Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Situationist International

In his Situationist saga The Society of the Spectacle, the group’s foremost theorist Guy Debord critiques the failure of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements while simultaneously admitting them to be of utmost influence on the Situationists themselves. He explains that “Dadaism sought to abolish art without realizing it, and Surrealism sought to realize art without abolishing it” (Foster 431). Dada, in other words, proclaimed to be anti-art, the utter absence of art, a movement so embedded in social and political interconnectivity that it denied the value of an art independent of broader consequence. Surrealism, on the other hand, was so marred in inward psychoanalytic exploration that it ignored the inherent political connections of such personal expression. Throughout critique and creation, however, Debord believes the Situationists to have realized that art can be and indeed must be both constructive and destructive, expressive and political. Debord’s analysis of Situationism is that of a synthesis Dadaism and Surrealism, a reworking of the movements’ internal deficiencies into a theory that proclaims art to be both and neither at the very same time.

The influence of both Dadaism and Surrealism on the art of the Situationist International is noticeable and striking. Below, for example, is a poster advertising a Dada lecture and performance, an absurdist event in which the performances overlapped and jumbled about as much as does the text of Doesburg and Schwitters’ poster.

Theo van Doesburg with Kurt Schwitters, 1922

The refiguring of spacial and visual relations in this highly graphic Dada poster is doubtlessly reminiscent of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s book “Mémoires.” Their patchwork of text, photographs, and spattered ink “intercuts the subjective and the social, the artistic and the political” in deliberately anarchist forms that Dada never quite sought, but Debord and Jorn’s work is nonetheless influenced by Dada’s methods of reorganization that experimented with mediums of both print and performance (Foster, 431). The collaborative efforts of both of these works points to methods of communal effort and identity that both the Dadaists and Situationists favored so highly.

“Mémoires,” Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, 1957

Surrealist influence on the art of the Situationists is particularly evident in their “modification” paintings and “new disfigurations.” Take, for example, the Yves Tanguy painting below, a dense exploration of the artist’s ominous but perhaps brilliantly playful subconscious.

“Slowly Toward the North,” Yves Tanguy, 1942

Asger Jorn’s appropriated, détourned painting “Paris by Night” seems to recycle many of these Surrealist qualities of psychoanalytical exploration, though for a distinctively new purpose. While the Surrealist painter explores the repressed frontiers of the mind within, the art of the Situationist is intently outward, an exploration of the spacial geography we see daily but never really know. Jorn’s painting below is a physical expression of dérive, the psychoanalytical analysis of the surrounding world that influences our psyche at every given moment of existence.

“Paris by Night,” Asger Jorn, 1959

The art of the Situationist International is a deliberate synthesis of Surrealism’s analysis of the inner and Dada’s exploration of the outer. Through their artistic output, the SI poses that art is necessarily a simultaneous expression of the freudian subconscious and the sociopolitical geography of the world that surrounds. Despite Debord and the Situationists’ denial of the success of either foregrounding movement, both Surrealism and Dadaism are doubtlessly integral to the philosophy and art of the Situationist International.

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