The DADA Encyclopaedia

Yekaterina Selezneva

Article: 
INTERNATIONAL PANORAMA
Magazine issue: 
#1 2006 (10)

The Dada exhibition that opened on October 5 2005 in the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris was organized by the French National Museum of Modern Art together with the Washington National Gallery of Art and MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The exhibit will travel from Paris to Washington (February19-May 14, 2006) and then to New York (June 16-September 11,2006). Initially each of these institutions, both the Washington and Paris museums, started preparing a retrospective of the Dada movement independently. When the museums learned of their overlapping interests they decided to join forces and invite a third party - the newly renovated MoMA with its rich collection of Dada art.

Marcel JANCO. Portrait of Tristan Tzara. 1919
Marcel JANCO. Portrait of Tristan Tzara. 1919
Assemblage. 56 by 25 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

The Paris Dada exhibition includes 1,576 works, posters, photographs and archival documents, and the size and volume - over 1,000 pages - of the catalogue is equally impressive. As with any such reference book, the data is organized in alphabetical order.

This impressive ledger - much like the exhibition itself - is both informative and stylish. In a foreword to one of the many articles dedicated to the exhibition Benedicte Ramade asks: "What does Dada mean?

The tail of a sacred cow for the Kroo tribe; a word used in certain parts of Italy for a mother or a cube, and an Italian infant's word for horse, as in gee-gee; a rocking horse; a nanny; a double affirmative in Slavic countries [da, da], and above all the first syllables uttered by many a baby, the primary phase of talking, and babbling as an assault on logic. These are some of the official definitions of this odd word adopted by a group of Zurich-based artists on 18 April 1916, found quiet by chance thrusting a knife-blade into a dictionary to find a pseudonym. A name that could be sufficiently freely interpreted to be thoroughly international, pushing any serious historical and intellectual reasons to one side."

On February 5 1916 two Romanians came into a Zurich pub: the artist Marcel Janco and the poet Tristan Tzara. They came following an announcement placed in a local newspaper inviting all art lovers, "whatever their artistic orientation", to come to the location "and bring their proposals and contribution to the common cause". The text of the letter was composed by Hugo Ball who also came up with a new name for the pub, the Cabaret Voltaire. (Like the members of the Dada group, Voltaire, exiled for openly disagreeing with the king's policy, found refuge in Switzerland, and it was certainly no accident that Ball chose him "for the sign").

Ball found help and assistance among his supporters: the German singer Emmy Henings and the Alsace-born Hans Arp. The official opening of the cabaret which the organizers decorated with their own works was also attended by Richard Huelsenbeck, who was invited there by Arp. Together they later became the core of the Dadaist movement.

The Dadaist movement was a phenomenon of war, a factor that explains much about it. Few could predict that from its beginning in 1914, World War I would last so long and cost nine million human lives. In August 1914 young Parisians left for war with flowers sticking out of their guns, while the Italian futurists composed hymns to the conflict. The German artists Franz Marc and August Macke glorified salutary battles. The Dada movement was born out of the disgust and disillusionment of those young people who managed to avoid the "war mincing-machine", and thus did not become its cannon fodder. It is no accident that it started in neutral Zurich, an island of calm situated in the very centre of the war-town continent - Europe learning about the new technologies of destruction: Big Bertha, gas, and the first air battles.

That was the reason why the spirit of nihilism, disillusion, even hatred and contempt for the impotence of the intelligentsia was so strong in the Cabaret Voltaire, as it became the "centre of the newest art" and provided shelter to poets, artists and actors of all kinds. Every evening modern dances and songs were performed there, plays were read aloud, and balalaika orchestras played their music. On Russian and French nights they read the poems of Max Jacob, texts by Turgenev and Chekhov, and proclaimed different manifestos. All of this made up a "common work of art" and personified ideas which were not that removed from those of Vasily Kandinsky. Except that the future supporters of Dada distorted them a bit by adding humour and disorder. Marcel Janco claimed that Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), who lived nearby, was also a regular of the Cabaret Voltaire. Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung also lived in Zurich at that time. Gradually the founders of the new movement were joined by Viking Eggeling, Otto and Adia van Rees, Marcel Slodki, Pablo Picasso, Elie Nadelman, Sophie Taeuber and others.

Thus, the war was continuing and these artists were blaming it all on the intellectuals. They wanted to create elementary art that would look like a continuation of life. Abstraction is unsuitable. From Zurich they launched a "signal of alarm of the mind over the depreciation of values". "We were beside ourselves with rage and grief at the sufferings and humiliation of mankind", Janco commented. That's why the Dadaists pointedly wanted nothing to do with the painting and literary traditions which they considered bourgeois. By denouncing war they also denounced good taste, sense and style. Order, rationality, and logic were unacceptable to them. Not visual art but literary works and performances that allowed for experiment, improvisation and eccentricity become the first expressive language of Dada supporters. The "anti-method" proposed by Tzara in 1920 eventually stuck as the absolute symbol of the majority of artistic practices:

Take a newspaper
Take a pair of scissors
Choose an article that's as long as you intend your poem to be
Cut out the article
Then carefully cut out each one of the words composing the article and put them all in a bag
Shake gently

Then take out each cut-out word, one after the other
Copy them conscientiously in the order they left the bag
The poem will be like you
And there you are, an infinitely original writer with a delightful sensibility, even if misunderstood by common folk.

In the 1910s the situation in Europe was becoming more and more restless and uneasy, with organized strikes and revolts, preparations for a revolution or coup. "There is a world of difference between the calm atmosphere of Switzerland and the way we sleep on a volcano here in Berlin," wrote Huelsenbeck on his return to Germany. In April 1918 a Dada club was organized in Berlin. Its members proclaimed a new manifesto every day. The club became more and more famous. Dadaists enjoyed provoking scandals to which the press gladly reacted. They turned into real anarchists, each with a nickname: Hausmann - "Dadasophe", Grosz - "Marshall" or "Propaganda", Heartfield - "Monteur Dada" [Dada Fitter], Johannes Baader - leader - "Oberdada". Much like the Zurich venture the Berlin Dada club didn't last long, partly because such bright individuals can never co-exist in a group. In 1920 Hausmann left "the Berlin group" and joined Kurt Shcwitters, founder and only member of the Dada union in Hannover. A group led by Max Ernst and Johannes Baader was actively working in Cologne during the same period. That, too, would not last much longer.

At the same time the Dada virus reached America and spread in New York. The New York Dadaists were softer: the war was too far away, and they were sexy and imaginative. The movement born in 1916 died in 1921 due to the departure of its leaders, Duchamp and Man Ray, to Paris. Many and various Dadaist journals were published in Europe during those years. One of them, created by Andre Breton in 1919 in Paris and called "Litterature", featured the writers Luis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. Tzara reached Paris at long last and published yet another manifesto. All the main members of the movement supported it. These included Francis Picabia, Hans Arp, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. For a short time the "Dada" epidemics spread to Italy, Catalonia, South America, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Belgium and even Japan.

The main representative of Russian Dadaism in Paris was the artist and poet Sergei (Serge) Charchoune (1888-1975). * In 1912 Charchoune moved first to Berlin, and then to Paris, and when war broke out, to Barcelona. After the October Revolution he made several attempts to return to Russia, but without success. Thus, in 1920, Charchoune went back to Paris.

He became close to Picabia and started to attend Dadaist meetings. In 1921 Charchoune took part in numerous events of the movement and wrote the poem "Unmoving Crowd" which he accompanied with his drawings. Charchoune decided to create a Russian "section" of the Dada movement and founded the "Chamber of Poets", yet again unsuccessfully. In May 1922 he went to Berlin hoping to receive a visa to Soviet Russia there. It was in Berlin, while waiting for the visa that he never received, that he began to publish the journal titled "Transbordeur Dada" in Russian, where he was the only employee and editor- in-chief. For many years he compiled the poetic anthology "Dadaism, compilation" in Russian. In 1922-1924 he worked with the journals "Manometer", "Mecano", and "Merz". Then, like many of his fellow Dadaists, Charchoune gradually left the Dada movement.

The spirit of contradiction, protest and insubordination has no nationality, which makes it difficult to name the formal stylistic peculiarities of Dadaism. Every dogma is rejected by every Dadaist, all the rules are broken: they freely mix embroidery, painting, dolls, print texts and collages, canvases, leaflets, photographs.

But for all its eccentricity - or perhaps just because of that - somehow Dadaism spread all over the world. And that is what the exhibition is really about.

 

* Serge Charchoune bequeathed some of his works to the Tretyakov Gallery.

Illustrations

Hans ARP. Entombment of Birds and Butterflies. Portrait of Tristan Tzara. 1916–1917
Hans ARP. Entombment of Birds and Butterflies. Portrait of Tristan Tzara. 1916–1917
Relief, wood. 40 by 32.5 by 9.5 cm. Kunsthaus Zurich. Gift of G. & J. Bloch Fund
Hans ARP. The Clock. 1924
Hans ARP. The Clock. 1924
Relief, painted wood. 65.3 by 56.8 by 5 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Hans ARP, Sophie TAUEBER. Pathetic Symmetry. 1916–1917
Hans ARP, Sophie TAUEBER. Pathetic Symmetry. 1916–1917
Embroidery. 76 by 65 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Francis PICABIA. Animal Tamer. 1923
Francis PICABIA. Animal Tamer. 1923
Enamel paint on canvas. 250 by 200 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
George GROSZ. Victim of the Society. Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy Inventor. 1919
George GROSZ. Victim of the Society. Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy Inventor. 1919
Oil, pencil, paper and five buttons pasted on canvas. 44 by 39,5 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Max ERNST. Untitled. 1920
Max ERNST. Untitled. 1920
Collage on paper. 18.1 by 24.1 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York
George GROSZ. Republican Automata. 1920
George GROSZ. Republican Automata. 1920
Watercolor and pen on paper. 60 by 47.3 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York
Man RAY. Untitled. 1923
Man RAY. Untitled. 1923
Rayography. 23.9 by 29.9 cm. The Christie’s Collection
Raoul HAUSMANN. Tatlin at Home. 1920
Raoul HAUSMANN. Tatlin at Home. 1920
Collage. 14 by 28 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Raoul HAUSMANN. The Spirit of our Time (Mechanical Head). 1919
Raoul HAUSMANN. The Spirit of our Time (Mechanical Head). 1919
Assemblage. 32.5 by 21 by 20 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Otto DIX. A Memory of the Glass Rooms in Brussels. 1920
Otto DIX. A Memory of the Glass Rooms in Brussels. 1920
Oil and enamel on canvas. 124 by 80.4 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Raoul HAUSMANN. Art critic. 1919–1920
Raoul HAUSMANN. Art critic. 1919–1920
Photomontage. Lithograph and photo collage on paper. 31.8 by 25.4 cm. The Tate Gallery, London
Serge CHARCHOUNE. Dancing Fortune. С.1923
Serge CHARCHOUNE. Dancing Fortune. С.1923
Sepia and ink on paper. 100.3 by 71.2 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

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