Published: July 11, 2006
Dada, one of the most interesting and influential Twentieth Century art movements, has long intrigued and mystified Americans. Responding to the carnage and trauma of World War I and repulsed by an emerging modern media and machine culture, Dada artists led a raucous and brief but important revolution against traditional artistic conceptions and changed perceptions of what constituted art.
Dadaists rejected conventional definitions of art styles and materials, expanding them to include manifestations of modern life – advertisements, newspapers, magazines, ticket stubs, machine parts, food wrappings, pipes, light bulbs and much more.
Their performances, publicity stunts and manipulation of mass media were intentionally controversial and provocative, prompting definitions of Dada as "anti-art," a term they embraced.
"Dada," the first major exhibition in this country to explore the subject in depth, features a multimedia installation of more than 400 paintings, collages, prints, sculptures, photographs, sound recordings and film. Organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Centre Pompidou, Musee national d’art moderne in Paris, in collaboration with The Museum of Modern Art, it has already been seen in Paris and Washington, and will be at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) through September 11. The exhibition was organized by Leah Dickerman, the National Gallery’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, and Laurent Le Bon, the Pompidou’s curator, and coordinated at MoMA by Anne Umland, curator in the department of painting and sculpture. Dickerman is principal author of the excellent, comprehensive catalog.
The exhibition explores the different ways in which Dadaism played out, 1916–1924, in six primary centers: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York and Paris. On view is the work of 50 artists, including such important figures in Twentieth Century art history as Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Karl Schwitters.
"Our understanding of Dada," acknowledges curator Dickerman, is vague – that it was "wacky and nonsensical." The exhibition and catalog seek to explore "how might we understand the idea of Dada?" It "was not a disavowal of art," says Dickerman, "but a revolution [against tradition]. In many ways the art world would never be the same [after Dada]."
Dada’s origins date to 1916 with the founding by German-born writer Hugo Ball of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, a boisterous gathering place for free-thinking artists and intellectuals, many of them refugees who had fled the horrors of the war for a safe haven in neutral Switzerland. Disillusioned by the materialism and excesses that had generated the conflict, they mounted an artistic offensive against the political, social and cultural institutions that had given rise to the war.
The overcrowded, drunken rowdiness of the place was captured by one of the participants, Romanian native Marcel Janco, in "Cabaret Voltaire," 1916, featuring several Dada leaders engaging in spontaneous foolishness in an impromptu performance on the tavern’s stage, egged on by a characteristically unruly audience
The name "dada" appears to have been found by chance by Ball while looking in a French-German dictionary for a stage name for a Cabaret Voltaire performer. A child’s word for "hobbyhorse" in French, with other meanings in other languages, it basically reflected the group’s desire to resist a fixed moniker. As the artists themselves proclaimed, "Dada means nothing."
German-born Hans Arp (1887-1966), who feigned mental illness to avoid conscription into the German army, experimented in Zurich with the possibilities of making collages by chance. In creating untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1916-17, he dropped scraps of torn-up paper onto larger sheets of paper lying on the floor, and pasted the fallen pieces wherever they landed.
Janco’s untitled (Mask, Portrait of Tzara), 1919, made of paper, board, burlap, ink and gouache and portraying Dada leader and fellow Romanian Tristan Tzara, reflected the group’s interest in primitivism as well as abstraction.
In Berlin, the capital of a defeated nation, food shortages and street fighting exacerbated local Dadaists’ disgust and opposition to German nationalism. These political concerns animated the founding of "Club Dada" by artists, including Grosz, John Heartfeld, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch.
The destructive capability of modern warfare, dramatically brought home by the numbers of wounded veterans on the streets, prompted Berlin Dadaist Grosz (1893-1959) to create "A Victim of Society," 1919. Here, a montage of machine part fragments disfigure a portrait of Germany’s president, thus associating the advocate of war as a victim, like maimed soldiers, of mechanized aggression.
Hausmann’s unsettling assemblage of measuring objects attached to a wigmaking dummy, "Mechanical Head," circa 1920, sought to underscore the empty spirit of the postwar era.
Reflecting the antiwar views of Berlin Dadaists, Heartfeld and Rudolf Schlichter’s assemblage "Prussian Archangel," 1920, depicted a pig-headed army officer festooned with signs mocking the military that was suspended from the ceiling.
Club Dada members, as part of their innovative assault on traditional art, pioneered in radical development of photomontage – pasted photographs and fragments from the illustrated press and other printed matter – using it as a medium for their caustic social critiques. Hoch’s “Heads of State,” 1918, ridiculed Germany’s president and defense minister with unflattering cutout photographs of them in bathing suits. Otto Dix (1891-1969), who was severely wounded while serving in the German army, combined oil painting and collage in a devastating series portraying disfigured “war cripples,” including “Skat Players,” 1920, in which maimed veterans use real playing cards in their game.
Another veteran, Georg Scholz, drew on his own experience of being turned down by wealthy farmers when begging for food during a postwar famine in the bitterly satirical “Farmer Picture,” 1920. It featured grotesque, money-grubbing caricatures of an industrial farm family.
In addition to caustic caricatures and brutal, antimilitaristic drawings, native Berliner Grosz, who was badly shaken by experiences in World War I, painted the most powerful indictments of the decadence of the Weimar Republic. Examples include a nightmarish image of life in a big city, “Metropolis,” 1916-17, and the contrast between a corpulent, complacent gentleman and an emaciated, hobbling veteran, “Gray Day,” 1921.
One of the towering figures to emerge from this exhibition is the great collagist Schwitters (1887-1948), who formed a kind of one-man Dadaist enterprise in Hanover. His use of fragments of society – rubbish and other objects found on the street – was analogous to a society shattered by war and a culture wrestling with modernity.
Among the dozens of Schwitters assemblages and collages on view, a standout is “Picture with Spatial Growths,” 1920 and 1939, a virtual visual diary of the artist’s life, replete with such pasted items as ticket stubs, calendar fragments, canceled envelopes and candy wrappers. In “Merz 1924, 1. Relief with Cross and Sphere,” 1924, the artist assembled found objects in a wood format.
In British-occupied Cologne, Dada centered around the prolific and innovative Max Ernst (1891-1976), who experimented with various techniques. He expressed his opposition to war in a clever untitled photomontage, 1920, in which human arms wrap around an airplane, while below three civilians demonstrate how to carry a wounded soldier, a reminder of the carnage of combat.
Ernst’s work ranged from whimsical collages, like “The Hat Makes the Man,” 1920, to the weird, as in “The Sheep,” 1921, to the ominous, such as “Celebes,” 1921, a Surrealist masterpiece before that movement was started.
Distanced from destructive immediacy of war, New York’s Dadaists tended to be more light-hearted than their European counterparts, although the conflict influenced their art. The avant-garde circle around patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, including escapees from the carnage in Europe, played a key role in advancing the cause.
Duchamp (1887-1968), who had caused a sensation with his celebrated “Nude Descending a Staircase” at the Armory Show of 1913, lived in New York City from 1915 to 1923. The most inventive of all Dadaists, he mocked the art-making tradition by using common industrially manufactured objects that he proclaimed to be “ready-made” artworks.
Most famously, in 1917 Duchamp purchased a porcelain urinal, turned it on its back, titled it “Fountain,” signed it “R. Mutt,” and submitted it to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, which rejected it on the grounds it was not a work of art, as he knew they would.
With characteristic tongue in cheek, he titled an ordinary snow shovel “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” 1915, to call attention to the way in which language affects a viewer’s understanding of art. Other Duchamp “readymades” on view include a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and a coat rack nailed to the floor. By contending that whatever an artist declared to be art was art, Duchamp revolutionized the concept of art-making.
Another talented Frenchman, Francis Picabia (1879-1953), acting on his conviction that “the genius of the modern world is machinery,” made symbolic portraits of friends by representing them as machines. In his memorable homage to his patron, art impresario and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, “Here, This is Stieglitz / Faith and Love,” 1915, Picabia depicted his subject as an aged camera, accompanied by a brake and gearshift.
Man Ray (1890-1976), born in Philadelphia as Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky, developed a genius for enigmatic images in abstract oil paintings (“The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with her Shadows,” 1916), in photography (“Dadaphoto,” 1920) and in works made of everyday materials (coat hangers in “Obstruction,” 1920).
The exotic and erotic Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1917), a penniless German refugee, collaborated with Philadelphia-born Morton Schamberg (1881-1918) a talented painter of machinelike forms, to create a strange assemblage with the sacrilegious title of “God,” circa 1917, consisting of a plumbing trap attached to a block of wood.
Art curator Michael L. Taylor in the catalog salutes the New York movement’s “endlessly compelling works of art, whose antipatriotic and antirationalist Dada message is only just beginning to be heard.”
With the end of the war, Dadaists who had fled earlier returned to Paris, including Arp, Duchamp, Ernst and Picabia, and Americans were able to visit again, notably Man Ray. Ernst depicted some of them in a monumental painting, “At the Rendezvous of Friends,” 1922.
Further thumbing his nose at tradition, in 1919 Duchamp parodied an icon of world art by adding a goatee, moustache and a bawdy slogan to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” calling it “L.H.O.O.Q.” His outrageous graffitilike alterations made people laugh, but also carried an assertive message. In a similar vein, Man Ray glued brass tacks to the bottom of a flat iron, transforming an ordinary household object into a potential weapon. Duchamp’s investigations of optics led to the mesmerizing “Rotary Demisphere,” 1924, a motorized, whirling optical device that seemed to transfix visitors to the exhibition.
The ever provocative Picabia, focusing on ordered violence and aggressive sexuality, stirred the Parisian scene with a variety of images, including such enigmatic paintings as “Volucelle II,” 1922, and “The Animal Trainer,” 1923. His “The Cacodylic Eye,” 1921, featured a large, unblinking human eye, surrounded by signatures and graffiti of more than 50 Dadaists.
This consistently fascinating, well-designed exhibition goes a long way toward realizing curator Dickerman’s aim of explicating Dada. The dizzying array of Dada art documents that for all its outrageous tactics and chaotic imagery, the movement represented a passionate stand against contemporary social, political and artistic conditions.
It suggests that Dada, in Dickerman’s words, “arguably had the most influence of all avant-garde styles on contemporary art.” Breaking down barriers between high and low art and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes art, Dada paved the way for much of what followed, notably Surrealism, Pop Art and performance art.
The 520-page catalog, with hundreds of color reproductions and vintage photographs and essays by Dickerman and art historians Brigid Doherty, Dorothea Dietrich, Sabine Kriebel, Taylor, Janine Mileaf and Matthew S. Witkovsky, is well done and helpful. Published by the National Gallery in association with DAP (Distributed Art Publishers, Inc), Dada sells for $65 (hardcover) and $40 (softcover).
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