PRINT September 1966

Dada into Surrealism

“What is Dada? A Virgin Microbe.”
“Dada is a Tomato.”
“Dada is a Spook.”
“Dada is nothing, nothing, nothing.“
”Surrealism is a way of life."

THE WORD SURREALISM IS NOW used to embrace and conceal the original innovations of Dada, while Dada itself is falsely summarized as an eccentric drop in the bucket of reason, a primarily political and nihilist explosion with few lasting effects. On the contrary, Dada’s nihilism, as Robert Goldwater has observed, was instrumental rather than fundamental.1 All the seeds of Surrealism were present in pre-Parisian Dada: bruitist and simultaneist poetry (via Futurism), automatic writing, the sexual, anti-clerical, revolutionary content, the exploitation of the unconscious and of chance. And on the visual side, biomorphism, collage and painting based on the fusion of unrelated realities, objects and found objects, interest in art by the insane, children, primitive cultures and autodidacts. Surrealism is in fact housebroken Dada, post-graduate Dada, Northern fantasy subjected to French lucidity, chaos tamed into order.

Dada and Surrealism are not interchangeable; the relationship between them would be clearer if events in Paris from 1921 on were simply called Surrealism. Swiss and German Dada, with its hostility, exuberance and basic optimism, represents the childhood stage of the phenomenon, Parisian Dada and Surrealism the throes of adolescence, with all the connotations of innocence and sophistication implied. In 1916 Hugo Ball recommended “everything childlike and symbolic in opposition to the senilities of the world of grown ups.” But his “child like” touched on the “infantile, dementia, and paranoia,” and he added, prophetically: "The credulous imagination of children is also exposed to corruption and deformation.”2 This exposure resulted in a loss of freshness and entrance into a second stage, characterized by obsessions notably consistent with the years of puberty, from which Surrealism in some ways never emerged.

Dada lost its political and esthetic virginity to the postwar period. By fall, 1920, the war had been over for two years and it was obvious that the tabula rasa for which Swiss-German Dada was striving could not be achieved. The Dada attitude began to shift, imperceptibly at first, to the potential nihilism for which it is now known. This change coincided with the move from a German to a Parisian focal point. The major literary figures were in Paris, particularly Tzara, whose arrival in the Breton strong hold of the end of 1919 did more to ignite than to unite the movement. In the visual arts, Picabia was unchallenged (since Duchamp had largely decamped) until May, 1921, when Max Ernst’s show of “dessins mécanoplastiques plasto-plastiques peintopeintures anaplastiques anatomiques antizimiqucs aérographiques antiphonaires arrosables et rêpublicains; au-delà de la peinture” (or collages; only one-fifth were glued) announced the advent of a new approach. These small works, executed from 1919 to 1921, constituted the immediate source of visual Surrealism, and Ernst’s development during this period is a microcosm of Dada into Surrealism.

Cologne Dada, like all the most artistically fecund Dada groups, was very small; like Schwitters’ Hanover, and Duchamp’s and Picabia’s New York, it was isolated from other avant-garde circles. Max Ernst and Johannes Theodor Baargeld, a painter and pseudonymous banker’s son, were the only full-time members.3 Arp, who was not in cologne as often or as long as is generally implied by historians, was still important in his role as catalyst and quizzical guide to greater Dadadom. The extent of arp’s actual participation is still not solved. He does not seem to have been present either for the November, 1919 or the April, 1920 exhibitions (though his work appeared in both), but probably stayed in Cologne for at least two months al the beginning of 1920, cooperating in the publication of Die Schammade (Dadameter), a one-shot review which significantly included a broad selection of major Zurich and Paris Dadas as contributors. Broadly traveled, and at that time still peripatetic, Arp was known and liked by all the major Dadas. His friendship with Ernst dated from 1914 and his gentle fantasy and inclination to pure abstraction complemented Ernst’s more intellectually mordant strain. They agreed to “purify the imagination”; "Sentiment must go and so must the dialectical process which takes place on the canvas alone.”4

Baargeld’s role has been minimized in what passes for Dada art history, mainly because so little is known of him; he died in an avalanche in 1927. An inventive draftsman and collagist who shared Ernst’s early debt to Picabia, his style was somewhat more expressionist, his handwriting more rounded and heavy than Ernst’s, so that despite their presumed collaborations, Baargeld’s physiognomous landscapes are individually recognizable. Anthropomorphic Tapeworm, reproduced in Die Schammade, equals Schwitters’ contemporary junk constructions in quality and imagination, surpasses them in eccentricity. Baargeld also participated in one of the best known Dada collaborations—Fatagaga (fabrication des tableaux garantis gazométriques), though it is usually attributed to Ernst and Arp alone. (Ernst’s 1921 Paris cataloglists Arp-Ernst and Ernst-Baargeld fatagaga items separately.) Arp’s whimsical account of this undertaking refers to one of Ernst’s photo-collages—Laocoön—which has at least once been exhibited under Arp’s name: “Overcome by an irresistible longing for snakes, I created a project for reformed rattlesnakes, beside which the insufferable rattlesnake of the firm Laocoön and Sons is a mere worm. At the very same moment Max Ernst created Fata. My reformed rattlesnake firm and Max Ernst’s Fata firm were merged under the name of Fatagaga and can be brought to life at any time on request.”5 Hugnet calls the Fatagaga photo-collages a ”Dadaist pact“ resulting from Arp’s expression of ”regret at not having done certain collages by Ernst," whereupon Ernst suggested they both sign them. Recently these collages have been discussed as though they were executed by more than one person, and Sanouillet says that the Cologne Dadas inaugurated the Cadavre Exquis method in Fatagaga.6 However, none of those works surviving show evidence of such a technique and the hand is unmistakably Ernst’s. No photo-collages by Baargeld or Arp have survived, to my knowledge, and given Arp’s preoccupation with abstraction at the time, it seems unlikely that he devoted any time to what, for him, was an incompatibly literary medium. According to Ernst, Fatagaga was a very casual collaboration. He was already making photo-collages when Arp arrived in Cologne, and the three spent several afternoons together, Ernst executing the collages and Arp and Baargeld making poetic, punning suggestions for images or titles.

Unique in its visual orientation, Cologne Dada was to Surrealist painting what the Parisian branch was to poetry. While Ernst and Baargeld both wrote biting Dada prose and poetry, they consciously avoided the Berlin brand of polemic. Politics were not allowed to interfere with the main business at hand—establishment of a fine-art anarchy intended to pave the way for a “new reality” that would bury Expressionism, by then the official German style. No cows were so sacred that they couldn’t be milked for Dada punch. “Everyman loves everyman’s Cézanne and rolls his eyes: This painting! Ooooh this paaaaaynting! I don’t give a damn for Cézanne, for he is an enormous hunk of painting,” wrote Ernst in Bulletin D. “Everyman also loves everyman’s Expressionists, but he turns away in disgust from the ingenious drawings in urinals. The most perfect plastic art to date is the piano hammer. dada.”

Nevertheless, Cologne art, for all its newness of approach, was very esthetically oriented. Arp and Ernst were both attracted to a highly organized arrangement of images that might have originated in chance or free association. A distinctive clarity and fundamentally Cubist scaffolding lies behind Ernst’s anthropomorphic parodies as well as behind Arp’s non-objective papiers dechirés and reliefs. It should be noted that Ernst, Arp and Schwitters, among others, were rebelling against Expressionism rather than against Cubism, which they had seen very little of due to the war. (“The exhibition of feelings is against my feelings,” says Ernst.) The Cubist framework of Zurich and Cologne Dada art is owed to the fact that for them Cubism, Futurism, and abstraction were the most radical styles available. The French, on the other hand, had seen Cubism diluted and academized. Breton and the potential Surrealists in general rejected abstraction, which was condemned as art for art’s sake, and delved into the subconscious for subject matter; having denied Dada’s tentative abstraction and lacking any other plastic innovation, they reverted to a conventional realism applied to “super-real” images. As Ernst evolved a more literary style, he too moved away from the Cubist vignette and shallow box-like space of Picabia to a deeper interior space and finally into a romantic landscape distance inspired by de Chirico, though he temporarily re-established a flat surface in the frottage paintings of the later twenties.

The 1919–20 printer’s plate “collages,” actually altered relief prints or rubbings made from the plates of a technical textbook, reflect the influence of Picabia on Ernst’s earliest Dada output, but they are also consistent with his own, infrequent paintings and drawings from the war period, such as the 1916 cover sketch for Der Sturm, where a Klee-like scratchy line, pipe and wheel shapes within a rectilinear grid, convey metaphysical rather than mechanical connotations. The printer’s plate drawings, modified by ink lines and, later, rubber stamps and watercolor, are delicate, ordered, very abstract, in spirit quite different from Picabia’s careless, awkward tracings of the entrails of an alarm clock, made in Zurich just a month or so before. (Cover of Dada 4–5). There is no question that Picabia’s drawings, such as Tamis du Vent, in the February, 1919, (Zurich) issue of 391, which has cryptic phrases written along the “technical” forms and diagrams, are the most direct source of the printer’s plate works, nor that such paintings as Amorous Parade are the basis of Ernst’s gouaches, like Undulating Katherina. Yet Picabia himself never followed through on the potential of his machine drawings, never explored them except from an iconoclastic, plastically superficial point of view, whereas Ernst, after assimilating a second major influence—de Chirico—fused the two antithetical styles with his own and continued to develop.7

12 Opére di Giorgio de Chirico, a book let of reproductions published by Valori Plastici in August 1919, had a decisive effect on Ernst. Previously he had been more impressed by Carrà’s patently artificial doll figures, reproduced in Valori Plastici, but only one painting and two drawings by de Chirico had appeared there during the time he would have seen the review. He recalls painting Aquis Submersus immediately after seeing the de Chirico booklet, and the exaggerated perspective of the “swimming pool” was probably inspired by the platform in Sacred Fish, to which he was especially attracted. (Perhaps coincidentally, the buildings, pool and clock in Aquis Submersus closely resemble those in Delights of the Poet, which was not in the booklet, but these elements might have been suggested by a drawing, Solitude, which was.) The semi-aquatic, semi-human figure recurs in the contemporary Justicia and is apparently Ernst’s adaptation of the Scuola Metafisica doll-mannequin. Resurrection of the Flesh, also titled Last Judgement, makes use of several obviously de Chiricoesque devices, including upshot perspective, drawn line of windows and the modeled curls and flabby texture of de Chirico’s classical statues, which always look more like petrified nudes than real stone. The broad humor—comic posturing, irreligious subject, details like the analogous handling of “meaty” human and bovine buttocks, perhaps a reference to Rembrandt’s “immortal” sides of beef—reveals a Dada grain of salt with which the serious and psychologically profound art of de Chirico was taken.

Not only the vertiginous foreshortening of de Chirico, but an additional spatial ambiguity found in Resurrection of the Flesh was then developed by Ernst throughout his Dada collages. This consists of a rather awkward superimposition of shallow upon deep space, omitting the expected passage between the two, an interruption of a long vista to the vanishing point by off-center placement of the repoussoirs. The rectangular bars on each side, parallel to the picture plane, serve to flatten out the effects of hurtling illusionism and throw doubt on the “reality” of the entire scene. This mannerism was directly inspired by the dissection method of Ernst’s collage, in which images torn from different environments are allowed to retain their old space in a new setting. Dada in Usum Delphini, of 1920, is a more skillful example. The plunging lines of floor and ceiling imply great distance, but this is immediately contradicted by the “nearness” of the cow in her stall, set like an end wall to halt the angled lines and in scale only a few yards away from the seated figure. At the same time, deep space is allowed to filter on through the stall window which is, in turn, flatly barred to present another obstacle. Further complicating matters is a band of cloudy sky along the upper edge of the scene, implying distance by association but nearness by flat treatment and logic or perspective. A similar but less complex effect occurs in gouaches like l’Enigme de l’Europe Centrale where the modeling of the frieze-like objects in the foreground is neutralized by the flat parallel frieze of landscape in the distance. Such anarchistic manipulation of illusion and perspective had appealed to Ernst before he saw de Chirico. Kaleidoscopic spatial mixtures can be found in the first, pre-Dada, paintings he did on his return from the war. The Guggenheim Museum’s so-called Landscape Fantasy, rendered in a folkloric style like that of Campendonk and other Junge Rheinland artists, employs images that suggest a possible source in Hogarth’s satirical frontispiece to Kirby’s Perspective.8 Disrespect for the traditional laws of painting is well in line with Dada’s program; Fiat Modes and many other collages humorously distort perceptual diagrams like those for the camera obscura.

Thus de Chirico’s exaggerated, dream perspective and Dada dislocation also challenging reality were merged In Ernst’s proto-Surrealist collage. The dialectical reconciliation of opposites was especially appealing to him, for he had personally (autobiographically) thrived on such conflict. Raised as a Catholic in Germany, son of an academic Sunday painter but member of the avant-garde as early as 1912, brought up on the German romantics, Wilhelmian children’s books, legends and fairy tales, but rigorously trained in philosophy and science, possessor of a penetrating, literate mind as well as a strong desire to explore the darker side of the unconscious, Ernst was the ideal figure to make the transition between the Teutonic emotionalism of Dada and the refinements of French Symbolism. A thorough romantic, he was also able to keep a dry and skeptical distance from sentiment and, in the ‘20s at least, from excess. The indirect impact of illustrations by Max Klinger and Alfred Kubin, who employed, respectively, the pervasively disturbing nuance and violent change of scale to wrench objects from their familiar contexts, must be noted although space precludes their discussion. In addition, the picture encyclopedias popular with children and adults at the turn of the century included juxtapositions of wildly unrelated treatments, images, diagrams, demonstrations and scenes. These and similar books provided the raw materials for innumerable collages in 1919 to 1922, the first of which to be published was the cover of Bulletin D, in November, 1919—badly drawn figures and objects isolated, not as yet to form a new reality, but departing from the old.

The exhibition for which Bulletin D was the catalog was the first of the three main Cologne Dada events and is less known than the other two (Die Schammade and the Dada Vorfrühling show at the Brauhaus Winter). Bulletin D is important because it presents for the first time several aspects of Surrealism. Ernst is listed on the back cover as “responsible for the contents.” Along with the Dada works are noted “expressionist photographs” by Kokoschka, Davringhausen and Oppenheimer, and, most significantly, children’s drawings, mathematical models, paintings by dilettantes, an African sculpture, found objects (umbrellas, pipe, pebbles, piano hammer) and drawings by the insane. The exhibition began as an uninformed invitation to the Dadas to take part in a show of Karl Nierendorf’s Gesellschaft der Künste; it became a Dada event when Nierendorf disavowed their contributions and banished them to a separate room with separate poster and catalog.

The presence of what is now called “art brut” in the Bulletin D show might indirectly be traced to Zurich, where interest in primitive sources was evident in the poetry, dances and masks, but was mainly due to Ernst, whose exploration of the subconscious and the art of the insane predates that of all other Surrealists. Beginning around 1912, as a philosophy major specializing in abnormal psychology at the University of Bonn, he had spent a good deal of time studying the art made in a nearby asylum; it included kneaded bread sculpture. He even planned a book on the subject, cancelled by the war. Because of his association with the Blaue Reiter, through August Macke, he would also have appreciated other types of primitivism, such as folk and African art and was, incidentally, aware of some of the earliest examples of pictorial automatism—Kandinsky’s improvisational drawings. At the time, Ernst was painting a skillfully eclectic mixture of analytical Cubist form and Expressionist color with touches of Futurism. “The intermingling of writing and drawing which is now recognized as typical of schizophrenic art”9 would surely have interested an artist involved in such forms, and it is possible that Ernst’s highly advanced 1913 construction—Fruit of a Long Experience—was the result of these researches as much as of Picasso’s constructions, first published in November of that year, in Soirées de Paris. As a psychology student Ernst would have known the work of Freud (whose statements about the ”hypocrisy inherent in consciousness“ are echoed in Dada and Surrealism) as well as the pioneering studies of neurotic art by Simon and Lombroso, then Prinzhorn. By 1917 Arp was advocating ”complete surrender to the subconscious," the Zurich Dadas were experimenting with free association in poetry and conversation, while in Nantes Andre Breton and Jacques Vaché were contemplating a similar breakthrough for the arts.

On Ernst’s part the real breakthrough was the photo-collage medium—not the heightened realism of the Cubist papier collé nor the explosive vignettes of the Futurist parole in libertà or the combination of these two modes employed by the Berlin Dadas, but hallucinatory, fragmented images from reality deracinated and rearranged in a new context to form an entirely new image rather than a grotesque version of the original (as in Grosz’s Remember Uncle August). Ernst has since described collage as “the cultivation of the effect of a systematic displacement.” The word systematic is the clue to its proto-Surrealism, for Dada in general was anything but systematized. By setting his hybrid forms in a photographic interior or landscape that is credible, if unheard-of, Ernst achieved a coherence alien to Dada and a consistently fantastic image alien to earlier movements. His 1919–20 photo-collages are usually miscalled photomontage, a word wrongly used from the start. Photomontage should be reserved for the purely photographic technique of printing combined negatives to produce a multiple image. The accurate term for reproductions or snapshots pasted up on paper along with letters and words would be photo-collage, or typo-photo-collage. Even when Ernst photographed his finished collages to enlarge them, rework them or to make small editions in which all sign of working process is forever deleted, this was not photomontage. The origins of the latter are clouded in self-perpetuating myth and so far no study has been made of the history of photomontage and photo-collage. It is clear that the photomontage technique goes back at least to the “combination printing” of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson in the 1850s and both methods are found in magazines and greeting cards from at least 1900.10 (Raoul Hausmann’s claims to the discovery of photo-collage are of doubtful significance, especially when he contradicts himself in his writings as to the dates involved. Grosz and Heartfield also “invented” the medium, but the work of all Berlin Dadas until 1920 consisted of the addition of photographic materials to watercolors, drawings or oils, not the entirely “readymade” visions of Ernst.)

The photo-collage lent itself to numerous effects and variations which can only be outlined here. Aside from objects and assemblages, Ernst concentrated on three broad types in his Dada years; since then no innovation has been made in the medium by him (or anyone else), though it has been adjusted to every succeeding mainstream style by countless imitators. First were the Fatagaga photo-collages and their successors (Chinese Nightingale) in which abstract or anthropomorphic images were created from unrelated fragments and placed in a “foreign” setting, usually generalized, like sky or grass; the entire surface is covered by the photographic materials. Secondly, the vignette, in which images concocted from photographs, photo-engravings or illustrations were set on solid grounds or in simple, geometric settings drawn or painted on the white paper (The Hat Makes the Man). Simultaneously there was the “unglued” abstract collage like l’Enigme de l’Europe Centrale in which a readymade image—usually scientific charts or pages from technical books, hat catalogs and the like—were altered beyond recognition with mixed-media, mainly gouache. Then, in 1921, came the collage made entirely of old fashioned photo-engravings, technically allied to the Fatagaga type of photo-collage but less abstract and far more homogeneous.

The first of these was Preparation of Bone Glue (in homage to the collage medium?), a little-changed image of the diathermy process, after which a painting was later made. The photo-engraving collage in fact provided both the images and the stylistic foundation for Ernst’s painting from 1920 through 1924, when frottage, an off shoot of the collage discovery, opened up new possibilities. Once rendered in paint, the photographic materials took on a different aspect and can be considered the origin (with de Chirico ) of what William Rubin calls the peinture-poèsie vein of Surrealist painting; Magritte, Tanguy and Dali were all much influenced by Ernsts of this period. The earliest oils in this mode retained, at some expense to their coherence, the juxtaposed space of the collages, but this was an awkward device on canvas (as demonstrated by Resurrection of the Flesh), and the homogeneous illusionism of the later collages was far more viable for such a dry, pseudo-academic treatment. In such oils as Woman, Old Man and Flower, the central image of which was adapted from Chinese Nightingale, Ernst mastered the manipulation of unexpected images within a convincingly “real” space.

The 1919–20 collages had been essentially Dada in their dissective and destructive approach to accepted meanings and pictorial references; they were compositionally simple and founded on the harsh conjunction of opposing realities. In 1921, dissimilar objects began to be connected by association so that the result was no longer a single new image but a new situation or drama comprised of recognizable images integrated into a novel context, closer to the now standard idea of dream pictures. The unity of this carefully constructed oneiric realism, unmistakably narrative in intent, was assured by such smooth passage between images; these collages seem like one frame from a film or comic strip, a dislocated part of some strange tale. The photo-engraving was ideal for this representational aim, better than the half-tone or photograph since it was already once removed from reality and featured unfamiliar period costumes and details. (The same principle was later applied by Pop artists who chose to depict “real life” as filtered through other media.) This method was brought to a climax in the collage novels: Femme 100 têtes, (1929), Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (1930) and Une Semaine de Bonté (1934). They convey action and sequence complemented by ambiguous poetic captions, like silent movies with Chinese subtitles.

The change from the Dada (1919–20) to “Surrealist” (1921–24) collages was not an abrupt one, but it can be located around the summer of 1921, when Ernst first met members of the Paris Dada group. A vacation in the Tyrol united Arp, Ernst, Tzara and, briefly, Breton, who had been in correspondence with Ernst for two years and had recognized, as Sanouillet has pointed out, that Ernst’s metaphysical point of view was more compatible with his own literary orientation than Picabia’s ideas had been.11 Ernst was already fully committed to what Aragon termed “the vice called Surrealism . . . the immoderate and passionate use of the drug which is the ‘image’.”12 In the fall of 1921 Paul and Gala Eluard came to Cologne to meet Ernst and choose collages to illustrate Eluard’s Répétitions. These and their second collaboration, Les Malheurs des Immortels, also 1922, retain a Dada sharpness and iconoclasm—a black but still robust humor with no traces of mannerism. In August, 1922, Ernst finally arrived in Paris for good and by then the transformation was complete. Whether contact with the Parisian Dadas in 1921 simply coincided with his natural evolution or whether their attitudes did make some impression on the hitherto isolated artist, from then on Ernst was not a proto-Surrealist but a Surrealist pure and simple.

Lucy R. Lippard



1. Robert Goldwater, “Book Review: Dada Painters and Poets,” Art Bulletin, v. 34, no. 3 Sept. 1952, p. 250.

2. Hugo Ball, Die Flucht aus der Zeit, Josef Stocker, Lucerne, 1946.

3. Others involved in the W/3 West Stupidia group were Heinrich and Angelika, Hoerle, Otto Freundlich, Franz Seiwert, Anton Raderscheidt, Wilhelm Fick, Hans Bolz. Their art, however, was formally conventional and not Dada.

4. Hugo Bill, on Arp, op. cit., quoted in Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art, New York, 1965, p. 47.

5. Hans Arp, “looking,” in Arp, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1958, p. 13.

6. Michel Sanouillel, Dada à Paris, Pauvert, Paris, 1965, p. 41.

7. The most obvious example of this as yet undigested mixture is Flat Modes, Pereat Art, a portfolio published by the city of Cologne early in 1920.

8. I am grateful to Dr. Ilse Falk for this suggestion.

9. Margaret Naumberg, Schizophrenic Art: Its Meaning in Psychotherapy, Grune & Stratton, New York, 1950, p. 3.

10. Gretchen Lambert has provided information about experimental photography and photomontage. The chronology of Dada photo-collage will be disclosed at more length in a forthcoming article.

11. Sanouillet, op. cit., p. 248.

12. Quoted in Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism, Wittenborn & Schultz, New York, 1950, p. 286.