The Dadaist Manifesto was written in 1918 but the movement’s origins were earlier, in 1916, as artists began to react against the society they felt had led them into the First World War.

Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Operating as a night club and art society it soon became a meeting place for artists seeking new ways of expression against what they saw as a redundant, materialistic society. The movement was named ‘Dada’ from the French, meaning hobby horse.

With the end of the war in 1918 the original group of artists moved on and Dadaism became established in Paris, Berlin, Cologne and New York. Known for its use of irony in challenging accepted norms Dadaism itself suffered from the irony of the art world being dependent on the materialistic society it wished to undermine.

In 1918, Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) issued the Dadaist Manifesto. Dadaism wished to discredit the more traditional approaches to art and, perhaps because of this there was no specific Dada style. They used ‘gestures’, where artists would interrupt or stage events, as a means of highlighting and acting out their approach. The main aims were to provoke both critics and the public, to challenge traditional views of taste in art and to be more liberated in their own approach to creating artworks. This included exploring more ‘automatic’ ways in the creation of artwork in order to bypass the conscious mind.

Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance), 1916-17 by Jean (Hans) Arp [External Link]

Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966) was an artist and poet. He used collage to explore ways to access the unconscious mind. This included throwing torn scraps of paper into the air and pasting them down wherever they fell into place. He used a similar technique with language by tearing up sentences and seeing where the words fell.

In this collage from 1916-17, Arp has used this technique allowing coloured pieces of paper to fall at random onto a larger sheet of paper. They do, however, look as if some more conscious thought has gone into their placement so, perhaps, Arp, like Joan Miró (1893-1983), wasn’t against using a mixture of chance alongside a more conscious development of the work.

Tristan Tzara also selected random words from newspapers, shook them up in a bag and selected words at random to create poetry. The concept of the ‘newspaper poem’ was also discussed by André Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924.

Dadaist work by its nature was transitory, designed to bait the public and to be, essentially, meaningless. Another concept was the idea of objects being assigned a theatricality that belied their everyday use. This was a way of forcing viewers to question the meaning of art and what they were seeing. There was the idea that art could be created by anyone and any object could be considered art if it was located in a gallery space. Artists were not superior and there was no need for any emotion to be present to create art.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) explored these ideas using ‘ready-mades’ where everyday objects were used as the basis for his work.

Dadaism also differed depending on its location. In Berlin, towards the end of the war, the focus was very much on reality and reacting against Expressionism. The development of photomontage created an approach which was more aggressively political in tone.

Related Posts

Automatism –

Surrealism –


Arp, Jean (Hans). (1916-17) Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) [Collage] At: (Accessed on 18.07.17)


Ades, D. (1994) ‘Dada and Surrealism’ In: Stangos, N. (ed.) Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism. 3rd rev ed. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 110-137


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In Paris, the poet André Breton had been influenced by some of the ideas of the Dadaist movement but he saw a need for more positive action in questioning the values of society. In 1924, he published the Surrealist Manifesto. The Surrealists shared some of the traits of Dadaism. They saw the bourgeoisie as the enemy and were against traditional approaches to art.

The main focus of Surrealism lay in poetry, philosophy and politics but it was the work of visual artists which introduced the movement to a wider audience. They were associated with the art of mediums, children, naïve painters and with primitive art. Some of the Dadaist artists became associated with the Surrealists including Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966), Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) and Max Ernst (1891-1976).

The Surrealist’s also had a focus on automatism and ways to bypass the conscious mind. They were interested in Freudian psychoanalysis and using dreams as subject matter though the aim was to transcribe the dream rather than interpret its meaning.

In using automatic techniques some artists, like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali (1904-1989), saw themselves as having a passive role, almost like mediums, when it came to accessing the unconscious mind. They did not, however, view this as access to the supernatural but rather a state of mind beyond immediate reality.

Max Ernst developed the technique of frottage as an equivalent to the literary approach of automatic writing. Frottage involves creating a rubbing of a textured surface and allowing the patterns to suggest ideas that can be further developed.

André Masson (1896-1987), used a technique of drawing with pen and ink but starting with no conscious idea of how the image would develop.

Collage, 1934 by Joan Miró [External Link]

Joan Miró (1893-1983) used automatism to create looser, freer work compared to his earlier representational style. His approach was to use a combination of working unconsciously and then developing the work with a more conscious approach.

In Collage, from 1934, Miró uses ordinary materials including a background of sandpaper and corrugated cardboard and felt. Using gouache, he has added an elongated black, biomorphic shape stretching from the top to bottom of the support. To the left of this a patch of purple gouache has been scraped across the surface. On the right of the image is a rectangle of grey felt. Using items such as sandpaper, cardboard and felt was a feature of work created by Dadaists and Surrealists. The aim was to challenge more traditional approaches to art and show that art could be created by anyone, using anything.

The Mood of Now, 1928 by Yves Tanguy [External Link]

In The Mood of Now, Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) has created a monochrome image which could be a seascape looking across an expanse of water or a no-man’s land from a war scene. Biomorphic shapes seem to grow or cut through the surface while loose, grey shapes of mist or smoke float across the surface. The subject matter could be based on a dream though not necessarily a direct representation of it. Surrealist work often had elements of what Freud called ‘dream work’. This includes having contrary elements side by side, the merging of objects or using objects which have a symbolic, often sexual, meaning.

Dali joined the Surrealist movement in 1929. His dream-based images were not merely a representation of what he had dreamt. Instead, he was more inclined to interpret his dreams and represent his current state of mind. His approach was seen by others in the movement as less a way to explore the unconscious mind than an attempt to publicise himself. This, along with his lack of interest in political matters, led to him leaving the movement in 1936.

With the start of the Second World War many of the artists involved with Surrealism dispersed. Breton, Ernst and Masson moved to New York and their continued activities influenced American artists who became associated with Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.

Related Posts

Automatism –

Dadaism –


Miró, J. (1934) Collage [Collage] At: (Accessed on 19.07.17)

Tanguy, Y. (1928) The Mood of Now [Painting] At: (Accessed: 19.07.17)


Ades, D. (1994) ‘Dada and Surrealism’ In: Stangos, N. (ed.) Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism. 3rd rev ed. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 110-137


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Automatism is often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements when artists were beginning to look at ways to side-step the conscious mind and access the subconscious. The idea can, however, be traced to myths about the beginning of painting and art originating from people in pre-historic times responding to accidental shapes in nature.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) suggested to students that they should look at dirt on walls, at stones and patterns in nature for inspiration. Focused observation would allow shapes and textures to suggest ideas that could be used in their work.

In the 18th century Alexander Cozens (1717-1786) used blotting techniques to inspire landscapes, a method that he taught to his pupils. His techniques influenced John Constable (1776-1837) and Turner (1775-1851).

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) also experimented with using blots as the basis for more developed artwork. Contemporaries observed that he would use the dregs from a coffee cup or ink and create images using his fingers, sponges or brushes, even ink-soaked lace. He saw this as something more for the amusement of himself and his friends but his work did influence the Surrealists.

In the years before the First World War artists began to explore new ways to represent the world. Painting and sculpture were beginning to be seen as inadequate as ways to reflect a rapidly changing society. In 1916, Hugo Ball founded the Dadaist movement. It aimed to challenge convention both in the ways that art was produced and exhibited. Their experiments covered not just painting but poetry, performance and photomontage.

In 1919, Max Ernst (1891-1876), a leading member of the Dadaist movement, began to explore what he termed ‘beyond painting’. He was trying to find ‘automatic’ methods that would allow him to access the potential of the unconscious mind in creating imagery. He experimented with collage using items from everyday life to create artwork. This concept, of using fragments of newspapers, railway tickets and other ephemera was radical for the time as it brought elements of day-to-day life into the art world.

Another technique used by Ernst was frottage. This involved taking rubbings of surfaces such as floorboards or stone and, in a similar way to da Vinci’s suggestion, using this as the basis for more developed work.

Little Tables Around the Earth, c. 1925 by Max Ernst [External Link]

In Little Tables Around the Earth, Ernst used rubbings of surfaces which appear to be of wood and stone. At the bottom of the image a narrow, ridged area places us as the viewer in what may be a lunar landscape. On the horizon, against a dark, mottled backdrop, a large textured circle is orbited by three smaller circles. Ernst has played with patterns, textures and tonal values allowing himself to respond to what they suggest as an image.
Ernst also experimented with a technique he called grattage which means ‘scraping’ in French. For this a canvas covered with a layer of oil paint is laid over a textured surface. The paint is then scraped off creating a surface which can be further developed depending on what the shapes and textures suggest.

The Entire City, 1934 by Max Ernst [External Link]

The Entire City is an example of grattage. Most of the canvas is taken up with a textured surface which gives the idea of a stratified, perhaps bombed, city. The original surfaces look as if they may have been some kind of metallic mesh and, towards the bottom of the painting, what could be patterned material like brocade. A mottled, moonlit sky contrasts with the textures of the darkened city.

Ernst continued to experiment with automatic techniques throughout his life. In the 1940s, he punctured a hole in the base of a can of paint and swung this around to create random patterns, a technique which would inspire artists such as Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionist painters.

Untitled, 1936-1937 by Oscar Domínguez [External Link]

Oscar Domínguez (1906-1957) used the technique of decalcomania. This involved pressing paint, usually gouache, between two surfaces and using the resulting mirror image as a basis for landscapes or fantastical, dream-like imagery. In Untitled Domínguez has used the striations of the paint to create a creature that appears to be part lion, part bicycle.

In 1924, André Breton unveiled the Surrealist manifesto. The Surrealists had some aims in common with the Dadaists and artists like Ernst and Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966) became associated with the movement. The Surrealists also had an interest in automatism and explored ways to access the unconscious mind. Many within the group were influenced by Freud’s work in relation to dreams. They experimented with trance sessions where they would achieve a passive or receptive state that allowed them to create ‘automatic’ work.

Automatic Drawing, 1924 by André Masson [External Link]

André Masson (1896-1987), used a technique of drawing with pen and ink but starting with no conscious idea of how the image would develop. Other artists, like Joan Miró (1893-1983) used a mix of automatic and conscious techniques to work in looser, freer styles than they had previously done.

Jean Hans Arp saw art produced by automatic techniques as a necessary response to a changing society. The element of chance involved in the creation of work seemed an apt way to reflect the rapid changes in transport, technology and the arts.

In using these techniques there was a need for both the artist and the viewer to adjust their response to the artwork. As Modernism in art moved away from a more traditional representation of reality there was a need for both the artist and the viewing public to consider the meaning of the actual marks and make sense of what they saw. Without the cues of realistic representation or more traditional subjects the viewer was, and still is, forced to respond to the work in a more individual way and use their own experience to create meaning.

Related Posts

Dadaism –

Surrealism –


Domínguez, O. (1936-1937) Untitled [Decalcomania] At: (Accessed 18.07.17)

Ernst, Max. (c. 1925) Little Tables Around the Earth [Frottage] At: (Accessed on 18.07.17)

Ernst, Max. (1934) The Entire City [Grattage] At: (Accessed on 18.07.17)

Masson, A. (1924) Automatic Drawing [Drawing] At: (Accessed 18.07.17)


Backus, J. (2014) ‘Beyond Painting: The Experimental Techniques of Max Ernst’ In: 30.12.14 [online] At: (Accessed 12.07.17)

Turner, C. (2011). ‘The Deliberate Accident in Art’ In: Tate Etc. Issue 21: Spring 2011 [online] At: 12.07.17)


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Lowbrow Art and Pop Surrealism

An article in Wikipedia notes that scholarly writing on Lowbrow art is limited as there seems to be uncertainty within the mainstream art community of the legitimacy of Lowbrow as a movement. Part of this seems to be that, initially, many of the artists were self-taught and the work itself was based mainly on the figure and technical skills.

Lowbrow art started in the 1970s as an underground art movement in the Los Angeles area. It is a populist art movement, characterised by humour and sarcasm, with roots in underground comix, punk music and hot-rod street culture. Artists associated with the group tended to be self-taught and came from a variety of backgrounds including comic books, tattooing and commercial art. They used subversive humour and sarcasm to comment on social and political issues.

The movement did not have an official name until the 1990s when Robert Williams, an underground cartoonist, used the phrase to differentiate his work from that which was more mainstream and academic. In 1994, Williams established Juxtapoz a magazine which helped to raise the visibility of the artists and increase their popularity.

Within the group there emerged a subgenre of Pop Surrealism. These artists, such as Tod Schorr, stayed true to the Lowbrow creed of subversion, sarcasm and humour but were classically trained. Their work moved away from the rawness of the original movement towards the creation of exaggerated beauty. Pop Surrealism explores the dreamlike states of Surrealism and merges this with the mundane and superficial world of Pop Art. In doing so it appeals both to those who have little interest in the mainstream art world and to those who do and can recognise references in their work to artists such as Goya, Van Gogh, Hieronymus Bosch and Velázquez. Today many involved in the Lowbrow movement such as Ray Caesar are using digital technology to create 3D versions of their fantasy worlds.

Lowbrow art has also been associated with the works of Dadaists and the American Realism movement, both of which have questioned the distinction between more mainstream academic art and more popular forms of art including folk art.
Artists within the Lowbrow or Pop Surrealism movements are now blurring these lines with many, such as Ray Caesar and Mark Ryden, exhibiting in mainstream galleries.

Related Posts

Mark Ryden – Cámara de las maravillas –


Caesar, R.

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga (2016) Mark Ryden. At: (Accessed 05.04.2017)

Kordic, A. (s.d.) ‘What is the Lowbrow Art Movement? When Surrealism took over Pop’ In: [online] At: (Accessed on 20.06.17)

Ryden, M.

Wikipedia. (2016) ‘Lowbrow (art movement)’ [online] At: (Accessed on 20.06.17)

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Mark Ryden – Cámara de las maravillas

Cámara de las maravillas,
CAC Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga
16 December 2016 – 5 March 2017
Visited: 28th February 2017

While on holiday I visited the Mark Ryden exhibition, Cámara de las maravillas, at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Malaga. Prior to the visit I had read a little about the artist on the gallery website and on the artist’s own website. Beyond that I had never seen his work before.

In a separate post, I look at Lowbrow or Pop Surrealist art, the movement that Mark Ryden has become associated with. In this post, I concentrate on my visit to the gallery, my observations and subsequent research.

The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga is a bright, spacious gallery. The exhibition, translated as Chamber of Wonders brought together 55 works in a range of media. Paintings were interspersed with porcelain figures and a bronze sculpture. Some of the porcelain figures were in small glass cases while the centrepiece was a large wooden figure, with a dress comprised of cuts of meat. A collection of smaller paintings was grouped together on one wall above a glass case with additional smaller paintings giving the impression of a cabinet of curiosities

My initial impression on walking round was of recurring motifs and themes in the exhibits. These included Abraham Lincoln, children, meat, body parts, bees, eyes, trees, foetuses and babies. A number of families were going around the exhibition and it was interesting to see how close both adults and children wanted to get to the exhibits. There was a fairy tale quality of something which is shiny, glossy and alluring on the surface, something that draws you in, and then is not what it seems.

As I went around the exhibition I tried to think of possible influences including medieval paintings, the symbolism of objects in 17th century Dutch Art, angels and cherubs from Renaissance art and fairy tales. There are lots of eyes hidden in the paintings, among the trees or in a brooch, giving a secretive, watchful quality. Figures are cartoon-like reminiscent of Disney characters and Manga Art. Female subjects tend to have inflated faces, large eyes and hands. The paintings have a porcelain quality with bright, pure colours and enamel-like surfaces. The effect makes you want to touch them while, paradoxically, keeping you at a distance.

I had a sense that the artist has a cast of characters but it was hard to work out what role they were playing. As I looked at some of the distorted figures it was as if they were in collusion, but with whom, the artist or the viewer?

Three exhibits drew my attention for different reasons.

Cernunnos #67, 2006 [External Link]
Mixed media
Height: 243.8 cm x 121.9 cm

This is a baby doll encased in a carved tree. It has that fairy tale quality of a tree that would be found in an ancient forest and which has magical powers. The doll wears what looks like a gold lace christening gown. On the head are small antlers. In the left-hand is a gold bracelet and in the right-hand a lizard-like creature. Above the space that encloses the doll, part of the tree, is an eye observing the viewer.

Further research, after the exhibition, showed that Cernunnos, the ‘Horned One’, is a powerful deity from the Celtic religion. His attributes of stag antlers, a ram-horned serpent and a torque are referenced by Ryden in the antlers, the lizard-like creature and the gold bracelet.

The doll reminded me of Tiny Tears, from my childhood. That in turn reminded me of work by Shani Rhys-James. Not because of any obvious correlation of style or media but because Rhys-James uses motifs such as cots, Punch and Judy theatres, mannequins and dolls and her paintings have an unsettling quality. Ryden too uses a range of objects that reappear consistently in his work but my impression was that he seems to be curating an effect with random objects placed together while Rhys-James explores more authentic influences from her childhood.

Self-portrait as a Dodecahedron, 2015 [External Link]
103cm x 135 cm x 135 cm

This large bronze dodecahedron contains a number of the familiar motifs including the child with antlers (Cernunnos), a tree, meat, a bee, Chinese characters, a bear with enlarged eyes, a foetus, and Lincoln.

On the top of the sculpture is the Yin/Yang symbol, encircled by signs of the zodiac and, in decreasing circles, are small including coins, a mask, lotus flower, clasped hands, a book, a skull, heart, a house and a telephone.

I was interested in the idea of this as a self-portrait as it reminded me of research that I had undertaken on medieval art. At the time, there was debate about what images could be represented in a religious setting. One of the responses to this was to have more idealised figures whose individuality would be represented by inscriptions, attributes or coats of arms.

Ryden seems to play with this idea.  The planes of the dodecahedron show items that are meaningful to him. In displaying the various objects and symbols you could argue that he is laying himself bare, but that seeming transparency is deceptive as the dodecahedron, like humans, has the ability to show many faces.

Wood Meat Dress, 2016 [External Link]
2.44 metres x 91.5 cm

This large sculpture of a female dressed in a crinoline-style dress made of meat was the centrepiece of the exhibition. Initially, not having seen the title, I thought the figure was porcelain realising only later that it was made from wood. The exhibit brings together two subjects of significance to Ryden, meat and trees. Meat is not just that which we consume but also our own bodies. In this exhibit, he was drawing a parallel with meat being animals that were once alive and objects made from trees which were also once alive. This exhibit was designed especially for the exhibition taking inspiration from the Spanish tradition of polychrome wood sculptures.

All-in-all this was a fascinating exhibition. I had little prior knowledge of the artist and, if I had, would have been inclined to think that it was not going to be something that would interest me. However, during and after the exhibition I found connections with other research I have undertaken, such as religious art, icons and polychrome figures.

I did find that the sheer volume of references risked becoming overwhelming. At times I felt that some of the work was too calculated, designed to create an unsettled response in the viewer but to what end?

Related Posts

Lowbrow Art and Pop Surrealism –

Ryden, M. (2006) Cernunnos [Mixed media] At: (Accessed on 08.06.17)

Ryden, M. (2015) Self-portrait as a Dodecahedron [Sculpture] At: (Accessed on 08.06.17)

Mark Ryden trabajando en la obra Wood Meat Dress CAC Malaga (2016) 2.47 mins At: (Accessed on 08.06.17)


Britannica (2007) ‘Cernunnos’ definition [online] At: (Accessed on 08.06.17)

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga (2016) Mark Ryden: Cámara de las maravillas. At: (Accessed on 08.06.17)

Mazelis, J. (2015) ‘In Conversation with Shani Rhys James’ In: 08.05.15 [online] At: (Accessed 08.06.17)

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Techniques – Gouache

Some notes, from a variety of sources, on techniques for using gouache: –

  • Lying flat areas of colour can be difficult. Mix paint to consistency of single cream as this allows even coverage – though some colours are semi-opaque and may need several coats.
  • Mix more paint than you think you will need – difficult to get exact hue twice.
  • Be aware of permanence of colours. Fugitive colours will be marked on tube and should be avoided if work is for longer term. Many commercial colours are for design work and are not lightfast. Avoid paints with non-standard names. Aim for ochres, umbers and ultramarines.
  • Transparent watercolour occasionally combined in a gouache painting. As a general rule this produces a better effect than when gouache is used in a picture that is predominantly watercolour. Textural effects can be achieved by combining watercolour, gouache and pastel in the same picture.
  • Gouache has solidity which gives effect of impasto paint layer, heavier than that which actually exists – therefore paint need not be applied thickly as it is likely to crack or peel off.
  • Techniques
    • Wet-in-wet
    • Overlaying colours
    • Dry brush work
    • Blending colours
    • Adding highlights and lowlights
    • Scraping areas
    • Masking fluid
    • Wax/oil resist
    • Mixed media
    • Lifting out with masking tape
    • Serafino with oil pastel
    • Spattering with toothbrush
    • Masking
    • Sponging
    • Combine – gouache with watercolour
    • Use on grey or coloured papers of mid-tone
    • Monochrome sketches on mid-toned paper
    • Gouache painting on a mid-toned ground
    • Combine with pencil, charcoal, pen and ink, pastel, watercolour, acrylic
  • Start by using tubes of six co-primary colours (a warm and cool version of each primary colour).
  • More readily soluble when over painted than straight watercolours – softening and blending between layers can be done using damp, clean brush.
  • Try hot-pressed watercolour paper stretched on board – but can use with almost any support.


Garland, P. (1997) ‘Gouache’ In: Artists and Illustrators (August) pp.18-19

Jacob, W. (2011) ‘The Joy of Gouache’ In: Artists and Illustrators (June) pp.50-51

Mayer, R. (1975) The Painter’s Craft: An Introduction to Artists’ Methods and Materials. 3rd edition. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons.

Smith, R. (1987) The Artist’s Handbook: The Complete, Practical Guide to the Tools, Techniques and Materials of Painting, Drawing and Printmaking. London: Dorling Kindersley.

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