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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.”1 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.”3 The scandal spread.Lenin, who played chess with Tzara, wanted to know what Dada was all about.

There has never been an easy answer. As late as 1920, Marcel Duchamp said he didn’t know what Dada was. The accounts of the original participants in Zurich are conflicting; there is even uncertainty about where the name came from. The most plausible version is that Ball and Huelsenbeck found the French word for “hobbyhorse” accidentally in a French–German dictionary while looking for something else. Another possibility is that it came from the name of a popular hair-strengthening tonic. Whatever its origin, the word, which in several Slavic languages sounds like an emphatic declaration of agreement (“yes, yes”), quickly became as popular as a brand name: a one-word manifesto guaranteed either to amuse or to irritate. Hans Arp tells how he and his friends used to make rounds of the bars, opening the door of each and saying in a loud, clear voice: “Long live Dada!” The patrons would open their mouths in amazement, dropping their forks and their sausages.

The attitude toward the arts that the Zurich Dada brought to light long precedes the movement. “Without knowing one another we worked towards the same goal,” Hans Arp later said.4 He found it sickening to feed art eternally with still lifes, landscapes, and nudes. All forms of imitation, the Italian Futurists had already announced, must be despised; all forms of originality glorified. The idea was to make something no one had ever seen or experienced before. The activities in Zurich gave a name to a loose confederation of artists and poets in New York, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne and Paris who exchanged letters and circulated little magazines and reproductions of their work without ever bothering to iron out their disagreements on aesthetic issues. They no longer believed in trying to understand things from a single point of view. Though they all pretty much did what they pleased, they shared an interest in abstraction, collage, photo- montage, and using chance as a tool. Even more important than any particular technique was their belief that the traditional division between art and non-art ought to be abolished. What they sought was the secret of making masterpieces while repudiating art.

The beginnings of Dada do not lie in art but in disgust, one of its leaders said. This was precisely the attitude of the Italian Futurists who just a few years earlier had demanded that we do away with museums, libraries, and other cultural landmarks for the sake of the Future. However, the war of 1914 divided the sympathies not only of intellectuals of various European countries, but of their avant-garde movements as well. “We will glorify war—the only true hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchist, the beautiful Ideas which kill, and the scorn of woman,” the Futurist Marinetti wrote.5 Quite the reverse, the poets and artists who were to call themselves Dadaists were pacifists and internationalists. Most of them were draft-dodgers on the run from military authorities in their respective countries. Their revulsion at the butchery of the Great War, in which about ten million men died, over twenty million were wounded, and several hundred thousand lost limbs and sight, had a lot to do with what Dada was to become.

Once the movement was launched, there were manifestos, of course, attempting to explain Dada to the uninitiated. The most famous early ones are by Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and Richard Huelsenbeck. Their main purpose was not so much to enlighten but to outrage the public and create a scandal. Tzara wrote:

Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: Dada; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: Dada; every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: Dada; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: Dada: abolition of prophets: Dada; abolition of the future: Dada; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity: Dada; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere: trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record: to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one’s church of every useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them—with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn’t matter in the least—with the same intensity in the thicket of one’s soul—pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE6

While Tzara’s manifesto conveyed the aggressive, polemical side of Dada, it didn’t really reflect the thinking of its more thoughtful members. Tzara had a genius for publicity, but he was no philosopher. Besides, the artists who came to be associated with the movement had no desire to follow a party line set down by any self-appointed leader. Oddly, there was always more agreement among Dada poets. “The elements of poetry are letters, syllables, words, sentences,” Kurt Schwitters wrote.7 Poetry, he insisted, arises from the playing off of these elements against one another. He also confessed to preferring nonsense to sense because it had always been neglected in the making of art. Tzara explained in a 1920 manifesto how such poems were to be made:

Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

This is the sort of thing the patrons of Cabaret Voltaire heard. One night Tzara, Janko, and Huelsenbeck took the stage to deliver what they called a “simultaneous poem” made up of separate texts spoken in French, German, and English at the same time. One of the participants compared it to the sound of the Balkan Express crossing a bridge and of a pig squealing in a butcher’s cellar. This was followed the same evening by the presentation of two chants nègres, bursts of nonsense language meant to evoke the rhythms of African songs. Ball even invented a “poem without words,” which consisted entirely of abstract sounds (such as the line “Gadji beri bimba” quoted above). The subject of such poems, Ball said, was the human voice standing for the individual soul as it battles against the noise of the world. As performance art, such poetry can be spellbinding. It was an attempt to strip poetic language of meaning, imagery, and even lyricism. Luckily, they were not wholly successful. Dada did not produce great literature, though there are many poems by Tzara, Arp, and Schwitters that are great fun to read.

That’s not how the artists did it. What one encounters at the current Dada exhibition at MoMA is a proliferation of mutually exclusive styles. The show is the first major museum survey in the United States that deals exclusively with the Dada movement. That was news to me since the work of Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, Francis Picabia, and George Grosz has long been familiar to museum visitors in this country. What may be less known is how brief their connection to the movement was. Dada lasted roughly from 1916 to 1924, but the actual involvement of many of its participants was not even that long. One of the surprises of the MoMA show is that most of the paintings, sculptures, photographs, collages, photomontages, prints, assemblages, and films were done in such a short time. (Of course the readymades—commonplace manufactured objects—simply had to be put on display.) When one recalls the huge influence Dada has had and continues to have among avant-garde artists and poets, one is likely to leave the museum convinced that there hasn’t been a single new idea in the last eighty years.

  1. 1

    Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time(University of California Press, 1996), p. 64.

  2. 2

    Ball, Flight Out of Time, p. 70.

  3. 3

    Ball, Flight Out of Time, p. 56.

  4. 4

    Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics, with contributions by Peter Selz and Joshua C. Taylor (University of California Press, 1973), p. 391.

  5. 5

    Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, p. 286.

  6. 6

    The Dada Painters and Poets, edited by Robert Motherwell (Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 81–82.

  7. 7

    Kurt Schwitters, PPPPPP (Exact Change, 2002), p. 215.

  8. 8

    The Dada Painters and Poets, p. 92.

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