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European & American Art Dada & Surrealism

Dada means baby-talk, or a hobbyhorse, or the tail of a scared cow. It was an emphatic affirmation in the face of the horrors of World War I. Through Dada activities, a like-minded group of artists, poets, musicians, and theatre people channelled their revulsion at the violence, nationalism and materialism of Western culture. Fiercely satirical and often political, governed by chance and the anti-rational, the anarchic movement was international in scope.

Surrealism is generally held to be Dada’s descendant. Through dream-like imaginary, painters and writers associated with Surrealism intended to shock the spectator into a new awareness of reality. As an outlet for the subconscious, they let loose fantastic imagery, juxtaposing incongruous items. Commentators usually distinguish between the mimetic or hyper-realist painting style of artists such as Salvador Dalí, James Gleeson or René Magritte, and the more abstract imagery of Jean Arp, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy.

The Surrealists accorded great importance to cultures other than their own European heritage. They admired African sculpture and masks, recognising in them a highly sophisticated abstraction and distortion which confirmed their own ideas about form and structure. The Surrealist painter, sculptor and graphic artist Max Ernst worked in France and the United States. He also collected art from the Americas, Asia, the Pacific and Africa, items of aesthetic, art-historical and cultural importance. In 1985 about half of his ‘tribal’ art collection, 96 works, was bought by the National Gallery, and a selection is displayed in a large case, juxtaposed with books, photographs and other Surrealist objects.