Aldemar Januszczak on Dada and Surrealism
|Waldemar Januszczak on Dada and Surrealism|
The Dada Surrealist Movement is now part of art history more in spite of, than because of, its initial aims. Dada began as an anti-art movement or, at least, a movement against the way art was appreciated by what considered itself the civilized world; Surrealism was much more than an art movement and it thrust home Dada’s subversive attack on rational and ‘civilized’ standards. Whether people are aware of it or not, the Dada and Surrealist revolt has helped to change modern consciousness.
Dada had no formal aesthetic, virtually disregarding easel painting, but the Dadaists shared a nihilistic ethic. The word ‘Dada’, ambiguously denoting both ‘hobby horse’ and ‘father’, was arrived at by chance and gained immediate acceptance by its suitably childish and nonsensical ring. An international movement originating in Zurich and New York at the height of the First World War, it quickly spread to Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, Paris and, to some extent, Russia.
This revolt was against the senseless barbarities of war. It pinpointed the hypocrisy of those who felt that art created spiritual values. Civilization – despite Christianity, despite museums – had indeed broken down when thousands of grown men shelled each other day after day, from muddy trenches. It was no use for the person ‘of sensibility’, one of Dada’s early targets, to take refuge in beauty.
The first step was to make negative gestures; to attack the icons of the old culture. It was in this iconoclastic spirit that in 1917 Marcel Duchamp put a moustache and beard in black crayon on a colored reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c 1502).
‘The Dadaist, said the German poet Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974),’is a man of reality who loves wine, women and advertising.’ The Berlin Dadaists, such as Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), particularly liked the technique of photomontage, using illustrations and advertisements cut out of popular magazines. The Dadaists adapted the Cubist idea of collage to new purpose, that of making puzzling or strikingly incongruous juxtapositions of images and letters. The collages of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) in Hanover were subversive because they were made of litter – bus tickets, sweet wrappings and other scraps. Duchamp’s ‘ready mades’ likewise tended to start life as objects of unmitigated ordinariness: the snow shovel, urinal and hat rack.
Other significant artists connected with the Dada Movement are Man Ray (1890-1976), whose basic tool was the camera and who invented the rayograph (an object placed on photographic paper was briefly exposed), Francis Picabia (1878-1953), an eclectic artist; Jean Arp (1887-1966), a poet and a sculptor, and Max Ernst (1891-1976) a collagist who was to become one of the great Surrealist painters.
Writers and poets, such as Hugo Ball (1886-1927) and Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), were at least as prominent as the artists. Dada gave much to the Surrealist Movement and was finally absorbed by it in Paris in the mid-1920s.
Surrealism probably had more influence on twentieth century art than any other movement except Cubism. It began as a literary movement, involving a special philosophy and lifestyle for its members and has been compared to religion in its aim and practices. It lost no opportunity to attack the Pope as a symbol of the restrictive authority of the established order, and it replaced him with one of its own, the poet Andre Breton (1896-1966) who was capable of ‘excommunicating’ those he thought misguided or recalcitrant: Salvador Dali was expelled in 1937. Breton developed a political program for the improvement of society but in practice, because politics invariably involve compromise, this proved incompatible with the major Surrealist aim of exploring and liberating the creative powers of the unconscious mind.
In 1924 Breton published his first Manifeste du surréalisme defining the movement ‘once and for all’ as he put it: ‘SURREALISM, noun, masc. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or more preoccupations. ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of associations heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to the substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.’
At this stage, in 1924, there was no mention of painting but under the aegis of Breton, the Surrealists developed pronounced likes and dislikes in both the literature and the art of past and present. Breton liked pre-Freudian demonstrations of the ‘unconscious’, such as the eighteenth-century English gothic novel and the nonsense writings of Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) and Edward Lear (1812-1888).
Admiring the primitive mystery suggested by Gauguin’s work in Tahiti, the Surrealists wanted an art to wonder and marvel at, not an art of reason and balance but something miraculous and mystical. They were great collectors of the products of ‘primitive’ cultures such as Oceanic sculpture. (The Fauves and the Cubists had already ‘discovered’ African sculpture.) In European painting they looked behind the classical tradition for obsessions and eccentricities of vision and imagination: for example, the views of hell with its hybrid monsters by Hieronymous Bosch (1453-1516); the bizarre results of the obsession of Paolo Uccello (1396/7-1475) with perspective; the fantastic and menacing prisons of Giovanni Piranesi (1720-1778), nightmares of Henri Fuseli (1741-1825) and the black period of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). In the nineteenth century, they found Impressionism too naturalistic, too rational. They preferred Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist dreamlike images. Scorning fashion, Breton was a devotee of the visionary paintings of Gustave Moreau (1828-1898), and at a time when art nouveau was disregarded by the cognoscenti, the Surrealists marveled at its wrought iron plants as though the transformation of natural organic forms into metal was a sort of alchemy. They found Cubism, too rational, too logical (although an exception was made for Picasso’s totemic proto Cubist painting Les demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso himself was also a special case, being held in awe as a phenomenon and a sort of unordained priest of Surrealism.) The Surrealists preferred the ‘primitive’ vision of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). They rejected Futurism, preferring the Metaphysical painters, especially the haunting enigmas of Giorgio de Chirico (b 1888).
Andre Breton’s phrase ‘pure psychic automatism’ was intended to apply to the process of writing and Breton even gave practical hints on how to do it. In 1930 he published his second Manifeste du surréalisme in which he defined ‘surreality’ as the reconciliation of the reality of dreams with the reality of everyday life into a higher synthesis.
Underlying the interest in automatism and dream lay the Surrealist notion of what was called ‘objective chance’. They believed that the existence of coincidences (events for which there were no rational explanations) was evidence and that true reality was not ordered or logical. Access to reality could only be gained through the unconscious mind.
Three painters too great to be contained by Surrealism – Picasso, Klee and Miro – produced Surrealist work, while remaining somewhat aloof from the group. Miro and Picasso created improvisatory images and techniques that were ambiguous and suggestive rather than figurative. The Three Dancers, painted by Picasso in 1925, is a brilliant example of this kind of painting. Klee’s ‘poetry of the heart’, was a deceptively simple attempt to transcend the gulf between people and nature, and is at once abstract and representational.
There is no dominant painting style in Surrealism. Considered from the point of view of technique it exhibited three main tendencies. The first tendency (which proved in the short term to be the most innovatory in terms of physical working methods) was that of discovering imagery by mechanical techniques where chance was exploited. The purpose was to ‘irritate’ the vision, to stimulate the imagination and to force inspiration.
Frottage (rubbing), developed by Ernst and described by him in Beyond Painting (1948), comes into this category: ‘On 10 August 1925, finding myself one rainy evening in a seaside inn, I was struck by the obsession that showed to my excited gaze the floor boards upon which a thousand scrubbings had deepened the grooves. I decided then to investigate the symbolism of this obsession and, in order to aid my meditative and hallucinatory faculties, I made from the boards a series of drawings by placing on them, at random, sheets of paper which I undertook to rub with black lead, In gazing attentively at the drawings thus obtained, the dark passages and those of a gently lighted penumbra, I was surprised by the sudden identification of my visionary capacities and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other, with the persistence and rapidity characteristic of amorous memories.’
Surrealist painting dates from the invention of frottage, although Ernst had used collage in a similarly ‘psycho technical’ fashion. He brought together scientific images,’…elements of figuration so remote that the sheer absurdity of that collection provoked a sudden intensification of the visionary faculties in me and brought forth an hallucinatory succession of contradictory signs… These visions themselves called for new planes, for their meeting in a new unknown… It was enough then to add to these catalog pages, in painting or drawing, and thereby obediently reproducing only that which was to be seen within me, a color, a pencil mark, a landscape foreign to the represented objects, the desert, a tempest, a geological cross section, a floor, a single straight line signifying the horizon, to obtain a faithful fixed image of my hallucination…’ A list of the techniques or psychotechniques of the Surrealists, therefore, is no more than a list of aids to vision in which the spiritual overwhelms the technical.
By the technique of grattage (scraping) Ernst transferred frottage from drawing to oil painting. In decalcomania (transferring) the image was obtained by laying arbitrary patches of color on a piece of paper. A clean piece was then rubbed gently on top. When separated, strange grottos, exotic vegetation and underwater scenes suggested themselves to the imagination. A picture was made by chance.
Fumage (smoking) was a technique of automatism invented by Wolfgang Paalen (1907-1959) in the late 1930s. Here the chance imagery was provoked. by moving a candle under a sheet of paper; and random areas of soot would develop from which the mind could form images. All these techniques depend for their application upon the hallucinatory mind of the artist.
Dali and the Veristic Surrealists
The second tendency of Surrealist painting, sometimes called Veristic Surrealism, was to depict with meticulous clarity and often in great detail a world analogous to the dream world. Before responding to the Metaphysical painting of de Chirico and being brought into the Surrealist Movement in 1929, Salvador Dali had admired the command of detail in artists such as Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) and the Pre-Raphaelites; his physical technique continued to reflect this admiration. Dali’s importance for Surrealism was that he invented his own ‘psycho technique’, a method he called ‘critical paranoia’. He deliberately cultivated delusions similar to those of paranoiacs in the cause of wresting hallucinatory images from his conscious mind. Dali’s images – his bent watches, his figures, halfhuman, half chest of drawers – have made him the most famous of all Surrealist painters. But when he changed to a more academic style in 1937 Breton expelled him from the Movement.
The Surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte (1898-1967) combine convincing descriptions of people and objects in bizarre juxtapositions with a competent but pedestrian physical painting technique. The results question everyday reality, stand it on its head and present a new surreality. These odd juxtapositions were explored by the English painter Edward Wadsworth, who used tempera to achieve a dreamlike clarity in his work. Surrealists approved of desire in its attack on reason and the Veristic Surrealism of Paul Delvaux (b 1897), in which women appear in the cool surroundings of noble architecture and exude an hallucinatory eroticism.
Veristic Surrealism subdivides into a second main type in the work of Yves Tanguy. The dreamlike visions that Tanguy produced from the unconscious layers of the mind contain meticulously described yet imaginary objects. There are no bizarre juxtapositions. His is a self consistent world that convinces on its own terms as in a dream. In the work of the Veristic Surrealists, the surface of the painting tends to be flat and glossy: the viewer is reminded as little as possible that the illusion is composed of paint and the hallucinatory effect is thereby enhanced.
The third main Surrealist tendency drew more attention to the materials used by the artist. This tendency survived the break up of the Surrealist movement during the Second World War. It began with the ‘automatic’ drawing technique practiced by Miro, Paul Klee and Andre Masson (b 1896). The line of the pen or other instrument was allowed to rove at will without any conscious planning. Masson tried to achieve the same sort of result in painting, by drawing a mass of lines in an adhesive substance on the canvas, adding color by coatings of different colored sand. After the end of the Surrealist epoch, this approach was carried into painting in New York by Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), the ‘white writing’ paintings of Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and, above all, the vast abstractions of Jackson Pollock which contain a strong element of drawing with paint while the artist was in an ecstatic trance.
Waldemar Januszczak: Techniques of the Great Masters of Art (London: Grange Books, 1996).