Challenging Reason: Depicting What Is Not And What Could Not Be
Dada rejected the bourgeois culture and economic order that many artists identified as the cause of World War I. Contending that reason and logic underlay the destruction of war, Dada embraced nonsense, irrationality, and intuition. It encouraged people to redefine artistic and social values and find meaning in seemingly absurd conjunctions.
Recycling images from popular media, Max Ernst created visual fantasies that spoke to the violence he witnessed as a German artilleryman. His first collage book, Les malheurs des immortels (The Misfortunes of the Immortals), was a collaboration with his friend the poet Paul Eluard. Twelve years later, in 1934, Ernst published Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness), a graphic novel regarded as a premier example of his efforts to transcend convention.
During a three-week visit to Italy, Ernst clipped pictures from Victorian novels, encyclopedias, and art prints. From them, he created 182 images of extraordinary creatures who inhabit vaguely familiar worlds that defy reality. Ernst intended to publish seven volumes to represent the days of the week, invoking an association with Genesis. His title also alluded to a Parisian mutual aid association, La semaine de la bonté, founded in 1927. The volumes were issued sequentially, beginning in April. Disappointing sales of the first four volumes led Ernst to combine the final three days in a single volume.
Surrealism, inspired by Dada, sought to explore the relationship between dreams and reality, to express the pre-rational ideas and impulses of the unconscious. A chief proponent, André Breton wrote, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.”
Originally published in 1869, Isidore Ducasse’s Les chants de Maldoror became a popular text among Surrealists. The principal character is irredeemably evil and the story one of cruelty and pain that Surrealists thought compelled people to confront the reality of the world. In 1948, René Magritte illustrated a new edition.
Surrealists emphasized the importance of looking closely at visual constructions like Joseph Cornell’s A Watch-case for Marcel Duchamp (1944), finding in them alternative realities that freed the mind from conventional restraints.