The German artist Max Ernst who has been the subject of a number of posts here, was one of the key figures linking Dada to Surrealism. A founding member of Cologne Dada in 1919 Ernst titled himself Dadafex Maximus; Dadamax for short. Ernst experimented with photomontage during this period, the favoured medium of the Dadaists, before switching to collage and painting. Moving to Paris in 1922 he was a prime mover of the transitional period between the dissolution of Paris Dada and the start of Surrealism proper in 1924 with the publication of the First Surrealist Manifesto, known as the mouvement flou.
Above and below are works created in the Dada period, including The Elephant Celebes of 1921, a painting that combines the dreamlike composition of De Chirico with Dada collage techniques and thus anticipating the style so favoured by later Surrealists.
Calm it, calming
Calming, calm it.
-Talk to me
-I wish I could talk—
But easier said;
A few issues remain unresolved,
In fact permanently outstanding.
I have always been afflicted,
If Memory serves,
(Not me though,
Bitch is thoroughly self-serving
With her insidious insinuations,
Rosey sepia’d projections,
Flat-out brazen taunting,
Wince inducing comparisons;
The future ain’t what it used to be
But was the past so very hot?)
By a stuttering reluctance
To showtell, that would be an act,
Stripping myself bare to tease,
Besides what if there is nothing
Beneath to reveal, could I stand
The disappointment turning
To anger and then inevitably,
As night turns to day, to hatred?
So I crouched my sentences
In an invented, inverted argot
Of my own twisted devising,
A cunning linguistic cant
Impenetrable and dense
Filled with allusions, elisions,
Strewn with the slang and jargon
Of restless haunted journeys;
The most I could hope for
Was an odd sensation of frisson,
The occasional moment of fusion,
Before the dissolution of an imagined unity;
Fracturing, splintering, fragmenting,
Sending me back into my private
Realm where I can babble away,
In my nonesuch nonsense language,
Or just remain silent if I wished,
(and therefore, be true?)
With Dada it is hard to know where the humour ends and the mystification begins. This is certainly the case with one of its most notorious succès de scandale, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917.
Fountain is a ready-made sculpture, a porcelain urinal signed by R.Mutt. It was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition at the inaugural show in The Grand Central Palace, New York. The committee, of whom Duchamp was a member, decided to ‘suppress’ Fountain by hiding it behind a partition, as the rules of the society meant that any artwork presented by a fee-paying artist had to be accepted. After the show Duchamp retrieved Fountain from its hiding place, got Alfred Stieglitz of the 291 gallery to photograph the sculpture, which was then published with accompanying essays in The Blind Man magazine. Shortly after the original Fountain was lost (probably thrown out into the garbage, a fate of a many a ready-made as the peripatetic Duchamp liked to travel light), though in the 1950’s and 1960’s Duchamp made a number of reproductions that can be seen in museums across the world.
Part of the text in The Blind Man in defense of Fountain would arguably have a greater impact on Modernist and Post-Modernist aesthetic theory than the actual work.
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
After half of century of Conceptual Art we are wearily familiar with this view and lose sight of how genuinely revolutionary such a concept would have been in 1917. It also shows how little art and aesthetics have progressed since the high water marks of Modernism. I have never really been sure if Duchamp’s assault on art and taste was anything more than an elaborate piss-take, but by God nobody, not even Warhol, has ever done it better.
Francis Picabia constantly perplexes and undermines artistic expectations. A wealthy, hedonistic playboy with great personal charm, Picabia also possessed a notoriously acerbic wit and personified the savage negation at the heart of Dada.
Picabia’s career spanned many movements across continents, but is best remembered for his involvement with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Arthur Craven in the creation of New York Dada and his mechanomorphic drawings from 1915 onwards. Always on the move and with entry to every fashionable social circle, Picabia moved to Barcelona then to Zurich for the remainder of WWI. Asked to describe his impressions of the War, Picabia remarked that he was bored to hell. After WWI he moved back to Paris and participated in further Dada shenanigans with Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton, contributing ferocious manifestos for Dada events which he watched from private boxes with the mistress of the time.
With a nature both aristocratic and anarchic, Picabia rapidly lost patience with the various groups and movements and would denounce Dada and later Surrealism. From 1925 he returned to painting with a vengeance after a ten year hiatus, working on the Transparencies series which involved multiple images confusingly superimposed. Then in the forties came the nudes copied from girlie mags; astonishingly unaesthetic, these paintings are so appalling that you cannot stop looking and in a certain respect represent the culmination of Picabia’s anti-art stance.
Dada Cannibalistic Manifesto
You are all indicted, stand up! It is impossible to talk to you unless you are standing up. Stand up as you would for the Marseillaise or God Save the King.
Stand up, as if the Flag were before you. Or as if you were in the presence of Dada, which signifies Life, and which accuses you of loving everything out of snobbery if only it is expensive enough.
One dies a hero’s death or an idiot’s death – which comes to the same thing. The only word that has more than a day-to-day value is the word Death. You love death – the death of others.
Kill them! Let them die! Only money does not die; it only goes away for a little while.
That is God! That is someone to respect: someone you can take seriously! Money is the prie-Dieu of entire families. Money for ever! Long live money! The man who has money is a man of honour.
Honour can be bought and sold like the arse. The arse, the arse, represents life like potato-chips, and all you who are serious-minded will smell worse than cow’s shit.
Dada alone does not smell: it is nothing, nothing, nothing. It is like your hopes: nothing like your paradise: nothing like your idols: nothing like your heroes: nothing like your artists: nothing like your religions: nothing.
Hiss, shout, kick my teeth in, so what? I shall still tell you that you are half-wits. In three months my friends and I will be selling you our pictures for a few francs.
Some of my favourite artworks of the present century are the marvellous collages created by the Belgian artist Sammy Slabbinck (featured image for Showtime and Living the High Life). Using found images from magazines dating from the 1950’s to the 1970’s that he collects from flea markets, Slabbinck skilfully re-combines the elements to create wryly humorous, slyly subversive and sometimes unsettling, subtly horrifying works.
Citing influences from Pop Art, Dada and Surrealism, in particular fellow Belgian Surrealist giant Rene Magritte (The Object of the Eye, The Human Condition, Pleasure), Slabbinck’s frequently colour-saturated collages play with size and scale: magnified parts of female bodies form part of a landscape which tiny men journey towards or galaxies are contained within cereal bowls which the perfect 60’s mother and daughter is sitting down at the breakfast table to consume. The resultant images are startlingly lush with a trippiness that achieves the defamiliarisation that is the aim of all Surrealist art.