‹ Past Exhibitions

A Private Eye: Surrealism, Dada, and More from the Brandt Collection

The Johnson Museum is fortunate to have such dedicated alumni collectors as Dr. Arthur Brandt, who over the years has made many significant long-term loans to the permanent collection. Thanks to the Brandt family, the Museum has been able to present to its visitors Pablo Picasso’s major cubist sculpture Woman’s Head (Fernande) of 1909 as well as important works by Le Corbusier, Giacometti, and Archipenko. (The sculptures by Picasso, Giacometti, and Archipenko are currently on view on the Museum’s first floor.)

This large exhibition drawn exclusively from the Brandt collection presents approximately 150 works primarily from two related art historical movements: Dada and Surrealism, which many consider world views or religions rather than art movements. Art historian David Sylvester noted in 1978 that "Dada and Surrealism are not art movements; they are not even literary movements with attendant artists. They are religions, with a view of the world, a code of behavior, a hatred of materialism, an ideal of man’s future state, a proselytizing spirit, a joy in membership of a community of the like-minded, a demand that the faithful must sacrifice other attachments, a hostility to art for art’s sake, a hope of transforming existence."

Works by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, George Grosz, and Morton Schamberg illustrate the complexity and diffusion of the Dada movement, which sprang up in the neutral city of Zürich, largely as a response to the unprecedented human toll of World War I and spread after the war to Berlin, Paris, Hannover, and New York. The Dada artists blamed society’s supposedly rational forces of scientific and technological development for bringing European civilization to the brink of self-destruction. They responded with art that embraced anarchy and the irrational. Good examples of this attitude are Man Ray’s iron with nails on its face, Cadeau (Gift), Duchamp’s irreverent mustache on a reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Picabia’s images of people as machines, or Schwitters’ collages made from found objects. Wanting to change the world, Dada artists were not content to just produce objects in the studio; they put on public events that included elements of theater, dance, poetry, and music, anticipating many contemporary art–making methods and pioneering advertising techniques still in use today. According to its proponents, Dada was not art—it was “anti-art.”

Surrealism emerged around 1920, partially as an outgrowth of Dada. French writer André Breton was its principal theorist, publishing the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Advocating the liberation of the mind and ultimately the liberation of the individual and society, the Surrealists sought to engage the imaginative faculties of the unconscious to attain a dream-like state different from everyday reality, leading to a life of freedom, poetry, and uninhibited sexuality. The works by Salvador Dalí included here are good examples of Surrealist methods such as dream interpretation and free association, while Hans Bellmer’s drawings and prints represent the kind of provocative eroticism that Surrealists thought was a challenge to tyranny and authority. Other well-known Surrealist artists represented in A Private Eye include Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, and the American Surrealist Leon Kelly.

A Private Eye also features representative works from other art historical movements of the early twentieth century such as Constructivism and Suprematism of the Russian avant-garde, providing a wonderfully eclectic view of early Modern art.

All works are courtesy of David Ilya Brandt and Daria Brandt.

Andrea Inselmann
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art