Chapter 12: Art Between the Wars

The Dada movement emerged in Zurich in 1916 and was a direct reaction to the senseless slaughter of World War I.  It is called a “nihilistic” movement, because Dadaism defined itself in terms of opposition to accepted beliefs:  it was anti-reason, anti-logic, anti-beauty, and even anti-art.   A prevalent theme in much Dada art is the image of the mindless automaton and the dysfunctional machine.  This was a pessimistic response to the prewar celebration of science and technology and expressed the postwar generation’s loss of faith in civilization, technology, and progress.

Surrealism was launched in Paris in 1924 by the poet André Breton, whose “Manifesto of Surrealism” was published in the new journal La Révolution Surréaliste.  The Surrealists were deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, and they drew on the unconscious as a source of inspiration for their work.  Salvador Dali painted pictures that were meant to be exact representations of his dreams, and they can be de-coded much in the same way that a Psychoanalyst de-codes a patient’s dreams.  

The Surrealists also endeavored to tap into the unconscious by means of a technique called “automatism” – a mindless method of scribbling or doodling that enables the unconscious to express itself while the conscious mind is caught off-guard.  The Spanish painter Joan Miró made extensive use of this technique, producing abstract pictures filled with biomorphic shapes (shapes that resemble living organisms).  In these pictures, Miró created an imaginative world of beings and organisms that act out bizarre dramas, and provoke a myriad of psychosexual associations.  Created from the depths of the artist’s unconscious, the pictures stimulate imaginative free play on the part of the viewer as well.

Meanwhile, American artists were only just becoming aware of avant garde developments in Europe.  The dominant style of American art between 1900-1940 was a realistic style called “American Scene.”  But all of that changed when the blockbuster Armory Show opened in New York in 1913.  Introducing American audiences to European abstraction for the first time, the show had a galvanizing effect on American artists, and many began to experiment with more abstract approaches.  

Wordpress Lectures
There are several lectures in this unit:

Learning Goals:

Upon completion of this module, you should be able to:

  1. Explain the historical context that shaped the Dada movement
  2. Describe some of the characteristic forms and strategies of Dada art
  3. Explain the process of photomontage
  4. Define the concept of the “readymade”
  5. Define “conceptual art,” and differentiate it from “retinal art”
  6. Explain the relationship between Freudian psychology and Surrealism
  7. Describe the two methods by which Surrealist artists strove to access the unconscious