Exhibitions and Catalogs Discussed in This Article
Scheidegger and Spiess/ Kunsthaus Zürich, 160 pp., $59.00 (distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)
Museum of Modern Art/ Kunsthaus Zürich, 368 pp., $75.00
Galerie Gmurzynska, 174 pp., CHF60.00
Museum Rietberg Zürich/Berlinische Galerie/Scheidegger and Spiess, 243 pp., $40.00 (distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)
Scheidegger and Spiess, 247 pp., $45.00 (distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)
During World War I, Zurich, the largest city in neutral Switzerland, was a refuge for artists, writers, intellectuals, pacifists, and dodgers of military service from various countries. A handful of these decided in 1916 to create a new kind of evening entertainment. They called it Cabaret Voltaire and established it at Spiegelgasse 1, not far from the room that was occupied by an occasional visitor to the cabaret, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
The group, which became known as Dadaists, consisted of three Germans (Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Emmy Hennings), one Alsatian (Hans Arp), two Romanians (Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara), and the Swiss Sophie Taeuber. They were soon joined by Walter Serner, an Austrian born in Bohemia. The youngest, Tzara, was twenty; Hennings was the oldest at thirty-one. All were united in their loathing of the war.
The initiator of the group appears to have been Hugo Ball. He was, like most Dadaists, a writer but had also worked in the theater and performed in cabarets. After having to leave Germany as a pacifist, he settled with Emmy Hennings in Zurich where, pale, tall, gaunt, and near starving, he was regarded as a dangerous foreigner. At the Voltaire, he declaimed his groundbreaking phonetic poem “Karawane” (Caravan)—written in nonsensical sounds—to the bewilderment of the public. After a few intense months of Dada activity he left the group, turned to a gnostic Catholicism, and died in the Swiss countryside, regarded as a kind of saint. His diary Die Flucht aus der Zeit (The Flight from Time) remains one of the principal accounts of Dadaism.
For Richard Huelsenbeck, noise seems to have been the most natural form of virility. Within Dada, he was the champion of provocation. A poet and journalist who subsequently traveled the world as a ship’s doctor and practiced as a psychoanalyst for a time in New York, Huelsenbeck remained with Dada and helped to establish in 1917 its very different Berlin branch.
Among the artists of stature who emerged from Dada, Hans Arp was perhaps the steadiest and most consistent. A friend of Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, and Wassily Kandinsky, and a gifted poet, he was devoid of malice and envy, and had a superior sense of humor. His later spouse Sophie Taeuber, a notable artist herself, taught at the Applied Arts School in Zurich. She created marionettes and was a member of Rudolf von Laban’s dancing school, which had introduced a new expressive style of dance. During her Dada appearances as a dancer she wore a mask to disguise her identity.
In Tristan Tzara, calm and self-assured yet with a thunderous voice, Dadaism had its most passionate advocate and most tireless propagandist. André Breton…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.