Brandon Arbuckle ’19: Dadaist and Surrealist Art

Brandon Arbuckle ’19 — The course I took while abroad at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland, was a modern art course which covered works from around the 18thcentury to present day, constructing a chronological narrative of art. Thanks to the Givens Endowed Scholarship I was able to connect classroom history with actual works throughout Europe. In addition to guidance from the Givens Committee, I worked with my professor in Aberdeen to make the most of my experiential journey and scholarship.

From London to Paris, Basel to Prague, I primarily sought out Dadaist and Surrealist art, but saw a vast majority of the pieces we studied in class. In order to understand some of the works I was seeing, I also visited one non-art museum, the Sigmund Freud Museum while in Vienna. Freud, in his dealings with the unconscious mind and dreams, heavily influenced Dadaist and Surrealist artists. Many of the surrealist works I saw, especially from artists like Ernst, Magritte, and Dali, had this ethereal other-worldly feel.

One of the central themes that developed was that of challenging the status quo. It quickly became evident that the works we were studying were more than just paint on canvas (or other mediums), but were relics that shed insight into the social, political, and economic lives of the periods in which they were created. This was especially apparent in the first museum I visited in Amsterdam, the Moco.

The Moco is housed in the Museum Quarter of Amsterdam, and at the time of my visit had works by two artists I was thrilled to see in one place: Banksy and Salvador Dali. Banksy is perhaps one of the most well-known artists of modern times. Banksy usually uses stencils and aerosol paint, spraying his works onto public surfaces from Israel’s West Bank Wall to London Underground Stairwells in England. His politically provocative pieces frequently invoke themes of police brutality, government surveillance, and consumerism. These pieces alongside some of Dali’s most recognized motifs like melting clocks and a plastic sofa in the form of lips made for an interesting experience.

From Amsterdam I ventured to Brussels, Belgium. While I visited many of the museums there, my favorite by far was the Musée Magritte. René Magritte, one of the most well-known surrealist artists of the 20th
century, challenged traditional ideas of art at the time, combining vast landscapes and skyscapes with motifs drawn from dreams and the unconscious mind.

From my short stay in Belgium, I stayed in the heart of Paris with a Couchsurfing host for a week. The sheer quantity of museums is incredible, but my favorite was the Espace Dali in the heart of Montmartre, a quiet hilltop neighborhood with no shortage of great names in art. The Salvador Dali museum is dedicated to his sculptures and engravings: giant brass snails with wings, a pixelated Abraham Lincoln that upon closer inspection is also a woman looking out of a window, and plenty of long-legged knobby-kneed elephants. It was downright bizarre, and fit in with some of the characters I saw while in Paris.

While that was one of many museums I visited in Paris, Berlin in Germany was the next stop of my journey en route to Basel, Switzerland. Berlin seemed to be the “alternative” capital of the world, both socially and artistically. I felt as if every square inch of the city was covered in street art, like metal sculptures chained to pipes, posters pasted up on partitions, or spray painted murals covering entire buildings. I was blown away with the creativity. In a city with a turbulent history, it has carved its place in the art world today. On the train ride from Berlin to Basel, I stared out the window and commented to the passenger next to me, “there’s so much street art here,” as we passed beneath a bridge, columns covered in the graffiti tags of local artists. “I’d call it vandalism,” he replied. I think it’s more than that, but I guess it boils down to personal opinion.

Basel, Switzerland was the smallest city on my journey, and the last until after finals were over. There, I visited the Kunstmuseum, home to great works from surrealist Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock. While their town was small, their collection was incredible and varied. The museum was enjoyable but the hospitality of everyone I encountered really made my stay memorable.
After the conclusion of my final exams, I finally ventured out of the cold corner of Scotland south to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. This was the capstone experience to my coursework, and I actually saw a majority of the pieces from our final examination in the flesh, such as Gauguin’s

“Vision After the Sermon” and Renoir’s “The Skiff.” While most students I think can relate to courses they have taken that do not stick with them long after they put down their pencils for the final exam, art history was not one of them for me. Connecting my in-class learning with museum visits helped me tremendously academically, as topics that may not have been immediately understood in class were clarified in particularly well-made exhibitions. Additionally, I now have a new interest to explore when traveling.

I can’t thank the Givens family, the selection committee, and Wabash enough for affording me this incredible opportunity. There are too many places and museums that I visited that I didn’t list in this blog post. I was able to expand my housing budget substantially by Couchsurfing in nearly every place I visited. If you have questions about my experiences or traveling on a budget, please contact me at I left my experience abroad with a much greater appreciation for artistic expression that will stick with me for a lifetime. I look forward to returning to Europe someday.