OH DADA, TRUE DADA! WHERE ART THOU NOW?
Reflections on Dada Centennial
by Valery Oisteanu
In 1916, a new and revolutionary kind of art rose out of the depths of a world lost in madness and murder. Dada became the first international art movement, attracting legions of the avant-garde, many of them veterans, deserters and draft-dodgers from the hell of the Great War. Their art was a reaction to the horror of war, which they blamed on Western civilization itself. And though some of them were discharged from service with papers marked “excused for precocious imbecility,” and though much of the art to follow seemed at first glance to be the work of some juvenile basket case, Dada was, in the words of French/German artist Hans Arp, “no childish romp.”
Legend has it that Arp caught the very last train leaving Germany for Paris at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The frontier was closed at exactly the time his compartment crossed the border. A lack of funds drove him from the City of Light to the more economical Switzerland. There, the German Consulate in Zurich tried to recruit him for the Fatherland army. Arp staged a show of psychological instability in which he made the sign of the cross in front of a portrait of von Hindenburg, kept multiplying his birth date and generally exuded an air of complete insanity. He was exempted from military service and left free to pursue his artistic impulses. He received an invitation from German author/artist Hugo Ball to work with him at a strange new nightclub, and his involvement with Dada began.
Hugo Ball and writer Richard Huelsenbeck had been friends since 1913 in Berlin, and their opposition to the war grew into explosive feelings against the German Reich under the vainglorious Kaiser Wilhelm II and the so-called German intelligentsia. By the fall of 1915, both had moved to Switzerland. Ball and his wife, Emmy Hennings, soon found employment — Hugo as a pianist, Emmy giving recitals — in a variety show in the Niederdorf, the amusement quarter of Zurich. By now, too, Ball had connected with Romanian artists Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara and Arthur Segal. Amid this sudden ferment of art and revolt, on Feb. 5, 1916, Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire, named for the Enlightenment philosopher famous for his satirical critiques of idiocies of his society, the church and the government, in the Dutch restaurant Meierei at Spiegelgasse.
“It is necessary to clarify the intentions of this cabaret,” Ball announced in a manifesto. “It is its aim to remind the world that there are people of independent minds — beyond war and nationalism — who live for different ideals.” Ball protested “against the humiliating fact of a world war in the 20th century.” All static values of “culture” appeared to him to be questionable. At this time he began to compose sound-poems, or “verses without words,” directed at the stupidity and absurdity of the war.
Ball’s artist friends — the Romanian contingent in particular — flocked to the cabaret to contribute. Turning against their own murderous civilization, they organized anti-artistic events and performances directed against the military and against Western art. Here in neutral, cosmopolitan, and relatively free Zurich, they produced simultaneous collaborative poems performed in six languages for a cosmopolitan audience. Their chant, “A general is searching for an apartment to rent,” made fun of the increasing number of military officers in the city’s population.
Vladimir Lenin, living in exile in Zurich directly across the street from the cabaret, often went there, more for the beer and sausages than the escalating entertainment. Some have suggested that his verbal exchanges with Tzara, peppered with the double affirmatives da, da, in both Russian and Romanian, were the root of the new movement’s name. The non-Russian patrons of the cabaret sarcastically referred to the Eastern Europeans as “Dadaists,” as in “Awful night, the place is full of Dadaists!”
Among others who found a sympathetic milieu at the Cabaret Voltaire was German expressionist George Grosz. He liked to paint nightmarish cartoons, such as a giant Kaiser chasing a small civilian, or two army officers poking an insect-ridden dead soldier with a stick. Occasionally, while one of the Dadaists was reciting something “very ridiculous” on the stage, Grosz would go into the audience to pass the hat. If anyone objected, he would retort, “Shut up! You kept your mouth shut for years during the war, now keep it shut a little while longer!”
Grosz had taken upon himself the role of “Propagandada” — a walking publicist for antiwar activities. Instead of a hat, he wore a papier-mâché death’s head. He carried a cane with a skull on it, poured liquor from a bottle with a skull on it, and drank out of glasses made from skulls. In his apartment, a skeleton in the hall and a corpse with a derby hat on the couch greeted guests, while Grosz would make blood-curdling sounds out of sight.
The global flowering of the movement can largely be credited to Tzara, who had the idea in 1916 to publish a magazine and invited artists from Barcelona, Berlin, New York, Paris and elsewhere to contribute, thus transforming a local revolution into an international one.
In 1920, back in Berlin, Grosz and photomontage artist John Heartfield invited painter/printmaker Otto Dix to participate in the First International Dada Fair. Dix’s contribution to that show were “Butcher Shop” and “War Cripples (45% Fit for Service),” gruesome evocations of inhumanity, violence and destitution in postwar Germany. His “Matchbox Seller” (oil and collage) from 1920 depicts a blind ex-soldier with missing limbs, destitute and selling matches on the street. Dix was never a card-carrying Dadaist, but had a short fling with Berlin Dada, when he introduced elements of collage into his expressionistic oil paintings, including “Skat Players” (oil on canvas with photomontage and collage), which showed up in the recent Museum of Modern Art show in New York on Dada. Its narrative is about three German officers with missing eyes, noses, brain parts and limbs, equipped with prosthetic hands and legs, joyfully playing cards.
In the United States, homegrown or transplanted Dada/surrealist poets and artists were equally active, including the likes of Walter Arensberg, Arthur Cravan, Jean Crotti, Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy, May Ray, Alfred Stieglitz and Beatrice Wood. It was in New York City that art patrons first cringed at the sight of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a urinal in all its glory.
After 1920, however, Dada began to lose its steam. Tzara and French artist Francis Picabia moved to Paris, where they attempted to elevate Dada before the capital city’s “golden Bohemia.” But within a year, explosive writer Andre Breton declared Dada dead and launched his own Surrealism movement, with himself at the helm. The decades rolled by, with Dada relegated to an increasingly quaint reminder of a simpler time.
And suddenly, in 2016 we celebrate 100 years of Dada. But something has gone wrong with the centennial, right where the movement was born, in Zurich. The true radical spirit is missing in action, and a new paternal twin has come to the fore — Dada Light, which decidedly turns away from making mischief to stage glossy shows that produce revenue. Four other countries are in on this desecration: France (home to Breton), Germany (Arp, Ball, Heuselbeck, Hans Richter), Romania (Marcel Ianco, Tzara, Segal) and the U.S. (Duchamp).
First the Swiss proclaimed that Dada belonged to them as an example of “Swiss national ingenuity,” on par perhaps with cuckoo clocks. The old building at Spiegelgasse 1 that had housed the Cabaret Voltaire was reclaimed from squatters, cleaned up and larded with some 165 planned Dada-themed events this year in the hopes it will become a new tourist goldmine.
Meanwhile. the centennial has gone viral with more than a half-million hits for “Dada-100,” as a part of a turnstile culture that celebrates Dada-lite in artifacts such as the Dada Hand Book by Adrian Notz (modern-day director of the Cabaret Voltaire) and Yael Wicki, available for 25 Swiss francs and published with financial support from the Stadt Zurich Kultur and Kanton Zurich Lotteriefonds, two Swiss establishments of a highly capitalist bent. The back cover reads: “Manipulation. Counting dada on one hand. This book gives you the chance to manoeuvre [sic] your way simply and quickly through the great complexity and intricacy of Dada. In five clear steps — with the five fingers of one hand — it will enable you to get a grasp of Dada so that Dada can help you respond elegantly and precisely to every life situation.” Okay then!
“Come to Dada” is another Swiss tourist attraction at the Kunsthause Zurich in Heimplatz, the city’s modern art museum, featuring multiple exhibitions and special events such as ”Dadaglobe Reconstructed ”and retrospectives devoted to Francis Picabia and Alberto Giacometti (25 francs each).
The New York Times, in a recent Travel section, ran a full page dedicated to “36 Hours-Zurich,” further explained with “To yearlong Dada centenary events you can add first-rate meals, art deco bars and a lake cruise with stunning views.” Dada has become part and parcel of the conspicuous consumerism palette; Tristan Tzara is laughing and crying in his grave.
This “komertz (commercial) Dada” is nothing new, but rather part of the ongoing delegitimization of the revolutionary spirit of the movement that has long co-opted its graphic ethos into advertising. Dada as a product for sale proliferates, as on the face of a Swatch emblazoned with historic Dada typography, or on designer labels for clothes.
At the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn., “Everything Dada” is a weak show offering examples of early artworks, somehow managing to make Dada artists look lame and subdued. Here, the curators have not paid props to the movement’s antiwar theme, another example of Dada Lite as a cultural commodity. Also missing in action is Tzara’s philosophical and spiritual legacies of Dada as a mystical quest.
MIT press has published a new book, TaTa Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara by Marius Hentea (University of Gothenburg), its translation from the Romanian by Tracus Arte. Alas, despite its lively title, it is the very definition of a tome, it’s 350-plus pages mired in academic mediocrity.
In Romania, “Dada: Echoes in the 20th Century” is a show sponsored by 20 Romanian corporate institutions, including the Bucharest City Hall, the Museum of National Literature, the Library of the Romanian Academy, Romfilatelia (the Romanian Postal Stamp Institution), Romanian Radio and several theaters. But here, too, the savant grade is reduced to dry academic discussion and postal stamps dedicated to the centennial.
Authentic Dada can still be found, however. It lives in the aesthetics of free jazz (Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman), literary collage (the cut-ups of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin), the typography-rich Dada offshoot of lettrism (Isidor Issou), anarchistic activism (the Living Theater, Situationism), automatic writings (the Beat poets and others),free association and psychic automatism (DadaNYDada theater group), not to mention the ongoing outpourings of the mentally ill.
“I warn you there is no beginning or end to disasters, and we are not trembling,” wrote Tristan Tzara. “Dada will replace pain from one continent to another. Dada fights against the agony of the times and against inebriation with death. The world has gone insane; the artist makes fun of insanity — a gesture very sane, indeed.”
Valery Oisteanu is a poet, writer, and artist of the avant-garde. Born in USSR (1943) and educated in Romania. He debuted as a poet with the collection PROSTHESIS in 1970(Litera Press, Bucharest). At the age of 20,he adopted Dada and Surrealism as a philosophy of art and life and a few years later English as his primary language. Immigrating to New York City in 1972 he has been writing in English for the past 44 years. He is the author of 12 books of poetry a book of short fiction,” The King of Penguins” (Linear Art Press, 2000) and a book of essays (in progress), ”The AVANT-GODS”.
Over the last 10 years he wrote art criticism for Brooklyn Rail, artnet.com, Whitehot Magazine, and NY Arts. He is also a contributing writer for French, Spanish & Romanian art and literary magazines (La Page Blanche, Art.es, Viata Romanesca, Observatorul Cultural, Artout.ro, levurelitteraire.com, etc).
As an artist he exhibits collages and assemblages on a regular basis at galleries in New York and also creates collages as covers d illustrations for books and magazines. A new book of VisPo (Visual Poetry) collages titled ”Lighter than Air” in Spuyten Duyvil Press NYC (2016). He has performed in theater and in poetry-musical collaborations with jazz artists from all over the world in sessions known as Jazzoetry. His work has appeared in international surrealist publications of the last four decades, including: Dream Helmet (1978), What Will Be (Brumes Blondes, 2014)
Phala (Sao Paulo, Brazil), The Annual (Phasm Press, 2015) etc
Member of Poets and Writers, Inc. New York (1977-2016)
Founding member of PASS (Poets and Artists Surrealist Society) 1977-2016
“It’s the end of the World as we know it” Award (Vault Literary Society) 2000
award for exceptional cutting edge artists who constantly take risks with their art)
Awarded Chivot order of the Chevalier of the Castel for the dissemination of Romanian Avant-Garde in Diaspora, 2010, Dublin
Recipient of the Kathy Acker Award, NYC, 2013, for contribution to the American avant-garde in Poetry Performance.