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Dada and Surrealism

David Gariff, senior lecturer, National Gallery of Art. Just as the years before World War I witnessed the birth of abstraction, the war itself brought Dada, equally international movement, but dark and mordant where abstraction was earnest and utopian. The name, plucked from a dictionary in Zurich in 1916, means “rocking horse” in French or “yes yes” in Romanian and Russian. But as the name of a movement it really means nothing at all. Sick of the culture that had produced the carnage of the First World War, Dada challenged every sacred cow, throwing expression and authorship out the window and celebrating chance and absurdity instead. Then surrealism came along to channel the anti-art energies of Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp back into the museum, triggering a wildly successful yet fractious movement that swept Europe between the wars and embraced many media. Artists like Max Ernst, René Magritte, Kay Sage, and Yves Tanguy, to name only a few, would follow the dictum of the movement’s founder, André Breton, and “seek to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.” As part of the series Celebrating the East Building: 20th-Century Art, senior lecturer David Gariff explores the chaos of Dada and the revolution of surrealism. This lecture was presented on July 31, 2018, at the National Gallery of Art.