Dadaism & Surrealism: Responses to Culture

Dada and Surrealism respond to cultural circumstances, into which their respective aesthetic and ideological frameworks come into play. The dadaist response post-WWI is overtly politicised in Berlin, where the aftermath of war in Germany was felt acutely, providing a state of social and political disorder which German artists could exploit through the dada channel. Dada, an inherently reality-based movement, here shifts to a stance actively responsive to the climate, answering to a series of economic crises and warring factions of the Left and Right who were pushing for governmental control, with artistic activism[1]. Indeed, this militant bend is vocalised in Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) and Raoul Hausmann’s (1886-1971) co-authored manifesto “What is Dada and what does it want in Germany?” (1919) which states:

“…the only possibility offered to Dadaism in Germany: a relativist, anti-bourgeois, anticapitalist and activist Conception of life, of political and diplomatic intelligence, a manifesto of inquietude and energy…”[2]

Fig 1. Hausmann, Mechanischer Kopf (Der Geist Unserer Zeit), “The Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time)”, c. 1920.

and the members of Berlin’s Club Dada which ran from 1918-1923 produce a body of photomontage and assemblage against theories, the press and propaganda. Huelsenbeck’s call for an ‘active’ artist engaging in an art of ‘action’ is made manifest in Haussmann’s ‘Spirit of Our Time’, 1921 (fig. 1) and Hannah Höch’s ‘Cut With a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany’, 1919 (fig. 2).

Fig 2. Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, Collage, 44 9/10 × 35 2/5 in, 114 × 90 cm

These works appropriate mass media, reassembling imagery and objects to physically engage with contextual factors and critique ‘the fissures and shocks of modernity’[3] through biting commentary. Höch disjunctively cuts and pastes newspaper and magazine clippings, sketches, cartoons and texts pulled from journals in her collages providing, with great immediacy, an assault on culture: ‘Cut With a Kitchen Knife’ slices up aspects of socially and politically transitional Germany, to accentuate its negative aspects and project social commentary. Here, the clash between the old Weimar government and the uprising of left-wing communism is cross-examined and the title explicitly criticises the male-dominated republic and its military blunders, deliberately breaking the barrier of censorship[4]. Hausmann too operates as a ‘monteur’ or ‘mechanic’, attaching tools onto a wooden dummy’s head, which function to denote the typical man of post-war Germany: a metaphorical drone, mechanically instrumental in society and conditioned by it. Höch’s art is an act of antagonistic hostility and protest, with Hausmann reciprocating these sentiments in his own articulate evocation of depressive affairs and the unfeeling masses.

Fig. 3 Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

In comparison to this, Surrealism in Paris works less as an art of social anger and protest and concerns itself with its own task and purpose, one which shifts the oppositional to a more theoretical position. Surrealist artists purpose themselves towards re-engaging art with society, following on from the destabilised bourgeois order of the period and dissent from these modes of vision. Guillaume Apollinaire’s understanding of “sur-reality”[5] requires a departure from the material societal complaints of Dada and reorientation to the ‘self’ and its unexpected workings. Indeed, the significance of dreams in Surrealism as a method of interpretation implies a psychological retreat from tangible reality and the regressive nature of its cerebral investigations serve to heal and reconstruct society. This approach differs to that of Dada and Breton comments:

‘If the depths of the mind harbour strange forces capable either of reinforcing or of combatting those on the surface then it is in our greatest interest to capture them…’[6]

From these aims, an intention of the Surrealists asserts itself, Breton effectively announces a programme of tapping into the unconscious to, suggestively, add to self-knowledge and awareness by revealing the true nature of people. Artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989), for example, works from the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) to fix dream images into painting as in ‘The Persistence of Memory’, 1931 (fig. 3): Dali described his paintings as “hand painted dream photographs”[7], here conjuring up familiar yet disparate forms from his home region and imagination “to systematise confusion and thus help discredit completely the world of reality.”[8] Dali’s contribution to Surrealism is therefore expository of the subconscious in open acknowledgement of those aspects society had previously repressed. In these ways, both movements subversively attack rational, civilised standards whilst retaining the integrity of their agendas: with Dada this was to provide and aggressive and public voice antipathetically; Surrealism, in contrast, is more a private exploration introspectively, both revolt to inform and change the modern consciousness.

The Elizabethan Prodigy House here…
The Picturesque – Formal to Informal in Landscape Gardening here…
The Victorian Country House here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!

Sources Used:

[1] S. Blythe and E. Powers, Looking at Dada (The Museum of Modern Art, 2006), pp. 4-5.

[2] Source of English translation: Rose-Carol Washton Long, ed., German Expressionism, Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 267-69.

[3] National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, ‘Photomontage’, Dada,

[4] S. West, The Visual Arts in Germany 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 114-126.

[5] P. Watson, Terrible Beauty: A Cultural History of the Twentieth Century (Hachette UK, 2013), chapter 11.

[6] Kotori, ‘Breton’s Big Difference: The Ideology of Surrealism’, Kotori Magazine Online, 11 September 2002, http://

[7] MoMA Learning, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, Museum of Modern Art Online, 32


[8] Ibid.

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