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Dada and Surrealism - A Very Short Introduction

Question: How many Surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: A fish.
Everybody knows something about Dada and Surrealism. Dada,
born in 1916 and over by the early 1920s, was an international artistic
phenomenon, which sought to overturn traditional bourgeois notions of
art. It was often defiantly anti-art. More than anything, its participants,
figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Hans
Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and Raoul Hausmann, counterposed their love of
paradox and effrontery to the insanities of a world-gone-mad, as the
First World War raged in Europe.
Surrealism, Dada’s artistic heir, was officially born in 1924 and had
virtually become a global phenomenon by the time of its demise in the
later 1940s. Committed to the view that human nature is fundamentally
irrational, Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Joan
Miró, and André Masson conducted an often turbulent love affair with
psychoanalysis, aiming to plumb the mysteries of the human mind.
For many people Dada and Surrealism represent not so much
movements in 20th-century art history as ‘modern art’ incarnate.
Dada is seen as iconoclastic and confrontational; Surrealism as similarly
anti-bourgeois in spirit but more deeply immersed in the bizarre. But
why Dada-and-Surrealism? Why are they yoked together? They
constitute two movements but are regularly conflated. Art historians
have traditionally found it convenient to generalize about Dada ‘paving
the way’ for Surrealism, although that was only really the case in one of
Dada’s locations, namely Paris. This book will certainly rehearse that
story again, but it will also present these movements as distinctly
different, so that they can be played off against each another. Dada, for
instance, often revelled in the chaos and the fragmentation of modern
life, whilst Surrealism had more of a restorative mission, attempting to
create a new mythology and put modern man and woman back in touch
with the forces of the unconscious. Such differences touch on important
distinctions which I have aimed to make as vivid as possible.
More than any other art movements of the last century Dada and
Surrealism now permeate our culture at large. Surrealism especially has
entered our everyday language; we talk of ‘surreal humour’ or a ‘surreal
plot’ to a film. This very continuity means that it is difficult to place
them at one remove from us in ‘history’. Critical and historical accounts
of both movements have admittedly become more and more elaborate.
Dada, which might be thought to be anti-academic, is now widely
studied in universities. Similarly monographs on notorious Surrealist
artists such as Dalí and René Magritte are ubiquitous. But very often the
sheer plethora of information is dazzling, and we lose critical distance.

List of illustrations viii
Acknowledgements xi
Introduction xiv
1 Dada and Surrealism: a historical overview 1
2 ‘Rather life’: promoting Dada and Surrealism 30
3 Art and anti-art 62
4 ‘Who am I?’: mind/spirit/body 97
5 Politics 123
6 Looking back on Dada and Surrealism 146
References 157
Further reading 161
Dada: the main centres – key individuals and events 167
Key Surrealist events 170
Key figures associated with surrealism 171
Index 173

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