Saturday, January 6, 2018

“Read a Damn Book – 064: Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction”

Few ideologies or movements have influenced me as much as Dada, and as such, I try to read everything I can about those merry pranksters, so when I spotted this little book, I was excited. Being a former scholarly-type, I’m partial to theory, and with the magic word, “Oxford,” on the cover, my expectations for what I was going to be inside were incredibly high. Does the interior live up to the cover hype? Let’s find out…



David Hopkins – Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction (2004)

First, a bit of clarification. I’ve read this book three times, and I would NOT recommend this text as an introduction to Dada or Surrealism. What Hopkins has written is an academic examination of the two art movements, showing the similarities and, more importantly, how they were different. Hopkins discusses, very briefly, the histories of the two movements, looks at a few of the key personalities in the various groups, examines the political inclinations of the members, and explores some the current art tendencies that he sees as outgrowths of the Dada and/or Surrealist spirit. Considering these two movements happened in the nineteen-teens through the nineteen-forties, the fact that they have ANY impact today speaks to how important and influential they were.

What Hopkins does well is show the contrasting dispositions behind the various Dada groups and the Parisian Surrealists, who were essentially under the control of the autocratic Andre Breton. Dada, as Hopkins points out, formed as a reaction to the horrors of WWI, initially in Switzerland, and was an anarchistic, anti-bourgeoise explosion of activity. Cabaret performances, abstract poetry, self-published journals, collages, textiles, sculpture, and manifestos were the primary artistic works created by the group, who chose to make statements meant to point out how the corruption in supposedly “civilized” societies could lead to the most awful atrocities imaginable. The excitement and energy of the initial group spread around the world and various other pockets of spontaneous creativity popped up under the Dada mantel.

Again, as Hopkins notes, the Paris chapter of Dada, which eventually morphed into Surrealism, was less about anarchic social critique and more about exploring the subconscious. And the products of those explorations usually took the form of the same socially acceptable cultural artifacts that the Dada artists strove to overthrow, such as oil painting and novels. The Surrealists did produce some intriguing journals and performances, but eventually Breton, who ruled the group with an iron fist and would expel those who disagreed with his proclamations, would lead the group into joining the Communist movement.

Unfortunately for most people, Hopkins is a scholar with a deep knowledge of 20th Century art, and he drops names in this text that I’m guessing most people won’t recognize. Clement Greenberg, John Berger, COBRA, the Situationists, the Lettrists, Guy Debord, and so on, these probably aren’t names that everyone is going to be familiar with (which is too bad), and he doesn’t take much time to discuss any of them, so they may come across as empty references. In addition, there really isn’t much reproduced Dada or Surrealist art or writing in this book. In fact, I’d guess that about a third of the artwork that Hopkins does include comes from more modern artists who came AFTER these movements or from artists who were only peripherally connected at the time. (For a MASSIVE collection of reproduced Dada artifacts, I recommend Leah Dickerman’s fantastic 2005 catalogue, DADA – Zurich Berlin Hannover Cologne New York Paris. Although it’s not cheap, it’s an absolute treasure trove of extraordinary work.)

So again, this book is quite good, if what you are looking for is an erudite exploration of the political and cultural motivations behind two of the most interesting art movements of the last century. HOWEVER, I would NOT recommend this book for someone just getting interested in Dada or Surrealism. For a great introduction (to Dada, anyway), try Marc Dachy’s Dada: The Revolt of Art. If you want about as close to a first-hand account as you can get, I’d recommend (highly---and I’m sure I’ll review it soon) Hans Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art. I’ve already mentioned Dickerman’s book, which runs upwards of $50, but is COMPLETELY worth it for the beautiful, full color images. Dada is one of my favorite things in the world, so I definitely get excited by the topic. If, once you’ve dipped into the Dada pool for a bit, you decide that you want to go DEEPER, then grab Hopkins’ book and start studying!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

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