The Growing Charm of Dada

Exhibitions and Catalogs Discussed in This Article

Dadaglobe Reconstructed

an exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich, February 5–May 1, 2016; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, June 12–September 18, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition by Adrian Sudhalter and others
Scheidegger and Spiess/ Kunsthaus Zürich, 160 pp., $59.00 (distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)

Dada Universal

an exhibition at the National Museum Zurich, February 5–March 28, 2016

Kurt Schwitters: Merz

an exhibition at the Galerie Gmurzynska, Zurich, June 12–September 30, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Krystyna Gmurzynska and Mathias Rastorfer
Galerie Gmurzynska, 174 pp., CHF60.00

Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other

an exhibition at the Museum Rietberg Zürich, March 18–July 17, 2016; and the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, August 5–November 7, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Ralf Burmeister, Michaela Oberhofer, and Esther Tisa Francini
Museum Rietberg Zürich/Berlinische Galerie/Scheidegger and Spiess, 243 pp., $40.00 (distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)

Genesis Dada: 100 Years of Dada Zurich

an exhibition at the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Germany, February 14–July 10, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Astrid von Asten, Sylvie Kyeck, and Adrian Notz
Scheidegger and Spiess, 247 pp., $45.00 (distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)
Francis Picabia: The Lovers (After the Rain), 1925
Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Francis Picabia: The Lovers (After the Rain), 1925

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…

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