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The Dada movement emerged in Zurich, Switzerland, at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. It soon sprang up in Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, New York, and Paris. Reacting to the devastation of the First World War, the artists active in Dada mined the legacy of earlier modern movements such as Futurism, Cubism, and Expressionism to spawn an anti-art program of dissent and agitation. Taking their name from the French word for “hobbyhorse”­—reportedly chosen at random from the dictionary—the Dadaists rebelled against prevailing notions of artistic taste, materialism, and societal conventions. Their output was stylistically and technically diverse and made use of mass media, photomontage, collage, poetry, and performance to broadcast their protests.

While Dada as a movement disintegrated around 1922, several of the artists and many of their ideas reemerged in the Surrealist movement. Much more centralized and with its headquarters in Paris, Surrealism was founded by the poet André Breton, who acted as the primary spokesman and gatekeeper for the group. It shared with Dada a revulsion for the hypocrisy of bourgeois society and an aim to reveal and revel in the true nature of humanity. As its name suggests, these artists claimed to show a sur-reality, a higher reality, than what the surface typically shows. Inner psychological states, dreams, hallucinatory visions, and the subconscious occupied these artists, who were united by shared ideas rather than a single visual style.

The Menil Collection enjoys a well-deserved reputation for its outstanding holdings of artists related to these movements. John and Dominique de Menil commissioned a portrait of Dominique from Max Ernst shortly after they married. They began to collect Surrealism in earnest in the late 1940s under the guidance of dealer Alexandre Iolas, a champion of the movement in the United States. Their holdings, which eventually grew to include over 300 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, include important examples of such characteristic techniques as automatic drawing, collage, decalomania, exquisite corpse, and frottage. Three artists form the collection’s core: Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, and René Magritte. They amassed the most significant holdings of these artists’ work in the United States, and initiated and funded catalogues raisonné of Magritte’s and Ernst’s oeuvres. The Menil also has work by Hans Arp, Joseph Cornell, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, Joan Miró, Meret Oppenheim, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy, and Dorthea Tanning. Surrealist photographs include vintage prints by Hans Bellmer along with works by Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, and Man Ray.