100 years of dada

 Zürich  |  13 February 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

On 5 February 2016, Dada turned one hundred! This is an opportunity for Art Media Agency to go back to the genesis of this movement that founded contemporary art and to present the events being organised to pay it homage.

February 1916. Europe was war-torn. The barbarism sparked by quarrels dating back hundreds of years was causing bloodshed among men, threatening their societies and their ideals. In the press the same thing could be heard every day: a flow of deathly news, barely softened by the worn filter of propaganda.

Away from the torment of a war that they had not chosen, a group of adolescents, or rather young adults, chose to turn their backs on the overriding moroseness and horror. They would meet up at the Cabaret Voltaire, set up by director Hugo Ball and his partner Emmy Hennings, a dancer, poet and author. The couple would invite young artists residing in Zurich to take part in shows at their Cabaret, and they all replied present: Tristan Tzara, aged 20 years in 1916, Hans Richter, 28 years, Richard Huelsenbeck, 24 years, Marcel Janco, 21 years, or Jean Arp, the eldest at 30 years. All came from relatively well-off, if not bourgeois backgrounds. They were cultivated but they saw the energy of their youth being sacrificed by this never-ending war.

The wastage was something that they did not wish for. On 8 February, Tristan Tzara was leafing through a Larousse dictionary with a paper-cutter, and by chance opened it up at the word “dada”. He was troubled and fascinated by this term close to onomatopoeia – so simple, so childlike, and above all, so universal. For “Dada” designates, in French, a hobbyhorse (literally, or else in the sense of an obsessive idea); in English, it is a term for “dad”, and in Hungarian, it refers to a nanny. According to legend — this one at least, for there are others as well —, this was how Dada was born. This Genesis, as well as the ambiguity and strangeness of the term, would suffice to equip Dada with a manifesto. Dada would be absurd, free and ground-breaking.

Marcel Janco recalls: “Dada was already under our skin, since always, but differently. It really was with the Larousse in hand that, in a café in Zurich, the word was discovered and invested with all its power” (Dada, monographie d’un mouvement).

Liberty as a principle
In the Cabaret Voltaire, for several months, the group, now endowed with a name and a programme, would draw attention, placing liberty at the core of its preoccupations. While Europe wore itself out at war, these young artists wanted to have fun, to dance, to read their poetry and to show their works. In short, to create. Their action approached a “global art” combining music, theatre, dance and plastic arts – one where improvisation played an important role.

Very quickly, Dada became complex, vengeful, distressed and above all, distressing. For Tristan Tzara: “Dada places before action and above everything: doubt. Dada doubts everything. Dada is an armadillo. Everything is Dada. Beware of Dada.”

The authorities, precisely, were wary, and looked poorly upon the uproar created by these young people who were too free in spirit, these young people guilty of enjoying themselves too much in the solemn context of the war. In July 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire had to close its doors due to its nocturnal – and moral – disturbance.

International Dada
In any case, Dada was born. And the movement would not have to wait long before spreading to the corners of the Earth. First to New York, propagated by Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and photographer Man Ray, who published the journal 291. Subversive but short-lived, the journal did not meet with the success they counted on. It was also in New York that Marcel Duchamp presented the work Fountain to the 1917 Armory Show, but it was refused here, and also at the Salon des Indépendants. “Dada cannot live in New York,” they would declare upon their return.

It was also in Germany that Dada spread, shortly before the end of the war. Three German bases emerged. First, Berlin, where Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch “invented” — as they claimed — the technique of photomontage and where Hausmann pronounced his “phonetic poems”. The “Dadosphere”, as he was nicknamed, declaimed his noise-based poems based on onomatopoeia and syllables, associating these sounds with gestures and typographical aesthetics. In Cologne, at the instigation of Max Ernst and Jean Arp, and in Hanover, Dada also drew admirers.

But it was above all to Paris that the movement shifted, in the suitcases of Tristan Tzara who abandoned Zurich in 1920. In the French capital, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Tzara became friends — not always enduringly — with André Breton, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon.

Negativity: the mark of Dada
What gave birth to this frenetic liberty so cherished by Dada? First, randomness and the absurd. The War was proof of these, showing the danger of giving too much meaning to History and events. In fact, even if journalists persisted in repeating the opposite, for Dada, the entire world lacked meaning. In this game, randomness became logical.

Jean Arp tore up pieces of paper and attached them to a canvas however they landed there. Tristan Tzara advised young poets to fill bags with newspaper cuttings and to create their prose by randomly pulling out cuttings from their bags. The latter also declared in his Manifesto: “What we need is works that are strong, straight, precise and forever beyond understanding.”

The group, being international, comprised variations, and did not look upon its programme in the same way: in Germany, discourse was more political; in France, under the impulsion of Breton, Dada progressively glided towards surrealism.

However, by deliberately choosing ambiguity and abstruse discourse, by being permanently provocative and cultivating a mutinous and caustic spirit, Dada introduced the notion of negativity to art: non-art and non-sense.

Above all, Dada, by combining stage and performance arts to poetry and visual creations, knocked down barriers. Its struggle against codes, its vehemence, and its deeply anti-cultural aspect continually placed it against society, its codes, nationalism and war. Marcel Duchamp’s LHOOQ was a real spit in the face of art and its institutions, with a humour rarely found in art since.

No meaning in Dada, nor communication, but the fluid blending and association of sounds and images. Art was born from the free encounter of the useless and non-sense.

But setting down freedom as a principle has often emerged as its greatest negation. In the 1920s, Dada gradually lost its impetus, under the weight of its contradictions and misunderstandings, sometimes violent, that stirred its members. In Paris, André Breton drew Dada towards his concept of art and ended up dissolving it in Surrealism. Later, he would write in Pas Perdu: “Dada, despite having, as they say, its hour of glory, left behind few regrets: over time, its omnipotence and tyranny made it unbearable.”

Rediscovering Dada?
This is what Dada has left behind: a powerful heritage, despite its disregard for conventions in the world of art. Even if Dada artists advocated anti-art, their works opened new breaches into which many artists have slipped: the photo-collages of Raoul Haussmann, the paradoxical integration of anti-art in the artistic field, and more globally, the concept of negativity, and the blending of practices.

In a current context that collapses under the weight of meaning, Dada is immensely up with the times, and this centenary is the opportunity to rediscover it.

First in Zurich, obviously, where the Kunsthaus is putting on a spread. The museum is organising, on 13 February 2016, a Dada masked ball complete with costume competitions and a DJ set. On a more serious note, the museum has undertaken great measures to protect and diffuse the 720 Dada historic documents and artworks that it owns: paintings, sculptures, photographs, and above all works on paper, letters, notes, books, journals, posters and manuscripts, all very fragile as they were created on poor-quality paper in the war context. All the documents and works on paper at the Kunsthaus in Zurich are to be digitised and partly restored, then made accessible on Internet. Above all, from 5 February to 1 May 2016, the Kunsthaus Zurich is presenting “Dadaglobe Reconstructed”, a reconstruction of Tristan Tzara’s legendary project. So what was the Dadaglobe? The anthology that should have carried Dada to glory via the contribution of poets and artists as well known as Hans Arp, Johannes Baargeld, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Crotti, Max Ernst, Hannah Höch, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Sophie Taeuber. But following financial and organisational problems, the book was never published.

The exhibition “Dadaglobe Reconstructed” will then pay a visit to New York, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), from 12 June to 18 September 2016. And that’s not all from the MoMA that will also be hosting a large retrospective on Francis Picabia from November 2016.

In France, celebrations have already started for Strasbourg Museum hosted, until 17 January, the first major retrospective on Tristan Tzara — “Tristan Tzara, The Approximate Man”. From 27 February to 12 June, the Departmental Museum of Contemporary Art of Rochechouart will be presenting the exhibition “Raoul Hausmann, Dadasophe. From Berlin to Limoges”. The Salon de Montrouge has also decided to get involved by focusing on the Cabaret Voltaire in its 2016 edition. On the menu: an exhibition and a performance and film programme.

Finally, last week we announced that Dada is crossing physical borders to squat the Web. How? With the Dada-Data digital project of Anita Hugi and David Dufresne, marked by “public hacktions” and an anti-museum Web. No doubt about it: Dada is well and truly alive.

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