Dadaism & Surrealism: Use of Objects

Objects figure prominently in Dada and Surrealism, starting with Marcel Duchamp’s (1887-1968) introduction of the assisted ‘Ready-Made’[1] and branching out into the ‘Surrealist Object’ which 34 took its cue from Duchamp’s conception and initial use of the ‘Found Object’. Attached to Dada as a disruptive art of ‘noise’[2], props and masks were used, incorporating objects into the performance art of Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Marcel Janco at the Cabaret Voltaire of 1916. This appropriation of paraphernalia and the resultant clash of non-sensical elements serve the movements ends as anti-art, anti-war and art-aesthetic.

fig. 1

From these origins, under the umbrella of Dada, Duchamp and Man Ray (1890-1976) produce works within an off-shoot group in New York where they advance the random ‘encounter’ of an object. This is where mass-produced, commercially available, utilitarian objects are given titles and consequently designated as art from Duchamp’s argument that “an ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist”[3]. Here, the process is arbitrary, as Duchamp demonstrates when he signs a urinal “R.Mutt” and titles the piece ‘Fountain’, 1917 (fig. 1).

fig. 2.

As Dada concerns itself with the discourse on the nature of art, Duchamp’s disregard for canon and tradition was calculated and deliberate, with the aim of shocking and challenging the art receiving public. In this aspect, Duchamp’s use of an object elevated to the status of high art by its displaced context, was programmatic to his specific objectives as an anarchist. Whilst Duchamp pits common-place objects against the establishment, Man Ray extends on a conceptual art “in the service of the mind” with his offering of 1921 titled ‘Cadeau’ (fig. 2). Translated as ‘The Gift’, Ray extends on Duchamp’s idea of ‘encountering’[4] a displaced object by providing a conjunction between two foreign and conflicting objects. ‘Cadeau’ makes the addition of a row of nails to a flat iron: In an act of instant defamiliarisation, the initial object is no longer fit for purpose and its intended domestic use; indeed, the functional has become the dysfunctional with sadistic connotations. This triggers a feeling of disconcertion and disturbance and from these sensations prefigures the Surrealist fascination with the ‘strange’ and ‘uncanny’.

fig. 3.

Surrealism as a movement designates the “Surrealist object” within its programme of artistic practice as an exploratory medium using found, modified and sculpted objects. These three-dimensional art works are used and displayed in a different context to those of the Dada movement, as Breton advocated a reworking of the “found object” into a more complex, probing invocation. Breton cites Isidore Ducasse as a source who in “Les Chants de Malodor” writes of “as beautiful as a chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on the operating table”[5] on reinvigorating our sense of perception and relationship with those objects surrounding us. With Surrealism, objects become those ‘of passion’, insinuating alternative, estranged associations and working to be a form of provocation. For example, artist Méret Oppenheim (1913-1985) produces ‘Fur Breakfast’ (fig. 3), a teacup, saucer and spoon covered with gazelle fur in 1936 which becomes emblematic of Surrealist relations with the uncanny. The object’s ambiguity becomes a point of departure from common association and invites the freudian process of ‘fetishisation’[6] whereby it is fixated on and one’s desires are projected onto it. ‘Fur Breakfast’ can be seen to elicit adverse sexual connotations on material, psychological and symbolic levels, for instance, Jack J. Spector writes on the “ironic tension between its subtly metonymic allusion to pubic hair (cunnilingus) and the potential sexuality of the act of drinking repressed through etiquette.”[7]

fig. 4.

Spector too comments on “the thrill and repugnance at the idea of drinking tea not from hard, clean porcelain but from a fur-covered cup [which induces] an association with a perverse performance with the mouth.”[8] which suggests that Surrealist Objects, evident also in Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’ 1936 (fig. 4) where the lobster mouthpiece appears phallic, exist to stimulate revulsion and conflicting responses within the Freudian framework allotted to our sexuality. When examining Dada and Surrealist objects, those associated with Dada have no specific aesthetic intentions, whereas the Surrealists show more involvement and interaction with the objects used and this relates to their fundamental interest in aestheticism and desire.

By examining a range of overarching aesthetics across these movements, we can see how the cultural and ideological aspirations of each group impact and effect the work produced within a particular framework. Dada condemned nationalist and capitalist values, engaging in sporadic activities, performances and provocations to alert society and flag up its incompatible conventions through acts of radicalism. Surrealism, in contrast, advances many of Dada’s creative strategies whilst negating its grounds of no meaning, reason or purpose to focus in on a more programmatic and aesthetically appreciative basis responsive to the creative process and its untapped potential.

However, both these movements prove to be wide in scope and output, diversifying the production of art and reevaluating our reception of it. Each responds to and condemns the Western emphasis on logic and reason, working to undermine traditional values, therefore becoming instrumental in our definition of modernism and providing the catalyst for further conceptual developments.

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

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Sources Used:

[1] N. Rosenthal, ‘Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), in Heilbronn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 34 October 2004, [accessed 12 November 2018].

[2] M. Nunes, Error: Glitch, Noise and Jam in New Media Cultures (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), p. 82.

[3] MoMA Learning, ‘Marcel Duchamp and the Readymade’, Museum of Modern Art Online, moma_learning/themes/dada/marcel-duchamp-and-the-readymade [accessed 12 November 2018].

[4] M. Buskirk and M. Nixon, The Duchamp Effect (MIT Press, 1996), p. 103.

[5] T. Huhn, The Cambridge Companion to Adorno (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 385.

[6] H. Foster, Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004), p. 227.

[7] Spector, Jack J, Surrealist Art and Writing, 1919/39: The Gold of Time (Cambridge: Cambridge Press), 1997.

[8] Ibid.

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