Research: Dadaism

‘Before Dada was there, there was Dada’.

Dada is a movement which in many ways defies a definition.  There seems to be no one unifying force (apart from there is no unifying force), no one group behind the movement, with many manifestos published.  Indeed, it seems to have grown up across slightly different time frames during the early twentieth century, in different cities.  It also crossed a number of different disciplines, although much of the work eventually became concentrated in the literary and visual arts spheres.

One of the elements I found interesting for my own drawings were the sound poems of Hugo Bell.  In these he dissected the words into individual phonetic syllables and recombined them, thus taking meaning away from the language and creating a new sound picture.  I wondered if the same could be done with one of my drawings – cutting it up and then recombining it to take away the original visual meaning and thus creating a drawing.  I thought I might try this out in a future drawing.  In many ways is this similar to Rauschenberg erasing a de Kooning drawing?

I have mixed reactions to the Dada images.  Some are humorous, some visually engaging (some not), some the idea is intriguing whilst others it is the final image that is intriguing.  As with most art, the more you look and gain an understanding the more you can engage with the image.


Research: The Still Life Genre

The Still Life genre (from the Dutch Stil Leven) has been defined as images of inanimate objects; however, this definition is loosely applied, as even in early works, images of insects, etc., were included.

The earliest known still life paintings are Roman murals called xenia paintings (gifts for guests).  As in the image below the light is from the left (a convention largely maintained throughout the history of the genre); the objects are arranged on steps (a common Roman devise); the complementaries red and green are predominant; and there is a simple depiction of the transparency of the water jug.  The image has a somewhat modern feel about it.

Still Life with Peaches and Water Jug, from insult IV, House of Stags, Herculaneum, c 41-68AD

Some of these compositional devises are repeated in the next image below which again is lit from the left and objects are arranged on steps.  Of course, the original purpose of this image may have been a trade sign for a money lender as it depicts bags of coins and writing materials but it is now considered a work of art.  This brings into focus the changing purpose and use of images.

Fresno from a tablinum, Praedia of Julia Felix, Pompeii

There is a long gap then in the history of the genre as religious art dominants with still life motifs appearing only in larger images.

A significant image in the history of this genre appears in 1596, painted by Caravaggio.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1596.

Much has been written about the symbolism within this painting.  The decaying and imperfect fruit representing life, death and resurrection; the apples referencing Adam and Eve.  Whilst symbolism was more important at the time this was was painted I wonder if Caravaggio had this in mind when painting the image or was he just painting a basket of fruit, some of which were imperfect?  Was the symbolism applied after the painting was finished to fit the painting into the predominate religious genre once it was donated to the church, or by an art critic to validate their knowledge, or to increase the status or value of the painting.  In many ways does it matter, as today art is about what the viewer takes from the image and therefore all views are valid.  What I find interesting about this painting is the vivid yellow background and the way the basket is sitting right of the edge of the table; it is if the basket is going to fall into the room of the viewer.

In the 17th century we enter the ‘Golden Age’ of Still Life painting, particularly from Dutch painters.

William Heda, Still Life, 1637

These paintings mainly display the wealth and processions of the newly emerging traders and in many ways set the general composition rules for this genre which are followed throughout the 17th and 18th century – glass and metal containers of various kinds and/or other foodstuffs placed on a table; or arrangements of flowers.

Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Still Life with Game, c 1760/65

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules.

Francisco Zubbaran, Still Life, c 1630

It is in the 19th century that still life for me starts to become a bit more interesting as we move away from the formal displays of wealth and start to see depictions of more ordinary interiors.

Edouard Manet, Still Life with Melon and Peaches, c 1866

I find the limited range of colours interesting, with the yellow present in the lemons, melon, the grapes and the background.  I also like the high contrast between the white and dark tablecloths which leads my eye up to the objects on the table.

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Cezanne said ‘I should like to astonish Paris with an apple’.  In the above two images I like the expressive brushstrokes and the way he uses colours across the image to unite the paintings.  In Vessels, Basket & Fruit (the Kitchen Table) it is interesting how he moves out from a pure table view to a more semi-interior view including a chair and worktop in the painting.

Gauguin, The Ham, 1889

I like the simplicity of the ham and glass on a small metal table against the bold stripe background.

Matisse, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth, 1905-06

The objects in the still life by Matisse seem to wrestle for attention with the bold pattern of the blue and white tablecloth.  I especially like the bold strokes where only one or two brush marks define the form of the objects and also the almost abstract background.

Kandinsky, Interior (My Dining Room), 1909

This very colourful work by Kandinsky remains me of a number of paintings by Matisse.  I think it is many different patterns within the image – the table cloth, the wallpaper, the wood effect of the cupboard, etc.  (Matisse used a lot of patterned textiles in his paintings).

Braque, Still Life with Tenora, 1913

This paper collage features a tenor, which is a Catalan instrument similar to an oboe.  The tenor is drawn in charcoal around the collaged paper.  I was drawn to this image, partly because is marks the start of the break from representation and also because of the subject matter which has echoes of my drawings of my clarinet.

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I choose the three Picasso images as for me they indicate the changing style of the artist.  Still Life: Bowl and Apples take a female form with bold strong flat shapes; whilst in Guitar, Compote Dish and Grapes the line is fragmented and pattern is used in an interesting manner to both bisect and unite the elements; in The Enamel Saucepan the objects become more easily recognised whilst retaining fragmented shapes.

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Paul Klee is one of my favourite artists.  In all these images I especially like the simple geometric shapes and bold use of colour to define the objects.  In Still Life with Plants and a Window, the simple shapes define the flowers and leaves of the plant, similar simple shapes define the curtain at the window with a three-quarter moon in the sky.

Morandi, Still Life with Violet Objects, 1937

Still Life dominates the output of Morandi.

Bonnard, The Red Cupboard, 1939

This Bonnard caught my eye for a number of reasons – the predominate red colour scheme, the view of an interior of a cupboard and the fact that it looks like it was an existing view rather than the objects having been arranged.

Nicholson, July 22-47 (sill-life Odyssey), 1947

It is difficult to see what the objects are in this Ben Nicholson painting but the fragmented nature of the image certainly shows the influence of cubism on art even as late as the 1940s.

Pop art and still life.

Hockney, A Realistic Still Life, 1965

I find the title of this still life by Hockney quite interesting.  The use of tone on the pile of cylinders and acting as shadows for the three blocks at the front do add shape to the forms and make them seem more realistic; although, I do not understand the leaf-like elements acting as a frame.

Richter, 4.6.1999 (99/45), 1999

This picture of a tea mug which looks like it is on the floor near a corner of the room is interesting to me as it shows the gestural marks of the pencil and also includes long strokes of an eraser across the paper.


My look at the still life genre has increased my appreciation and knowledge.  It has also made me realise that whilst my default is to be quite detailed and realistic in my own artwork, the artwork I look at and admire in others is much more gestural in nature and tends to include strong elements of pattern.  In my feedback for assignment one my tutor mentioned that students often make work for their ‘teacher’ – this and researching still-life has made me think that subconsciously perhaps I am making work for others rather than myself?  Something to think about as I move forwards through this unit.

I will do further research specifically looking at drawing and still-life later in this unit.

Reflection Against Assessment Criteria

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills 

Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

I have experimented with materials and techniques in this assignment and the final submission is outside my safe zone, however, I recognise I need to expand experimentation even further.  I have tried to be creative in not just submitting a drawing of the visual appearance of the objects but instead have used the still-life set-up to spark thoughts about what are the important aspects of playing a clarinet.  My biggest issue in visual awareness has been keeping a sketchbook as I find they intimidate me and I therefore sketch on individual pieces of paper.  However, as my confidence has grown during Unit 1 and I have realised it is not about making a ’perfect’ drawing, I have decided to take the plunge and start keeping a couple of different sized sketchbooks and draw in them much more often, which should improve my visual awareness and composition skills.

Quality of Outcome

Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, with discernment

The quality of the outcome is not as high as I would have liked.  I struggled with using some of the techniques which I am not used to, such as collage, and this had a knock-on effect on the quality of the final image.  Also, I have tried to avoid my tendency to produce a ‘perfect’ drawing so have deliberately not kept re-drawing the images in order to achieve this aim and therefore hopefully have kept in more of ‘me’.   I think I needed to greatly expand the preparation stages for the assignment to explore different composition, techniques, etc before deciding on my final submission piece.

Demonstration of Creativity

Imagination, experimentation, invention, personal voice

In this assessment I started with depicting the visual appearance of the objects before moving onto making a Surrealist inspired landscape.  Before starting this course this is an area I never would have even considered (I drew mainly from photographs prior to starting this course) so I do feel I am trying to use my imagination and be experimental in both the exercises and the final submission piece.  At this stage in the course I am not sure what my personal voice is so hopefully by working my way through the course I will start to discover this aspect.  I want to be open to new processes, ideas, and styles etc., in order to develop as an artist rather than use the course to validate an existing point of view.


Reflection, research

I have a tendency to over analyse and be very self critical of my work leading to a loss in confidence and have tried to avoid this.  However, in reviewing my posts I realise I have probably not got the balance right and need to write more, both about the process and reflection on the outcome.  I come from a science and business background so find it difficult to write about a creative process as I tend to be too concise and matter of fact.  I have started to read the books and attended a number of exhibitions.  However, I have struggled with writing these up on my on-line learning log; it is format I do not particularly like or find interesting.  I have therefore decided that, whilst I will keep the on-line learning log to show my process against the exercises and the assignments, from the commencement of Unit 2 I will also keep a hard physical learning log to keep a record of research, exhibitions etc as I will be able to include my notes, annotate postcards/photographs, etc and hopefully be more creative in how I respond to both research and my own work.

Research: Odilon Redon


Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was a member of the French Symbolist movement.  The image the Two Trees (part of his noir series) uses tone to create both a way into the image with the lighter tone leading into the trees from the bottom right and a sense of foreboding with the very dark tone between the two tree trunks.  You want to go up to the trees and peer up the path beyond without venturing into the space as you are fearful of what you might find.   Tonal variations on the tree give a sense of the rounded form of the trunk and of the weight/solidity of the tree.  The shading lines and spots provide texture to the tree and give a strong feeling of the roughness of the bark.

Other images include:

All the images use tone to both define the form and create a somewhat sinister, mystical atmosphere.  This atmosphere is particularly created by the dark background tones with the face almost fading back into the picture and the dark tones around the eyes which add a sadness to the images.  With the Temptation of Saint Anthony, even though the face is mainly in light tones, the background dark figure and odd bat-like wing adds a dark feeling to the image.

Up to now I have mainly thought of tone to create structure and form to the objects within my drawings, however, Redon shows have tone can also be used to give a dark (or light) atmosphere to a drawing and it is something that I will need to consider in the future.

Research: Ernst Experiment 1

After reading about the various techniques Ernst tried in creating his automatic paintings I decided to experiment with a couple of the techniques myself.  This first experiment uses ‘decalcomania’, where you sandwich ink between two layers of paper and then peel the top layer off, revealing a printed reverse image (see Ernst post below).

I visited Chicago a little while ago and took a boat trip around the river ways which have skyscrapers lining the banks.  One of the things I noticed when taking this trip was that the glass walls of the skyscrapers reflected the vivid blue sky and the surrounding buildings reflected as broken abstract images on the glass, with gridlines provided by the window frames.  I thought this would work well using the ‘decalcomania’ technique.  Of course, I realise Ernst would have first used decalcomania and then looked at the resultant image to spark his imagination for the final image and in effect I have reversed the process as I already have an idea for the final image.

I first drew the gridlines and then used masking fluid to keep the ink off these lines.  I painted the vivid blue of the sky using acrylic ink and then, using printing ink on a separate piece of paper, drew a rough, loose shape of a building adding dots of other colours for the windows, ledges, etc.  I inverted this piece of paper and then placed it over the window sky grid, pressing it down to transfer the image.  Once dry I removed the masking fluid and drew the window frames in black ink.

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One of the things this experiment has taught me is the detailed planning Ernst must have undertaken for various stages of his compositions before arriving at the final image.  For example, I thought is would be easy to peel off the masking fluid once all the media was dry revealing clean lines; this was not the case as the dried ink had created a film across the lines and it peeled off with the masking fluid.  I therefore had to go over the lines with a knife to break the seal before peeling off the fluid.

The experiment itself worked as the resultant image does remind me of the abstract shapes I remember  on the skyscrapers and I lost a degree of control on how the reflected skyscraper would turn out.  However, as an image I do not think it works.  The black grid lines are too heavy and the scale of the piece is all wrong.  It would have been better on a much larger scale with the reflected skyscraper being smaller in relation to the overall size.  Also putting the glass wall in context of the overall building would have been better.  However, I did enjoy the process and it is a technique I would think about using in the future.

Max Ernst

After investigating Ernst and frottage I decided to look at the work of Max Ernst in a bit more depth.  He was deeply interested in the link between the unconscious and conscious mind.  This came from his early reading of Freud and his observations of images created by mentally-ill patients.  Throughout this life Ernst explored this link, particularly the use of automatism in painting, where chance and the unconscious mind plays a part in producing the image.  What made Ernst’s use of this imagery interesting for me was how he developed the ‘automatic’ image using his conscious mind.  Over his life he developed and explored a huge variety of techniques, often revisiting or combining them at various points in his artistic career.

He was associated with the Dada movement using collage to question both traditional art values and the accepted general cultural values of the time.  He arranged photographs and engravings prompted by illustrations in scientific catalogues and added line, areas of colour or a landscape not associated with the original objects.  In May 1921 he exhibited a series of collages entitled ‘Beyond Painting’ at the Au Sans Pareil Gallery in Paris; the mechanistic nature of the collages show Ernst being influenced by de Chico, Duchamp and Picabia (Turpin 1979, 1993: 8).  Even the titles of the collages were dubbed ‘verbal collages’ as they reflected the distortion of reality present in the images themselves.

Hydrometric Demonstration, 1920. Oil on canvas, 24x117cm. Paris, Galerie Jacques Tronche

Ernst went onto produce Picture Poems in which the words not only relate to the image but are also part of the structure of the composition.

Who is this Tall, Sick Man …, 1923-4. Oil on Canvas, 65.4×50 cm. Switzerland, Private Collection.

In 1922 Ernst became associated with the Surrealist movement and it is here he used automatism to discover frottage and went on to adapt the technique to oil painting, calling it grattage (see previous post).

Two Sisters, 1926. Oil and frontage with black lead on canvas, 100×73 cm. Private Collection.

Ernst then produced his Forest series in which he explored childhood memories and the work of earlier German painters; a series based around birds particularly Loplop, The Superior of Birds; the Horde series which used twine to create coils on the surface from which an image emerges; and, the Whole Cities series.

In the 1930s Ernst produced the collage novel which used 19th century book illustrations cut-up and rearranged to change the original meaning of the illustrations.  These rearranged novels lack a cohesive story with no clear beginning, middle or end and were rather, a loosely connected series of depicted events.  The first novel was called The Hundred Headed Women where the women is both headless and many headed at the same time.

In the late 1930s Ernst experimented with fellow Surrealist Hans Bellmer with an automatic painting technique called decalcomania.  In this technique ink is sandwiched between layers of paper to produce the initial image; Ernst adapted this technique to oil painting taking the initial image and adding layers to create a contrast between the areas of chance and more conscious painting.

Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941. Oil on canvas, 46.3×38.1 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art.

Ernst then developed his oscillations painting where paint is dripped onto the canvas from a swinging can with a hole in the bottom.  The resultant image then acts as a stimulus to develop the conscious image.

Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly, 1942-7. Oil and varnish on canvas, 82×66 cm. Switzerland, Private Collection.

Reading about Ernst has certainly made me more aware of the need to experiment and also let chance play a part in my image making.  I do not fully buy into the unconscious mind aspect as I believe that as evolved beings you are ‘consciously being unconscious’.  However chance and randomness is something I think has exciting potential.  I know I can be quite controlling in the way I draw and I need to move away from the simple depiction of the visual image.

Turpin, R. (1979,1993) Ernst. London: Phaidon Press

Oxford Art Online (2013) Ernst, Max Biography [online] At: (Accessed on 15 November 2016)