In one of his poems, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote that, “Dada would have loved a day like this/ with its very realistic/ unrealities…”
The new exhibit at the Johnson Museum, “A Private Eye: Dada, Surrealism, and More from the Brandt Collection” embraces that sentiment. “A Private Eye” brings together pieces from the 20th century that force the viewer to consider the world from a kaleidoscopic and somewhat eccentric perspective. Two of the major artistic movements represented in this exhibit, Dada and Surrealism, invite the viewer to interpret art and the world through new sets of eyes.
Both Dada and Surrealism began in the 20th century, and the artists practicing these styles were especially active during the 1920s. Dada rejected the world of “high art” and the elitism that governed and defined what was considered a meaningful artistic creation. The Dadaists voiced this sentiment by creating what they referred to as “anti-art.” Popular mediums used to accomplish this task included mixed media, collage and the use of “found objects.” There is an almost tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and notes of irony running through this style that can be likened to a smart-alec student making sarcastic quips about his professor, and laughing to himself while the teacher reacts obliviously to the insults flung over his head.
Several pieces, such as a print of Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q,” achieve this affect brilliantly. In “L.H.O.O.Q,” Duchamp simply drew a mustache on a reproduction of the “Mona Lisa.” So, too, Man Ray’s marble sculpture “Herma(phrodite)” references a common subject depicted in art since ancient Greece. However, Man Ray abstracts the human form to its most basic contours and shapes. The viewer sees smooth, cold appendages extending out from a torso-like form. Unlike past depictions of the hermaphrodite subject, which showcased androgynous facial features, this rendition has no features whatsoever. Duchamp’s “Life Mask,” a bronze cast of a genderless figure’s face and neck, includes closed eyes and a down-turned mouth. This piece seems to be a play on the concept of the “death mask,” in which ancient cultures created an impression of a newly dead person’s face. Other cleverly composed pieces include Franz Roh’s collages, especially one entitled “The Commission for Breeding Superhumans,” which features a disproportionately sized uterus placed in a warehouse-like setting.
However, the charm of Dada lies in its claim that it is “Anti-Art” and that the viewer cannot help but wonder if he is merely transferring his own assumptions and interpretations onto the piece.
One of the other features of the exhibit are works from the Surrealist movement. An association that often comes to mind when thinking about Surrealism is Salvador Dali, the painter of the infamous piece known as the “The Persistence of Memory” that depicts melting clocks. The exhibit features several of his pieces, including a gouache and collage work entitled “Le Sommeil” or “Sleep” as well as two drawings.
Dali is often considered one of the quintessential artists of the Surrealist movement because of his ability to create otherworldly landscapes and compositions. Surrealism, itself, emphasized the exploration of the subconscious during a time when Sigmund Freud’s theories regarding the unconscious were gaining in notoriety.
A pleasant surprise in the exhibit is the large number of drawings and sketches featured. Kurt Seligmann’s ink drawing entitled “Surrealist Character” distorts the viewer’s perception of form. A man is depicted from the back; however, there are mere hints of normal shapes and physical features that dissolve into various abstractions and other types of forms. His hat turns into a wisp of smoke, a leg deconstructs into blocks and his back deconstructs into something resembling a rotting piece of meat. Seligmann’s piece is just one of many in the exhibit that toys with the concept of the depiction of the human form.
One hidden treasure in the exhibit is the “Exquisite Cadaver” drawings. The “Exquisite Cadaver” was a type of parlor game played by artists in the 1920s. A piece of paper would be folded into four sections and one person would draw a figure’s head on the top quarter and extend the lines downward into the next quarter before folding the top section from view. The paper would then be passed to another person, folded over, drawn on and passed again until all sections were filled. The product is a unique collaboration.
Overall, I think it is safe to say that Dada would have loved an exhibit like “A Private Eye.” The art is presented in an unpretentious manner and invites the viewer to laugh, question, reflect and explore. Although the exhibit cannot boast that it showcases some of the more notable pieces from this movement, it has the power to please art lovers and spark the imagination.
The Johnson Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Dada exhibit will run until December 24th.