The Dada movement was founded on anti-war politics and was a direct response to the established standards and manifested these ideas by responding to accepted concepts of art with the creation of anti-art cultural works. The goal was to reveal meaning what was being discarded as meaningless in the modern world.
Continuing after WWI, Surrealism evolved from original Dada manifestation. Defined by Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, Surrealism is:
Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
The concept of Surrealism was explored in photography, art, film, literature, music, and continually addressed the question of what is conscious and unconscious, often with strong socio-political themes. Deconstruction and Post-Modernism are descendants from Dada and Surrealist thought.
Writing in the 19th century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a philosopher whose approach has been critical to the course of 20th-century thought. Hegel asserted that there is an original argument, a Thesis. This Thesis automatically generates an opposing argument, the |Antithesis. The interaction between Thesis and Antithesis bring forth a third, and a new idea called the Synthesis. Furthermore, the foundation for Hegelian Dialectics is developed from four concepts:
- Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time.
- Everything is composed of contradictions (opposing forces).
- Gradual changes lead to crises, turning points when one overcomes its opponent force (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
- Change is helical (spiral), not circular (negation of the negation).
Dialectical reasoning has been a central strategy for communicating philosophical challenges since it’s conception. As a written strategy, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are a familiar framework for essays. Likewise, there are reverberations in art, literature, music, etc.
However, just as the structure of Dialectics argues for an antithesis, so is there a counter-response to this approach. Though acutely articulated in Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction and in the Post-Modern exploration of film and literature, there is a unique space in the early twentieth century where the conception of an antithesis to Dialectics is being visualized adjacent to its origin.
Photographer Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890. Arriving in Paris between WWI and WWII, Man Ray was a central figure in the practice and philosophy of Surrealism. Central to the socio-political experience of Europe during this period is the question of how to live in a world after the devastation of war. Not only the destruction of infrastructures but the knowledge that that destruction was generated and enabled by the continental communities. The horrors of war could not withstand cultural boundaries. All types of hell were made possible by the hands of man.
First Dada and then Surrealism emerged as expressionist responses to this new psychological realization. Dada is a Dialectical response to being the anti-war to war, and the anti-art to traditional art. The emphasis on automatism in Surrealism opens the discussion to both cultural and personal exploration. Automatism is defined as the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention. If war is the strategic plan to conquer, divide, and/or destroy than surrealism is the unconscious response. But, unlike Dada, this response is not obviously anti-war (or peace). Though consciousness and unconsciousness are practically a dialectic opposition, their content does not necessarily follow the same rules. What is found in the unconscious may be better explored through the process of Dialectics, but it resists definition, categorization, or compartmentalization.
A visual example of this is seen in Man Ray’s photographs “Le nu en photographie,” or “Two Nudes” composed in 19 37. In this image, we see two nudes, one facing the viewer the other with her back to the audience looking into the distance. The portraits are not mirroring images, but the juxtaposition of light and dark background establish that the images are linked, representing united, but contrasting concepts. Black is the antithesis to white and vice versa. Put them together and the visual contrast creates an experience that is not achieved when viewed separately.
Likewise, one nude faces forward, the other showing her back. This is another example of inviting a Dialectic comparison. Though, here is where it becomes clear that this strategy is being intentionally broken. While the black-white backgrounds and poses lead the interpreter toward their familiar Thesis, there are several factors that disorient this process. Almost mirror images of each other, the differences in poses convey different messages. The lighted nude faces forward, intimately meeting the eyes of her audience; Her arm is raised to reveal her breasts and the curve of her figure. She is fully conscious of her physicality and allurement. The second nude shows her back to the viewer and looks into the darkness. Her figure is highlighted, but it is not being displayed for an audience. Both arms are lowered and her focus is unknown.
A simple interpretation would read this as the lighted nude represents what is conscious and the darkened nude is the unconscious. However, Man Ray’s technique of inducing photographic polarities deconstructs the obvious. The light nude is highlighted in black; the black nude is highlighted in white. The characteristics of each nude display of the unconscious and conscious. The direct sexuality of the first is generated in the primal ID, clearly nestled in the unconscious. The reflective gaze into darkness implies active cognition. Though the initial invitation is to define each woman as being black or white, conscious and unconscious, this Dialectic interpretation is destabilized the more one participates in the portraits as a conversation between opposites. The more one tries to define the images—both technically and symbolically, the more impossible it becomes to reduce the images to a single narrative.
Man Ray’s photograph, “Le nu en photographie” (“Two Nudes”), is an example of how Dada and Surrealism struggled with the strictures of Dialectic thought in the 20th century. It is an exemplification of an experience that is both defined by opposites and irreconcilable to being pruned into familiar and rational forms.