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A Private Eye, Revisited: A Selection from the Brandt Collection

A Private Eye, Revisited: A Selection from the Brandt Collection

In 2006, the Johnson exhibited close to two hundred pieces from Dr. Arthur Brandt’s (Class of 1951) collection in A Private Eye: Dada, Surrealism, and More. The works were primarily from two related art historical movements: Dada and surrealism. A Private Eye, Revisited includes many of the best works from those movements in the Brandt collection to celebrate the opening of the Museum’s new wing.

Many consider Dada and surrealism 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, and George Grosz 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 Duchamp’s irreverent mustache on a reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Picabia’s images of people as machines, or Schwitters’s 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 dreamlike state different from everyday reality, leading to a life of freedom, poetry, and uninhibited sexuality.

The works by Hans Bellmer 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, Revisited include Leonor Fini, Valentine Hugo, Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, and the American surrealist Leon Kelly.

All works are from the collection of David Ilya Brandt and Daria Brandt.

Andrea Inselmann
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Images from A Private Eye, Revisited: A Selection from the... (Click an image to open slideshow)