Dada and Surrealist Art
Let’s call it the D-S expedition. Between 1915 and about 1947 an unruly group of writers and painters made a collective attempt to reach a new territory of mind. They said that they wanted a revolution and that they were ready to leave literature and art behind. They were far from indifferent to adventure and glory. History tells the story of other great fiascoes—the Crusades, the utopian settlements of the last century. The D-S expedition overturned no governments and never reached the people. Since it never really got under way, it could not leave anything far behind. Nevertheless the events are very real and they are ours.
Or call it Dada and Surrealism. In any case, the cultural police have now herded those rowdy crowds back onto the sidewalks of literature and art. It’s all firmly under control. Today, in the top class of French lycées, the works of André Breton are listed as recommended reading. American universities offer courses on the literature of Dada and Surrealism. It has taken me a year to write this review because a new book on some aspect of the D-S expedition seems to appear every few weeks. Was the expedition, after all, a success?
Purists insist on a careful discrimination between Dada and Surrealism as different or even opposed movements. I have been taking sightings and soundings on them for many years and cannot find a more satisfactory distinction between the two than straight chronology. The first six years or so, from 1915 to about 1921, belong to Dada. Duchamp and Picabia rocked New York during World War I. In Zurich Hugo Ball and his friend Richard Huelsenbeck stumbled on the unbeatable nonsense name that made a dozen reputations, especially Tristan Tzara’s. The biggest and socially most significant eruption of Dada took place in Berlin at the end of the war; it has been sadly neglected. The two big Paris seasons of 1920 and 1921 replayed—with a few adaptations—the two Zurich seasons of 1916 and 1917. Then, for twenty years, Surrealism held its own.
The textbook version of the D-S expedition says that the Cartesian cast of the French mind organized the anarchistic and nihilistic spirit of Dada into a constructive movement. Thus Surrealism is depicted as having a coherent doctrine, working poets and artists, and a firm place in history. Such a tidied-up account violates both the letter and the spirit of what happened. Dada was child’s play, literally and figuratively, and for a time it had wide appeal. Its spirit drew on a deep simplicity of purpose. “Drop everything. Drop Dada.” Breton’s good-bye to Dada expresses its logical essence. There is an incontrovertible order in being opposed to everything, including one’s own survival. In comparison, it is Surrealism that seems wayward and contradictory. Don’t let anyone tell you that Surrealism took all these high spirits and subdued them, fitted them into a…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.