Dada, Surrealism, and Art in Europe Between the Wars


Hugo Ball in Costume at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 (photo by Unknown –, Public Domain,

There were a series of art movements that came into being in the years during and after World War I that reflected the shock that artists felt at the level of violence and destruction wrought by the war. Many of these also showed the cultural upheaval brought by the war, and the continuing tensions throughout the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.

One of these movements was Dada, founded in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916 as a kind of “anti-art,” predicated on a nihilist philosophy of negation. As shown by the name, which can be traced to the French slang word for hobby horse, a child’s babbling as they learn to speak, or just nonsense, the work produced by the Dada artists was playful and experimental, and had enormous impact on later twentieth-century conceptual art. Pictured above is one of the founders of Dada, Hugo Ball, dressed for one of the performances at Cabaret Voltaire. It was the Dada artists that initiated the idea of performance art, where there is no object produced, and the work can be changed or impacted by interaction with the audience. Dadaists placed a great deal of importance on the effects of chance, improvisation and spontaneity in their work, as shown in the work of Jean (Hans) Arp, who said he used chance to complete many of his pieces from this period.jean-arp-collage-with-squares-279x395
Jean (Hans) Arp, Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-1917 (photo×395.jpg)

Marcel Duchamp also became affiliated with Dada, and invented the ready-made as a means to engage with the question of whether the creator or the creation make something “art.” The idea behind these was the Duchamp could buy something, and display it with art, making it an assisted ready-made if he had to make modifications. He also combined his taste for wordplay and punning with visual images. Many of these were also means to engage in the discussion of the role of commercialization in art, as well as the over-emphasis on the name of the artist. This can be seen in both L.H.O.O.Q. and The Fountain. Some of his later pieces also take into account the role of chance in the completion of the work. The story goes that his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) was dropped by the movers, breaking the glass, which made Duchamp declare it to be complete. This piece is also about the role of the machine in modern society, making it equally a response to the role of commercialization as chance.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 and The Fountain, original 1917 (photos and


Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923 (photo

American artists were influenced by Duchamp’s version of Dada when he came to New York. Some, like Man Ray, created works in the Dadaist vein, that interacted with the ideals and goals of the movement. These were meant to be strange juxtapositions of objects and forms. In Germany, the Dada artists had more of a political focus. Hannah Höch’s photomontage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany is a commentary on the corruption of the Weimar Republic, the German government set up after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Man Ray, Le Cadeau (The Gift), original 1921 and Indestructible Object (Or Object to be Destroyed), original 1923 (photos By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0, and

"Schnitt mit dem Kchenmesser durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands"

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919-1920 (photo

Neue Sachlichkeit was another reaction of German artists after WWI. All of the artists involved had fought in the war, and had witnessed the atrocities of trench warfare, a well as the poor response of the government to the needs of veterans and war widows. Many of these works, such as George Grosz’s K.V. (Fit for Active Duty) and Eclipse of the Sun, critique both the corruption of the Kaiser during the war and that of the Weimar Republic after it. In K.V., Grosz, pictured here as a rotting skeleton, is being passed through for military service by the fat cats of the army. Eclipse of the Sun shows the government controlled by the capitalists, and consumed by greed. Many of his post-World War I works also deal with the lack of a social safety net for war widows and returning veterans, many of whom had serious injuries. Max Beckmann used himself and his family as the models for the family under siege in Night. In this work, a brutal scene of murder, torture, and rape, Beckmann is referring not only to experiences of people during the war, but also to the senselessness of the violence. In this way, he is connected to the ideas of Dada as well. Otto Dix used the Isenheim Altarpiece, from the Renaissance in Germany, as his inspiration for Der Krieg. Instead of a religious scene, however, Dix fills the space with images of his experiences in the trenches of World War I, including soldiers in the predella that are either sleeping or dead in the trench. The work speaks to the physical and psychological devastation of those who survived the trench warfare.

George Grosz, K.V. (Fit for Active Duty), 1918 and Eclipse of the Sun, 1926 (photos and

Max Beckmann, Night, 1918-1919 and Otto Dix, Der Krieg, 1929-1932 (photos!Max_Beckmann,_1918-19,_The_Night_(Die_Nacht),_oil_on_canvas,_133_x_154_cm,_Kunstsammlung_Nordrhein-Westfalen,_D%C3%BCsseldorf.jpg and

In Russia, immediately following the Revolution, art was distinctly avant-garde, with artists feeling free to experiment with forms and media as a means to express their allegiance to the new Communist government. Vladimir Tatlin constructed the model for the unbuilt structure called the Monument to the Third International between 1919 & 1920. This was to be a revolutionary building, a response to the Eiffel Tower, with shapes that were of various sizes and geometric shapes that were to revolve at different speeds. The entire structure was to reflect the technical sophistication of this new regime. Tatlin was allied with the Russian Constructivist movement, which rejected the idea of art as autonomous, in favor of art’s social purposes. Aesthetic was to have dynamic components, with the art in service to the Russian Revolution. This would be replaced under Stalin with Soviet Socialist Realism, which was art that was supposed to support and glorify the Revolution in a clear, naturalistic manner. It is easy to dismiss this style as pure propaganda, but the artists were still engaging with modernism and design of the period, such as Art Deco design.

Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International, 1919-1920 and El Lissitzky, The Constructor, 1924 (photo By Unknown –, Public Domain, and El Lissitzky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Vera Mukhina, Worker and Peasant, 1937 (photo By Limitchik – I took this picture in 2012 with a Canon 30D, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The major movement that combined design and architecture in Germany was the Bauhaus, a school of art and design that sought to make art accessible and affordable to all. Walter Gropius was the first director of the Bauhaus, and he combined an arts and crafts college with a school of fine arts. Gropius designed buildings for the school in Dessau that would allow for combined use, and large, light-filled studio spaces. He also brought in well-known artists to teach at Bauhaus, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It is here that the so-called International Style of architecture is developed, and the conception of using the glass curtain wall as a means for allowing Wright’s concept of the outside inside, but with new, modern materials. This will also influence architects like Le Corbusier, who conceived of a house as a “machine for living,” creating structures that were very simple, and did not completely hide the pipes and such, such as Villa Savoy. His later style, called New Brutalism, involved using reinforced concrete in new and interesting shapes to create modernist architectural forms that moved beyond the rectangular box. The church of Notre Dame de Haut in Ronchamps, France is characteristic of this style.

Walter Gropius, Bauhaus workshop wing, 1925–26 (photos CC BY-SA 3.0, and CC BY-SA 3.0,

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur-Seine, France, 1928–30 and Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamps, France, 1950-55 (photos and

Writer André Breton bridged gap between Dada and Surrealism with First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, which advocated for free association in art and literature, as a means of exploring myth, fear, fantasy, and dream. Surrealist images seem unreal and unlikely, and oddly juxtapose time, place, and iconography. In many ways, the artists associated with Surrealism were heavily influenced by the Italian movement, Pittura Metafisica, which explored many of the connections between dreams, the subconscious, and the conscious in the years leading up to World War I. The artist Giorgio de Chirico personified this style, with his use of strange juxtapositions and multipoint perspective, which leaves the view unsure of at what he is looking.

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of the Street, 1914 and Place d’Italie, 1912 (photos and

Man Ray’s experiments with photographic techniques and Rayograph images combined
Dada wordplay with Surrealist imagery. He created intensely experimental works that combined the two movements, and his Rayographs, created in the darkroom by placing objects on the enlarger. These images use the ideals of Surrealism, as the objects Man Ray used are generally unrecognizable. Photographs like Le Violin d’Ingres combine the Dada sense of the playful with the Surrealist interest in fantasy. Max Ernst also represented the transition from Dada to Surrealism, as he was involved with both movements. Ernst
combined Surrealism, Cubism, Freud’s theories, and playful qualities of Picasso and Duchamp and the influence of Non-Western art.

 Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924 and Rayograph, 1926 (photos and

Max Ernst, The Elephant of the Celebes, 1921 and Ambiguous Figure, c. 1919-1920 (photos and

Paul Klee created linear, simplistic imagery, and saw childlike imagery as the most “pure” form of art. Many of his works draw on Non-Western forms as well, and he was also influenced by Kandinsky and the other instructors with whom he interacted at the Bauhaus. His works throughout the 1930s also drew on the increasing tensions in Germany with the rise of the Nazi party.

Paul Klee, Mask of Fear, 1932 and Twittering Machine, 1922 (photos Paul Klee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Paul Klee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Salvador Dalí was interested in the uncanny quality of dreams. His style was very crisp and Classical, with erotic overtones. Dalí was also one of the first of the Surrealists to experiment with film, making the tour-de-force Un Chien Anadalou with his friend Luis Buñel. This film played with the ideas of dreams and the subconscious mind in a threatening, erotic fashion. Many of his pieces are painted in with crisp lines and hidden brushstrokes. His most famous work is probably The Persistence of Memory, which deals with the loss of the memory over time, using strange forms like melting clocks, ants and flies, and amorphous, vaguely human shapes. The cliffs in the back resemble the cliffs of Catalonia, the region in Spain in which Dalí was raised.the_persistence_of_memory
Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931 (photo by

Another Surrealist artist who painted in the more Classical style was René Magritte, who was interested in more veristic images, but with unrealistic, dreamlike juxtapositions. Many of his works include visual puns or word play, and seem to be commentaries on the modern world of the early 20th century. The Spanish artist Joan Miró never officially allied himself with the Surrealist movement. But, he claimed to paint entirely from his subconscious mind, saying he could leave his conscious mind behind when painting. But, the use of the color black seems to become more pronounced in his works as the Spanish Civil War, and the ultimate victory by the Fascists, progressed.

René Magritte, The False Mirror, 1928 and The Treason of Images, 1928 (photos and

Joan Miró,The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers, 1941 and Joan Miró, Harlequin’s Carnival, 1924-1925 (photos and

Art in Europe in the period between the wars reflected the continued escalation of tensions in Europe. Artists also reacted to the chaos and bloodshed of World War I, trying to make sense of the new, mechanized warfare.



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