a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

dada and surrealism


people, terms, and concepts: nihilism, readymade, the subconscious, automatism, frottage, dream verism


Know the Dadaists' aim to mock and disrupt logic, science, and rationality, since logic, science, and rationality had led to the senseless brutality of war. Know some of their techniques for doing this, such as readymade art and the noise poems, simultaneous poems, and other nonsense performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland. Tristan Tzara records one such Dada evening:

"Boxing resumed: Cubist dance, costumes by Janco, each man his own big drum on his head, noise, Negro music/trabatgea bonooooo oo ooooo/5 literary experiments: Tzara in tails stands before the curtain, stone sober for the animals, and explains the new aesthetic: gymnastic poem, concert of vowels, bruitist poem, static poem chemical arrangement of ideas, 'Biriboom biriboom' saust der Ochs im Kreis herum, vowel poem in a ò, i e o, a i ï, new interpretation the subjective folly of the arteries the dance of the heart on burning buildings and acrobatics in the audience. More outcries, the big drum, piano and impotent canon, cardboard costumes torn off the audience hurls itself into puerperal fever interrupt. The newspapers dissatisfied simultaneous poem for 4 voices + simultaneous work for 300 hopeless idiots."

In general, the Dada artists were nihilists, holding no values as sacred, particularly not art, religion, or science. Be able to discuss Duchamp's idea of the readymade and his Bride Stripped Bare ... as mocking art and science, respectively.

Know that the aim of Surrealism was to express the subconscious and its eternal id-superego conflicts (such as the Oedipal Complex), and be able to describe how the techniques they had for doing so were supposed to work:

•automatism, drawing or writing without any plan, goal, or conscious control, as through doodles, inkblots, or frottage; and

•dream verism, carefully representing scenes from one’s dreams as realistically as though they were waking reality.

Max Ernst, The Horde, Surrealist ‘automatism’ (frottage), c. 1925

Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, Surrealist ‘dream verism,’ c. 1930

Duchamp, The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even), Dada, c. 1915-25

Hugo Ball reciting ‘Karawane’ at the Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, c. 1915