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Dada and Surrealist Photography

Dada and Surrealist Photography Collage
Started: 1919
Ended: 1960s
I would photograph an idea rather than an object, a dream rather than an idea.
Man Ray Signature

Summary of Dada and Surrealist Photography

In post-WWI Germany and Paris, a ground-breaking practice of photography emerged, inspired by Dada's improvisational practices and the Surrealist's foray into the unconscious, dream, and fantasy realms. Whereas photography had been widely used as a tool to document reality, artists began to work with the camera and progressive techniques to create images jarringly detached from photography's original uses. These visuals oftentimes challenged the viewer's perceptions with a strong basis in conceptualism, conjuring the uncanny, ethereal, or unordinary. Other times, they emphasized the artist's intent, by presenting familiar images unlatched from their usual context, inviting new perspectives of the ordinary. This practice would spread to America and become a forebear to the decades-long exploration of the possibilities of the photographic image that remains common in today's art world.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Key Artists

Overview of Dada and Surrealist Photography

Dada and Surrealist Photography Image

The Dada movement was established in Germany after World War I. It attempted to create a new kind of art that was valued primarily for its conceptual properties rather than focusing on aesthetics or literal documentation. Dada quickly spread to France and the US (to Paris and New York in particular), but many of its proponents who worked with photography remained in Germany. One of the key ways in which the Dadaists attacked traditional art was through photomontage. Artists such as Max Ernst and Hannah Höch used scissors and glue to cut up found (and occasionally original) photographs from a number of sources and reassemble them, using contrast and juxtaposition to emphasize their message. The use of photomontage as an art form was one of the most important ways in which the Dadaists shook up the traditional aesthetic order of the art world.

Important Photos and Artists of Dada and Surrealist Photography

Hannah Höch: Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-20)

Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-20)

Artist: Hannah Höch

Though one of Höch's earliest works, this ambitious collage is unusual within her canon for being particularly large; it measures 35 x 57 inches. The piece was exhibited in the First International Dada Fair, which took place in Berlin in 1920, and it was reportedly one of the most popular pieces in the show. In the top right corner Höch pasted together images of "anti-Dada" figures of the Weimar government and representatives of the old empire. Elsewhere in the collage, known proponents of Dada, such as Raoul Hausmann, are arranged in contrast to these establishment figures.

The effect is initially one of visual confusion, and yet a kind of nonsense-narrative begins to develop with sustained attention. One figure is transformed into something else by the addition of a de-contextualised newspaper clipping, such as the Kaiser's iconic moustache replaced by a pair of upside-down wrestlers. The work encapsulates the eclecticism and eccentricities of Dadaism, but also makes a pointed political statement against the staid establishment; it is a carefully crafted homage to anarchistic opposition.

The piece expertly illustrates the Surrealist use of photomontage along with the technique of taking words and images from the established press to create a fresh, subversive statement that was highly innovative for the time.

Marcel Duchamp: Dust Breeding (1920)

Dust Breeding (1920)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

This is an important example of early Surrealist photography, crossing the line between Dada and Surrealism in the early 1920s. It is a photograph taken by Man Ray of Marcel Duchamp's masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923) after it had sat for three years gathering dust in Duchamp's studio. Dust Breeding is an important early example of collaboration in Surrealism; where two artists utilized the combination of imagery to defy literal presentation and concoct an all-together new piece in which one media interrogates and challenges another.

Although Dust Breeding is literally a close-up photograph of a dusty surface where the graphic lines of Duchamp's masterpiece peek through just visible, the resulting effort resembles an aerial photograph. When the work was published for the first time (in the early Surrealist journal Litterature), it was humorously captioned View from an Aeroplane. This points to Man Ray's aim of using photography in combination with language to trick the viewer's eye and to distort the viewer's powers of perception through psychic suggestion. It was one of the few photographs published in a Surrealist journal before 1924, hinting at its importance as an early example of Surrealist photography.

Contemporary photographer Sophie Ristelhueber was strongly influenced by Man Ray's photographs and by this work in particular. She argues that, "the constant shift between the infinitely big and the infinitely small may disorientate the spectator. But it is a good illustration of our relationship to the world: we have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet we see nothing."

Man Ray: Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) (1924)

Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) (1924)

Artist: Man Ray

Le Violon d'Ingres is one of the best-known images in modern art. To create this work, Man Ray took a photograph of one of his favorite models, Kiki, and made her pose resemble a painting by Ingres. He subsequently painted two "F" symbols copied from the body of a violin onto the print, before re-photographing it. This is a powerful example of post-production manipulation being used to create a Surrealist effect in photography.

Man Ray's manipulation gives the work a number of layers of meaning. By re-photographing the print, Man Ray elides the original image with his manipulation of it, resulting in the woman's body being inseparable from the violin-like figurations on it. This confuses the viewer's understanding of the image: are those black marks painted or tattooed directly onto her skin or are we in fact looking at a woman with holes in her back like the body of a violin? Such confusion points to the inherent instability of the photographic image so often explored by the Surrealist photographers.

Art historian David Bate also argues that this image is a key example of the Surrealist disruption of the photographic issues of mimesis and the signifier/signified: "The signifying plane of the photograph itself has been disrupted [...]. No longer purely mimetic, the photograph confuses the usual status and conventions of a photographic image with respect to reality. It introduces fantasy."

Useful Resources on Dada and Surrealist Photography

Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Dada and Surrealist Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Nov 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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