Poe, Goya and so on.

Breton declares the freedom of imagination, the eyes must reflect what is not, and the marvellous is beautiful. He puts at the disposal of those who would venture into the realm of the marvellous not only poetic arguments, but the means to investigate modern thought and above all the new and decisive interpretation of psychoanalysis.

During the Surrealist development, outside all forms of idealism, logic, religion, the marvellous comes to light within reality. It comes to light in dreams, obsession, in sleep, fear, love, magic, primitive art, supernatural, unusual and in super-reality. The surrealism persists in forwarding the identification and unity of contraries, which every modern discovery proves to be possible and true. 

The surrealist could not accept the separation between mind and matter, nor the primacy of mind over matter, with the intention of provocative manner; love takes first place in Surrealist preoccupation.

Breton asserts that all works considered as Surrealist have in common primarily an erotic implication; eroticism must veiled in order to function effectively. Surrealist art utilises a whole gallery of sexual symbols and signs, umbrellas, sewing machines, and plugs. There is a tendency to project desire onto things and beings. Everything may serve as a vehicle of sexual fantasy. The aim is to lift the taboos, and become a subversive force against society, which utilises sexuality as the means to achieve social ends (conventional family) not as an end (a desire) in itself.

Surrealism, as Argon sees it, is the ultimate way to free the mind. The time was ready for a new era, as if history had run out of breath. Surrealism was an echo of this new era, which started by destroying the language stereotype to emancipate the WORD so that it could unleash a greater measure of its potential energies.

The basic motivation was liberation, but the purpose of this liberation was more positive than in the Dada. Surrealists were very well aware of the fact that without a reader or a viewer, art would lose its moral justification. Surrealists offered alternative solutions to existing political and social issues while the Dadaist stood aside watching with arrogance and ignorance.

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