Agents Provocateurs: Ringleaders of the Surrealist Circus

“Without promotion, something terrible happens…. Nothing!” – P.T. Barnum

Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí catapulted artists to world fame by whipping up scandal, shock, and subversion. Masterminds of marketing, they fused old style showmanship with modern commercial savvy. Any publicity was good publicity, and their shows were public spectacles – an electrifying theatre of erotic and violent fantasies.

Nothing was taboo at these 10 stunt shows. Ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, it was just as these masters of spin intended.

#1 THE NON EXISTENT DADA SHOWS, 1920 & 1926 Success for the Dada leader Tristan Tzara was nothing less than a crowd riot. He claimed that Charlie Chaplin (the world’s biggest star) was attending their show at the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées. Excited crowds raged when Chaplin failed to show, while the delighted Dadaists threw insults back. In 1926 Tzara advertised a Dada Sex Show at the Salle Gavreu. What the crowd got for their money was a large wooden phallus balanced on balloons. The result? More audience rage and more Dada delight. Hear Tzara in his own words here:


A spat between Tzara’s Dada group and Breton’s Surrealists exploded at the famous evening event entitled: Soirée du Coeur à Barbe (The Evening of the Bearded Heart). While Tzara’s Dada play The Gas Heart was being performed people heckled. Breton leapt on stage waving his cane and shouting, allegedly breaking an actor’s arm. A riot broke out, Tzara called the police and the Dada/Surrealist split was settled. The Gas Heart was meant to confuse with a surreal dialogue between a mouth, ear, eye, nose, neck, and eyebrow. You can see one interpretation of it here:


Breton published the Surrealist manifesto and wanted to promote the Surrealist way of seeing to the world. To this end he instigated a Paris-wide publicity blitz offering the public visits to the Surrealist headquarters. He invited people to record their dreams, nightmares, secret desires, and fears in a confession booth. This generated a lot of buzz, but would anyone heed his call? Watch more on the beginnings of Surrealism on this BBC program.


When advertising Surrealist exhibitions Breton promised the public that they would be of “a strictly pornographic nature, whose impact will be of particular scandalous significance.” He was always ready to up the ante. Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim had created the above work, titled Object but Breton rebranded it as Breakfast in Fur – linking it to Freud, fur-fetishism and Sacher-Masoch’s S&M book Venus in Fur – rocketing the scandal into the stratosphere. Hear some reactions to this work on MOMA’s website.


At the London Surrealist Show, Dalí lectured on “Paranoia” from inside a deep-sea diving-suit. The helmet was fixed with metal bolts, but he failed to attach an air supply. As his air ran out, he began to struggle, but the crowd merely applauded – thinking it was part of his act. When the helmet was smashed open with a hammer, he emerged, delighted by his “really deathly pallor.” The Daily Mirror reported attendees “came away shocked, amused, scared, or just bored.” Dalí discusses it in a documentary owned by the University of Texas.


Dalí had created a department store display for Bonwit Teller & Co, New York. The theme was “Night and Day.” “Day” was a hideous mannequin in a fur bathtub, “Night” a mannequin and what Dalí called, “the decapitated head and the savage hoofs of a great somnambulist buffalo extenuated by a thousand years of sleep.” Public outrage meant the store modified it, but when he saw it, Dalí was so enraged that he jumped in the display case and sent the bathtub, buffalo and finally himself through the plate glass window. He was arrested but ultimately let off as the Judge accepted his “artistic temperament,” making worldwide headlines. See more about it here.


Dalí had proposed building a reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus, with her head replaced by a fish, for the World Fair. Unimpressed, the organizers called it “reckless nonsense” because “a woman with the head of a fish is impossible.” Enraged, Dalí created this Manifesto, and, according to his friend and Surrealist art promoter Julien Levy, allegedly dropped hundreds of copies of it over Manhattan from an airplane. Read more about Dali’s Declaration of Independence at the Victoria and Albert Museum.


By 1941 Dalí’s attention-seeking and mantra “I AM Surrealism” had angered Breton. But Dalí’s adverts for Alka-Seltzer and chocolate, and his practice of signing blank sheets of paper for $10 were the final straw. Breton expelled him from the Paris group and created the derogatory acronym “AVIDA DOLLARS” from Dalí’s name. Completely unruffled, Dalí retorted it was the only “truly brilliant” idea Breton had ever had. See more about their split here:


The front cover of Le Surréalisme, Même used this photograph of Unica Zürn by her lover Hans Bellmer – she was bound up with string, recalling meat trussed up for the oven. The same year, the Surrealist show EROS created public delight and critical outrage with a table on which a naked woman lay covered in fruits, nuts and shellfish. It had been Meret Oppenheim’s idea, and originally titled Fertility Feast, it was intended to celebrate the cycle of life. But once more, Breton gave it a shocking rebrand, renaming it Cannibal Feast, creating an unprecedented sensational art tableau that has been copied ever since. See the show for yourself here.


At the St Moritz Hotel, Alice Cooper and Salvador Dalí, the two arch showmen and ringmasters of mayhem had their iconic meeting. Announcing, in typical egomaniacal style: “The Dalí is here” the older artist promptly decked the rocker Alice Cooper out in $4 million of diamonds and presented him with an artwork titled The Brain of Alice. It was covered in ants and had a chocolate éclair attached. Could it get any more Surreal? See the video here:

The last word, just as he would demand it, should of course go to “the Dalí.” Reflecting on a lifetime of epic attention-seeking, he concluded: “the one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.” And, as long as there is an audience, there will be art impresarios ready to deliver it, by any means necessary.

Learn about Dada and Surrealism on the Art Story.

And visit the individual artists’ insight pages on Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Hans Bellmer, and Meret Oppenheim.