Dada was an art movement which reacted to the madness of World War I. The artists were saying, in essence, if this is what rational thinking brings us, let’s try a little irrational. Scientific theories were also in the air that would soon lead to the ultimate rational achievement, the atomic bomb.
The movement was made up of artists and poets, sculptors and writers, initially in Switzerland. They would hold events where three or more poets would read different poems at once. They might disrupt symphony concerts by standing to lecture or shout nonsense. The most extreme Dada act was suicide, or even murder.
A fur-lined cup, a flat-iron with tacks glued to the bottom, a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, a urinal turned upside down and signed R. Mutt – these are a few of the Dada acts offered as sculpture.
Marcel Duchamp, the “creator” of the urinal, was probably the most influential of the group. His painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”, outraged the public in 1913. Today it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. It depicts a figure apparently coming down stairs, very abstract, broken into planes and facets.
Dada eventually developed into Surrealism, losing some of its wildness. Surrealism is chiefly characterized by strange, dream-like scenes: a train coming out of a fireplace or a mountain-size rock floating above the ocean.
The late Salvador Dali is the most famous Surrealist with his waxed moustache and zany antics. The Surrealist approach was to try to paint “automatically”, without thinking, trying to tap into that part of the brain where we dream. The paintings had the disjointed look of dreams, more often nightmares, with melting clocks, floating tables, upside down people.
The link between Dada and Surrealism is the irrational. Dada was based in anger at the senseless slaughter of war. Surrealism was more interested in exploring the irrational as a psychological state. In this it derived largely from the work of Freud, Jung and other groundbreaking practitioners of the new-ish art of psychiatry.
Artists of different temperaments developed in other directions. Malevich is credited with making the first abstract painting. He painted a tilted white square on an off-white canvas in 1911.
Vanguard artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee explored abstraction over the years 1915-1944. They saw parallels between painting and music. Music speaks to the ear, painting to the eye; the message is the same. For Kandinsky painting was composition of visual elements: color, shape, line. Like music one could simply delight in the arrangement, see a red triangle followed by a distorted checker pattern. Again, like music he recognized an emotional play. “Color is the keyboard of the emotions”, he said.
Klee too was concerned to compose line and color. His art was whimsical without being trivial. In the course of meandering through his visual signs one encounters sudden surprises, a series of lines and shapes then an unexpected fish or cup or some other playful and loaded image. Looking at chief preoccupations of 20th century art – the exploration and celebration of imagination. Klee said, “The tree reaches roots deep into the earth and brings forth blossoms. The artist plums the depths of the self and creates art.”
The art capital of the western world had been in Italy, France, Spain, Holland but always Europe. The rise and terrible spread of fascism saw many or Europe’s great artists flee to the U.S. Here they had tremendous influence, so much so that by 1950 the art capital of the western world had settled in New York City.
Author's Note: This ARTicle was first published in the Dublin Courier Herald in a slightly different form in 1989 (illustration by the author).