1916 – 1970

Dadaism and Surrealism were two avant-garde movements of the early 20th century have had a profound world-wide cultural influence and were both political, societal, and personally introspective expressions of thought both visually and intellectually. They inspired other art movements, literature, and philosophy and were one of the foundations of Modernism.

Dadaism sought to show the absurdity of the values and actions of society through the creation of absurdity in its images. Even the very name of the movement is slightly absurd – it takes its name from the French word for ‘hobby-horse’.

Surrealism sought to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.” Today, Surrealistic works are fun to pick apart and to seek hidden elements and meaning in. In their day, they were somewhat unnerving and forced new perspectives that hadn’t been dealt with.

Dadaism and Surrealism Origins and Historical Importance:


Dadaism began around 1916 in pre-war Europe, specifically Zurich, Switzerland. It was expressed with influences from Anti-Art, Cubism and futurism, Collage, Abstraction art, and the German Expressionists.

The Dada movement wasn’t merely an artistic one, and some Dadaists of the time were subversive in regard to the arts as they were then seen outside of avant-garde circles. This was a group of free thinkers that put forth their ideals in public protest through demonstration, published writings, music, and the visual arts. They leaned toward topics such as politics, culture, and the arts.

LHOOQ Dadaism and Surrealism

LHOOQ Dadaism and Surrealism

Zurich, being in neutral Switzerland, was a conveniently ideal place for the Dadaists to flourish. They believed that the social and cultural ideals of the time, particularly those that were political, stemmed from the values of the bourgeois. Hugo Ball, a Dadaist, explained “For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.

[quote_colored name=”” icon_quote=”no”]“The individual, man as a man, man as a brain, if you like, interests me more than what he makes, because I’ve noticed that most artists only repeat themselves”. – Marcel Duchamp[/quote_colored]

Dadaism sprung up in other European cities and even in New York, and each group had slightly different ideas. Berlin artists were not as anti-art as the Swiss arm, Cologne went in for lewd performance art, and while New York Dadaists did not have a manifesto, they published regularly and were inventing “ready-made” art – objects that were in existence but were shown in absurd ways or odd combinations.

The originators and major players of the movement converged in Paris around 1920 and the movement surged there with published works, demonstrations, and Dadaist Theater.


Surrealism was born out of the Dada movement in a unique way. When the war was over, and the Dadaists had returned to Paris, Andre Breton, a veteran who had treated shell shocked soldiers with Freudian techniques, met writer Jacques Vaché who inspired him with his writings that focused on what was beyond the realm of the metaphysical.

His new interest led him to join Louis Aragon and Phillipe Soupaul in creating a literary journal, Littérature, through automatic writing (writing without thought at all – some say through a ghost’s will). They also included dream theory in the journal.

At the Rendezvous of Friends Dadaism and Surrealism

They believed that a metaphysical, surrealistic, dream work approach to social change was superior to the methods of Dadaism. They wanted Surrealism to show that representing objects as they were was important, but that they should be expressed with a thesis, antithesis, and a synthesis between the two in a fully open space for imagination.

The Surrealists embraced idiosyncracies, free association, and the workings of the unconscious in their pursuit of liberating the imagination. Their works were not intended to impart madness or insanity, they were meant to free the mind. Salvador Dali said “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”

[quote_colored name=”” icon_quote=”no”]“When the artist finds himself he is lost. The fact that he has succeeded in never finding himself is regarded by Max Ernst as his only lasting achievement”. – Max Ernst[/quote_colored]

The Surrealists also produced manifestos, works that emphasized the combination of things that did not normally appear together to “produce illogical and startling effects.” Their goal was to liberate not only the individual mind, but the restrictions that society imposed on free and imaginative thought and perspective.

Dadaism and Surrealism Key Highlights:

  • The Centrale Surréaliste, a surrealist research group of writers and artists, investigated speech under trance.
  • The Surrealists also practiced automatic drawing in addition to automatic writing.
  • The political difference between Dadaists and Surrealists is that Dadaists lean toward anarchism, while Surrealists lean toward communistic thought.
  • Some Dadaists did not survive the Second World War and died in Hitler’s death camps. He considered their works to be “degenerate art”.
  • Dadaism “ready mades” were part of the anti-art philosophy and have reappeared as new art. Pierre Pinoncelli, a performance artist, used Duchamp’s Fountain in a piece in which he urinated on the work. The Fountain was a urinal that a friend of Duchamp’s had signed with her pseudonym that Duchamp turned into “art” by submitting for exhibition. He was denied at the time, but it is now considered to be a milestone piece in modern art..

Dadaism and Surrealism Top Works:

  • Fountain – Marcel Duchamp
  • At the Rendezvous of Friends – Max Erntz
  • LHOOQ – Marcel Duchamp
  • Portrait of Cezanne – Francis Picabia
  • Automatic Drawing 1924 – Andre Masson
  • Indefinite Divisibility – Yves Tanguy
  • Etched Murmurs – Dorothea Tanning
  • The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali
  • Le Violon d’Ingres – Man Ray
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