Making It New

Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris

Catalog of the exhibition by Leah Dickerman, with essays by Brigid Doherty, Dorothea Dietrich, Sabine T. Kriebel, Michael R. Taylor, Janine Mileaf, and Matthew S. Witkovsky
National Gallery of Art/DAP, 519 pp., $65.00; $40.00 (paper)

On February 5, 1916, Hugo Ball, a German avant-garde theater director, and Emmy Hennings, his mistress and a nightclub singer, opened for the first time the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich where they presented exhibitions of contemporary art and performances of experimental music, poetry, and dance. The cabaret had a small stage, room for forty to fifty people in the audience, and was located in a seedy neighborhood of bars, variety shows, and cheap hotels in an otherwise respectable city in which many expatriate artists, writers, journalists, actors, intellectuals, and professional revolutionaries were then living, as well as international war profiteers and spies. Lenin rented rooms on the same narrow alley. Joyce worked on Ulysses in a neighborhood not very far away.

Dada did not yet exist as a movement, nor did it have a name. What started as a series of evenings where poems of modern German and French poets were recited, art songs performed, and compositions by Franz Liszt, Alexander Scriabin, and Claude Debussy played on the café’s piano changed over the next few weeks into something quite different under the influence of new arrivals on the scene. They were the poet Richard Huelsenbeck, whom Ball had known in Berlin, the Alsatian-born artist Hans Arp, and the twenty-year-old Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and his not-much-older compatriot, the painter Marcel Janco. What brought them together was their hatred of the war and their belief that both art and politics needed a revolutionary change.

Already while living in Berlin in 1915, Ball and Hennings had organized a series of antiwar literary evenings with the intention, they said, to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, and confuse the audience. In Zurich, Janco made cardboard masks reminiscent of the ones used in African rituals and Japanese theater, but also strikingly original. As Ball wrote in his journal, “The masks simply demanded that their wearers start to move in a tragic-absurd dance.” Patrons of the cabaret who came expecting to hear selections from the works of Voltaire and Turgenev or another balalaika orchestra were subjected instead to skits enacted by masked figures dressed in colorful costumes made from cardboard and poster paint who accompanied themselves with drums, pot covers, and frying pans as they recited poems that sounded like this:

Gadji beri bimba
Glandridi lauli lonni cadori
Gadjama bim beri glassala
Glandridi glassala tuffm Izimbrabim
Blassa galassasa tuffm Izimbrabim.

The noise from the stage was deafening. There was bedlam in the audience too. The performers behaved like new recruits simulating mental illness before a medical commission. In less than a month the cabaret, which at first had welcomed all modern tendencies in the arts and hoped to entertain and educate the customer, had turned into a theater of the absurd. That was the intention. “What we are celebrating,” Ball wrote in his diary, “is both buffoonery and a requiem mass.” The scandal spread.Lenin, who played chess with Tzara, wanted to know what Dada was all about.

There has …

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