Our Art Belongs to Dada

Rent my "Dadioguide" tour of the Dada show (before it moves to MoMA) ...

Greetings, this is your Dadioguide, speaking to you through the spongy thingamajigs on your headset. My job is to blow kudos and raspberries in the right amounts as you walk from room to room, mouth slightly agape, pressing Play, Pause, Stop, Fast Forward, and Rewind. You will note that Dada begins with text and photographs telling you that World War I was no fun. Look at that looming tank, about to purée you into the mud of your trench. Look at all those amputees. Even the horses wore gas masks. The short film shows even more terrible images. But you are spared the most terrible: machine-gunned cavalry, for instance, or soldiers with their faces blown off. The official Audioguide doesn’t want you to turn around and head for the Cézanne exhibition, and neither does your Dadioguide.

Dada is organized by city, not chronology. But the touchstone is always World War I. In the first section, Zürich, you will learn that Dada was an international movement of poets, painters, performers, and provocateurs who, seeing no honor or purpose in the carnage, decided that honor and purpose were kaput. Neutral Switzerland was a refuge for deserters and draft evaders from all over Europe, these artists among them. Actually, the prime mover of Zürich Dada, the German writer Hugo Ball, tried to enlist but was rejected on medical grounds. So eager was Ball to see action, he traveled to the Belgian front on his own, only to witness the harrowing effects of long-range artillery and poison gas. “It is the total mass of machinery and the devil himself that have broken loose now,” he wrote. “Ideals are only labels that have been stuck on. Everything has been shaken to its very foundations.”

Now you are probably wondering: If Dada was a reaction to the horror of war, then why are these Zürich rooms filled with delicate cubist collages, goofy masks, abstract needlepoints (great upholstery concepts!), colorful wooden reliefs, and whimsical marionettes? Ball summed up this side of Zürich Dada when he described the city as “a birdcage surrounded by roaring lions.” The artists featured here – Sophie Taueber, Hans Arp, Christian Schad – were quiet birds playing with media and with the boundary between fine and applied arts.

The noisier birds flocked to Cabaret Voltaire, a hole-in-the-wall venue that today would go by the dreary name, “alternative performance space.” Started by Ball and his lover Emmy Hennings, the cabaret soon attracted three bumptious newcomers: two Romanians known by the pseudonyms Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco, and one German, Richard Huelsenbeck, whose “poèmes nègres” consisted of really bad drumming and really loud gibberish. The National Gallery makes no attempt to recreate these legendary evenings, which is probably just as well, because if it did, the result would bear a discomfiting resemblance to a U Street poetry slam.


Like Dada in general, the show at Cabaret Voltaire was cobbled together from older avant-garde sources, such as Ubu Roi, the in-your-face play written by Alfred Jarry in 1896; and the serate or “performance evenings” created by Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti in 1909. Spectators at a serate could expect what one art historian calls “a systematic, thorough, and direct attack on their bourgeois mediocrity, passéist ideas and stupidity.”

Of course, there’s a big difference between Futurism and Dada. Master of agitprop, Marinetti wanted to “free this land [Italy] from the smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians” and to “destroy the museums, libraries, academies.” He also (here’s the rub) wanted to “glorify war – the world’s only hygiene.” More than any other artist, Marinetti jump-started the twentieth century. But because he was also a fascist who helped to jump-start Mussolini (until Il Duce rolled over him), he gets short shrift from art historians. Apart from a brief mention in the massive catalogue, Marinetti is absent from this exhibition. Yet his ghost hovers everywhere.

Climbing the stairs to the Berlin section, you will leave the birdcage for the lions’ den. Although several dadaists fought in the war, Berlin Dada was the first art movement in Europe to defy the jingoism of a host country. In 1916, when Germany was gripped by anti-British hatred, Helmut Herzfeld deliberately anglicized his name to “John Heartfield.” Similarly, “George Grosz” was an anglicized – and slavicized – version of Georg Gross (note the spelling). And while still in Zürich, Huelsenbeck, Tzara, and Janco composed a “simultaneous poem” mixing German, English, and French in a babel Ball credited with expressing “the conflict of the vox humana with a world that threatens, ensnares, and destroys.”

The core sensibility of Berlin Dada was rage and ridicule toward the war. Some works, such as Heartfield’s and Rudolf Schlichter’s Prussian Archangel (basically a stuffed infantry uniform with a pig’s head) are jokes. But others pack an emotional wallop. For example, the paintings by Otto Dix, a combat veteran who won the Iron Cross, show the misery of Kriegskrüppel (War Cripples) burdened by grotesque prostheses and the indifference of civilians. Most of Grosz’s Gott mit uns (God With Us) portfolio was confiscated and destroyed, but a number of prints survived, including one of an army doctor pronouncing a rotting corpse “Fit for Active Service” and another of plutocrats feasting while soldiers die: “Blood is the Best Sauce.”

When aimed at such targets, dadaist rage and ridicule come off as heroic. But Dada’s ambition went beyond opposing the war, just as Futurism’s went beyond supporting it. Both movements wanted to create a cultural tabula rasa by breaking radically with the past. According to Janco, “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again ... by shocking the bourgeois, demolishing his idea of art, attacking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”

To this end, Berlin Dada pioneered a new medium, photo montage – a fancy word for cutting and pasting. For Grosz, this meant affixing illustrations of machinery to drawn and painted human figures, usually with malicious intent – as in the R-rated Daum marries her pedantic automaton “George” in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it. (Titles too clever by half are de rigeur in Dada.) Photo montage was the perfect medium to express revulsion at the mechanization not just of war but also of life in general. It’s hard, in our gadget-worshiping culture, to understand this revulsion. But ponder Raoul Hausman’s A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement, or Hannah Höch’s Bourgeois Bridal Couple, and you’ll get the point: cyborgs were not invented in 1960 (when the word was coined).

But fear not, fellow mechanized borzois. The next section, Hannover, is kinder to the way we live now. It is dominated by a single figure, the remarkable Kurt Schwitters. The next time you clean the receipts, invoices, bus transfers, ticket stubs, take-out menus, and flyers out of your glove compartment, ponder Merz, derived from Kommerz (“commerce”) and used by Schwitters to characterize a rich array of works, none dull and many beautiful, that are closer to cubist collage and constructivism than to Dada. Schwitters also wrote nonsense poetry – that’s him declaiming the Ursonate (Primal Sonata) in the passageway overbuilt at crazy angles to recall the Merzbauen he constructed in his various houses. The catalogue helpfully explains that the Ursonate “opens a psychic space in which the Dionysian and Apollonian intertwine.” Another way of putting it would be to say that old Kurt would have been one hell of a scat singer.

The Cologne section is also dominated by a single artist, the deeply peculiar Max Ernst. If you like surrealism, you’ll love Ernst. Your Dadioguide’s own view (not that you asked) is that a little Ernst goes a long way. According to the catalogue, Ernst’s work “requires the viewer to create an ambiguous narrative around interconnected pictorial and linguistic signs, couching social critique in metaphorical terms.” If this is the type of thing you enjoy in an art museum, then perhaps you would like to rent an additional CD in which I describe some of my weirder dreams.

In Cologne, the slogan “Dada Siegt!” (Dada Triumphs!) was meant ironically. But in 1922, when Ernst abandoned his wife and child to join the surrealists in Paris, the idea of radical artists winning political power did not seem outlandish. To be sure, the alliance between the Russian avant-garde and the Bolsheviks was not going well (the Party was beginning to suspect that the proles did not dig Malevich’s Black Square). In Western Europe, though, many cutting-edge artists still believed that the communists were their friends. And in Rome, the Futurists were happily running their Experimental Theater in a ruin beneath Mussolini’s mansion.

To their credit, the hardcore dadaists did not swap irony for ideology. By now you have noticed that Dada was predominantly German. Americans tend to forget this, because our favorite dadaist is Marcel Duchamp, the long-nosed, serio-comic Frenchman who placed a urinal in a New York art exhibition in 1917, and two years later drew a moustache and goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. The first of these immortal works can be found in the New York section, the second in the (final) Paris section.

Tocqueville pointed out many years ago that Americans dislike high-toned aristocratic culture but also have an affinity for bombast. Both traits are on display here, as Duchamp’s “irreverence” is presented to the great unwashed with the utmost reverence. Here is how the catalogue describes his most creative period:

“The ready-made – and the intellectual ideas behind them – seem to have been too advanced, too cerebral, and perhaps even too shocking for American modernists to respond to. As the ready-made proliferated around 1916-17, their presence in Duchamp’s atelier created a disorienting environment of their own ... The Porte-chapeaux (Hat Rack) and a snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm) were hung from the ceiling; Trébuchet (Trap) – a coat rack – was nailed to the floor ... while the porcelain urinal, christened Fountain by Duchamp, was suspended from the lintel of an interior doorway. Friends of the artist who visited the studio were treated to a discombobulating installation, where the boundaries between the ready-made and the surrounding furniture and studio detritus were nonexistent, thus simultaneously challenging their physical surroundings as well as their preconceived notions about art.”

Never mind the hat rack, what’s astounding are the cliches. It’s been 90 years since Duchamp pulled off his cute little prank of pointing to a rusty comb and saying, “This is art because I say so.” Must we be lectured for the kerjillionth time that this was not an idea but an “intellectual idea”? That our own “notions about art” are “preconceived”? That the great Duchamp did not live in a third-floor walk-up full of junk, but in an “atelier” graced by a “discombobulating installation” of “advanced,” “cerebral,” “perhaps even shocking” objets d’art? (That “perhaps even” is priceless, don’t you think?)

Take a deep breath. You are now in the presence of Fountain. While contemplating this masterpiece, please be informed that it is an “authorized replica,” since Duchamp did not think to hold onto the “original” back in 1917. In 1951 he realized his mistake and “commissioned” a replica, which now hangs (stands?) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1964 he realized the same mistake again, and “personally authenticated” (i.e. signed) another eight replicas. You will note that the meaning of “realize” changes slightly over the course of this paragraph. It is not known what the first replica fetched, but the Scottish art critic Julian Spaulding reports that in 1999 one of the later batch sold at auction for £993,789, and a couple of years later another was sold to the Tate Gallery for about £1 million.

If this information makes you feel less reverent, then good. You are ready to appreciate the legacy of Duchamp as embodied in a certain performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli, who has been stalking Fountain rather the way the master stalked the Mona Lisa. To be sure, Duchamp never urinated on da Vinci’s painting, while Pinoncelli did urinate on another replica of Fountain in 1993. (Yes, I know, it was a urinal to begin with.) Pinoncelli also hit that Fountain with a hammer, une acte gratuite that he ... er, replicated this past January, when Dada was on display at the Pompidou Center in Paris. According to the New York Times, “the porcelain urinal was slightly chipped in the attack and was withdrawn to be restored.”

What is that cackling sound? Could it be the ghost of Marinetti, deriding the smelly gangrene of a 100-year-old PR stunt? Duchamp’s anti-art tricks were already tired in the early 1960s, when one Marinetti’s countrymen, Piero Manzoni, filled 90 cans with his own feces and personally authenticated each can with a label saying Artist’s Shit. According to Spaulding, “the Tate recently acquired no. 68 of this canned edition, for the sum of £22,300.” One of the few sensible critics out there, Spaulding adds, “None of those who collected Manzoni’s tins has, as far as I know, tested the veracity of their contents, but then, who would want to?”

As you walk through these last two sections, keep an eye out for Francis Picabia, a true dadaist but also a true artist. His intricate forays into mechanical drawing and parodies of commercial illustration are practically the only things worth looking at in these rooms. But that is the point: Picabia, not Duchamp, is typical of Dada. This exhibition is that rare phenomenon, a blockbuster that lays bare the intellectual and aesthetic bankruptcy of the contemporary art scene. The lesson is subtle but unmistakable: the majority of dadaists were engaged in the old-fashioned business of creating objects, and most of the objects they created can, with some stretching, be called beautiful. Not only that, but when they got up to mischief, they did so with panache. If they were alive today, they would not be endlessly recycling the same old Dada doodoo. They’d be doing for the art world what your Dadioguide is now doing for you: pointing to the exit.

May 4, 2006 9:11 AM |

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This page contains a single entry by Serious Popcorn published on May 4, 2006 9:11 AM.

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