Dadaism and Surrealism

“It is not the fear of madness which will oblige us to leave the flag of imagination furled.” ~ Andre Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”

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The world of art is always influenced by the historical moment in which the movement originated. The concepts of Dadaism and surrealism were the direct product of artists witnessing the atrocities of the First World War which would become even more unpalatable during the events of the Second World War (Hoffman 2-3). The visual presentation of both movements can be initially jarring. Dadaism has been described as “anti-art.” Instead of beautiful icons of religious scenes or young women, the paintings of this movement are often images of war and violence painted in harsh colors to illustrate the harshness of the world around the artist . Surrealism is by the very definition of surreal, something beyond what the normal person can understand (Claybourne 4). Jose Pierre, one of the Surrealist artists, said, “The Surrealists found it grotesque to die for any flag whatsoever, even if its colors were harmoniously composed” (Horsley 1). To respond to the violence, the Surrealists took components of what people know to exist in reality and then twists them into a dreamscape caught on the canvas, or whatever media the artist is working. Both Dadaist and eventual Surrealist Max Ernst and Surrealist extraordinaire Salvador Dali utilize the artistic movement to create lasting icons that exemplify their movement and to force a discussion about what is art and what visuals can be accepted in this category.

Max Ernst was a founding member of Dadaism and would also go on to contribute greatly to the founding of the Surrealist movement as the tenor of the world changed (Warlick 62). The first painting of Ernst to be labeled as Surrealist is the work Aquis Submersus. The painting is on first look, a person swimming at nightfall. However, the visual icon of the clay figure in the front is what draws secondary attention. The swimmer is in green water which is obviously unclean and unhealthy. The perfectly square buildings and storage facilities surrounding the pool create the impression that the swimmer is surrounded. There is a cube of sorts on the furthest edge of the pool. It appears to be floating at least in part over the pool’s surface. The shadows of the clay figure and some unseen thin rectangle stretch towards the swimmer. Everything that surrounds the pool serves to create in the swimmer a sense of claustrophobia and a feeling of danger to the viewer. The swimmer herself, the gender is indicated by the curvature of the hips, is of particular importance as well. She is face down in the water and has been under the water for eternity. Not only is the world around attacking, but the woman is also attacking herself. Many of Ernst’s works is designed to be provocative and illicit an emotional response from the viewer (Klingsohr-Leroy 10).

Surrealism is a form of art which attempts to recreate the human mind, the unreality of the dreamscape in the real world. According to Andre Breton, in the “Manifesto of Surrealism,” the surrealist painting is an endeavor to recapture the frustration and bewilderment of the dream in a realistic setting. He says:

What I most enjoy contemplating about a dream is everything that sinks below the surface in a waking state, everything I have forgotten about my activities in the course of the preceding day, dark foliage, stupid branches. In “reality,” likewise, I prefer to fallI would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers, the way I surrender myself to those who read me with eyes wide open; in order to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought (Breton).

This then is the stated purpose of the Surrealist movement, the intention of creating imagery based upon the subconscious mind and bringing that unseen imagery into the real world. Fillmaker Luis Bunuel said, “The real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself” (Ross 1). A Surrealist’s intent is to create a visual piece from something intangible and unseeable to someone who does not exist in the same mind space as the author or artist in his or her state of dreaming. Often what we visualize in the subconscious is not something we wish to see in the waking hours, which is why so much of the art from the movement seems odd or unsettling. Breton quotes a man named Pierre Reverdy who stated that: “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality” (Breton).

Salvador Dali was an artist who specialized in the surreal. He turned every component of his life, from his car to his physical appearance into an expression of the strangeness of the world around him. Dali took what was initially imperfect to him and exaggerated the failings and flaws in order to create an indelible impression (Sanchez). The man himself became a visual icon of the surrealist movement (Dali 219). Dali was quoted as saying, “It must be stated once and for all to art critics, artists, etc., that they can expect from the new Surrealist images only deception, a bad impression and repulsion” (Hoffman 20). Dali became famous around the world for his ridiculous handlebar mustache and for making art wherein the impossible was made probable and the improbable made possible. This photograph was taken for a Life Magazine article discussing Dali and the Surrealist movement. Dali himself is in the background, midair. In the foreground, a chair is lifted, cats escape a painting to the right and transform into water. Obviously, the picture is staged; there were wires holding the cats and a stagehand in possession of the chair. Dali himself was probably jumping if not hooked to a wire as well. These do not matter, for it is the visual icon that is important. Audiences see this photo and are immediately able to understand Dali’s philosophy of art and the world in general.

Perhaps the most famous work of Surrealist art is the Dali masterpiece The Persistence of Memory. Dali called his paintings “” (Clocking 3). What makes this painting iconic is the melting clocks. Even those not particularly interested in art have seen this painting somewhere else in the history of popular culture. Time is melting away through memory. Dali uses his brush to try to recreate the process of the human memory (Rojas 137). The animal in the center of the painting could be any quadruped. It seems to be a horse, but without detailed physicality, this can only be speculation, which is one of Dali’s points. The memory is a fragile and frail thing. Often times, human beings do not remember the world as they were, but as they wanted them to be. Through memory, good things can become bad and vice versa. In the background of the painting, there is a beach and water. This is what the person performing recollection is trying to remember, but they are thwarted by the process of remembering. First they must traverse the deserts of long years past in order to achieve the recollection of a memory which may not have been as delightful as the person initially believed.

The purpose of art, particularly Dadaism Surrealism is to present a visual to the world which either affirms or questions the perception of the viewer. These two movements challenge the idea of art as pretty pictures and instead use the media to inform their audience that there is something more. “A Surrealist Manifesto” was composed in 1925 by several prominent artists of the period. Among their declarations was that “Surrealism is not a poetic form. It is a cry of the mind turning back on itself, and it is determined to break apart its fetters, even if it must by my material hammers” (Nadeau 240). This art explores not just the visual aspect of art, but the mental and psychological as well.

Works Cited:

Breton, Andre. “Manifesto of Surrealism.” 1924. Print.

Claybourne, Anna. Surrealism. UK: Heinemann. 2009. Print.

“Clocking in with Salvador Dali: Salvador Dali’s Melting Watches.” Salvador Dali Museum.


Dali, Salvador. The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. New York: Dover. 1994. Print.

Hoffman, Irene. “Documents of Dada and Surrealism: Dada and Surrealists Journals in the Mary

Reynolds Collection.” The Art Institute of Chicago. 2001. Web. May 8, 2011.

Horsley, Carter B. “Surrealism: Two Private Eyes.” 1999. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.


Klingsohr-Leroy, Cathrin. Surrealism.

Nadeau, Maurice. The History of Surrealism. Cambridge: Belknap Press. 1989. 240-41. Print.

Rojas, Carlos. Salvador Dali, or the Art of Spitting on Your Mother’s Portrait. University Park:

Pennsylvania State. 1985. Print.

Ross, Michael. Salvador Dali and the Surrealists: Their Lives and Ideas. Chicago: Chicago

Review Press. 2003. Print.

Sanchez, Monica. “History of Surrealism.” Web. May 8, 2011.

Warlick, M.E. Max Ernst: a Magician in Search of Myth. Austen, TX: University of Texas.

2001. Print.