Joconde aux Moustaches (L.h.o.o.q.)
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5th October 2005 to 9th January 2006
During my visit to the Dada exhibition in the Pompidou center, a most extraordinary phenomenon happened right before my eyes: people were commenting heatedly on the art (or anti-art) objects, trying to express their understanding of the Dada movement. Usually people wait politely in line and move quietly to view each picture, careful not to be overheard by others when they talk to the person who accompanies them. Here the obvious provocation seemed to bring out people’s reaction. A lady in the crowd looked in my direction and said: "I am hermetic to these symbols, the same way that I am allergic to religious rituals, although I am a believer". I agreed saying "symbols condition you, unless they are universal symbols, and they are so difficult to identify". Indeed, the first impression you get is that we are surrounded by symbols, and we have a host of enigmas to solve.
"Dada est le geste de révoltés" (Dada is the gesture of rebels), said our guide. "It’s a war against everything, including art, but without soldiers".
We learn that the word Dada was chosen to mean nothing, to convey no image or symbol. Yet it has a meaning, or several meanings according to the language you use. It means a 'hobby-horse' in French (that's curious because an Art Nouveau periodical called 'The Century Guild Hobby Horse' was published by Arthur Mackmurdo in 1884), and Paul Gauguin preferred this meaning as a symbol of a refusal of Western civilization in favor of a return to more primordial values. It also means ‘get off my back’ in German and ‘indeed’ in Romanian.
All this is taking place in the room with portraits of Picabia, Duchamp and others by Man Ray. Although Man Ray joined the group, his portraits are clearly Man Ray the artist. Man Ray the Dada did some abstract work but, sorry, I prefer Man Ray the Romantic. "They were so beautiful", said someone from behind, commenting on these portraits of the Dadaists. Yet the Dada gang seemed to be out to massacre beauty: "Dada’s avowed intention was to kill art" (André Breton).
"It seems to me that this movement’s objective was to 'destructure' or tear down in order to restructure in another way" remarked someone in my group. "The Dada group rejected all form of authority, especially religious dogma. Rather than 'destructure' they seemed to wish to destroy the notion of art and the artist and make it redundant". Have they managed to do it, to destroy art? I thought to myself; anyhow, they have managed to put into question the ‘fine arts’ side of the arts. It brought to mind an oriental poem of some 900 years ago: "Let's change the heavens and make a new design". I suppose the poet was one of the very first known Dadaists, like they said the Virgin Mary was.
"They followed the creative process of nature without copying it", said our guide. But as we went along in the exhibition, nothing seemed to apply to all of it; everyone’s work was so different and everyone used different media and different techniques. From Picabia’s ‘Black smudge’ to our travel through Schwitters’ white room with incoherent sonorities in the background, which was supposed to have been recorded as ‘simultaneous poems’ in the Café Voltaire’s background noise; through Hans Arp’s chance paper collages according to the law of probability
. The similarity is in the dissimilarity.
"They did not follow any form of aesthetics", said another bystander. "They had no preoccupation with color or form" agreed our guide. With this we went through the ‘Black Room’ with avant-garde music by Sattie and Schwitters (pardon, it seems that the Dadaists hated the notion of avant-garde incarnated by the cubists: Picabia’s interjection that "Cubism represents total famine in ideas. They cubed primitive paintings, cubed Negro sculptures, cubed violins, cubed guitars, cubed picture magazines, cubed shit and girls' profiles, and now they want to cube money" shows that while the public was struggling to understand avant-garde work such as Cubism, the Dadaists found them already ‘dépassé’ and were reacting against them.
Everyone seemed to have reached a consensus on the unleashing factor. That the whole Dada movement started with their unanimous rejection of war and its horrors; the deformed, the people reduced to artificial body parts, the gruesome and the grotesque painted finely in the style of Otto Dix was a denunciation, a dissenting cry against the war. Someone remarked how finely and beautifully the horror scenes were painted, as if to ridicule painting or the ‘fine arts’ altogether.
Reaching Picabia’s empty frame, with signature but without content or more precisely, the content being the people who move behind the transparent quadrangle I see another way of looking at the world. "People are the work of art", said our guide. Ribemont-Dessaignes also said: "Dada’s chief pleasure was to see itself in others."
"This is folly, but without any vulgarity", said another person from our own group. I thought that, in fact, Dada questioned what is supposed to be correct and felt that to classify things as vulgar or non-vulgar is yet another fallacy.
"Total manipulation", was our guide’s comment on the sculpture with a light bulb in place of it’s head, and one that you can switch on and off at will. Dada was famous for creating art without meaning and here we were asking what the little bell on the sculpture’s shoulder meant. We never go so far as trying to find the symbolic meaning of every fold in a Greek drapery; we accept the abstraction of light and shade as drapery. Talking of brains, we then see George Groz’s painting with a question mark instead of the brain, and an awkward and deformed person buttoned up tightly to keep its dislocated body together.
This is a huge exhibition and as every object is puzzling, you could go on and on as if lost in the labyrinth of a forest. The exhibition itself is as puzzling and mysterious as life; nothing is entirely explainable, but then we have our guide who listens she actually listens to our interjections with interest. Someone in our group who'd done his homework pointed out that "Dada ideas were later used by the Surrealists but dogmatized and theorized by André Breton." And, indeed, a singular work called ‘La fiancée’ seemed far more Surrealist than Dada. "This is an irrational mechanism that is taken in the workings of machinery", said someone. "It is mystery mechanized", corrected another. Our guide added "Actually, they had in mind the idea of the fourth dimension and used the shadows of the objects and the lighting to suggest this." Then as we all circle around the urinal of Marcel Duchamp like in an act of collective prayer, we learn about his idea of the ready-made. His love of the paradox and the ridiculous seemed perfectly illustrated. For this ‘instigator of controversy’, the silence around his urinal ‘Fountain’, the acceptance of it as a work of art must be unbearable, a 'counterproduction', or perhaps he will add it to his list of ironies (Duchamp was probably pleased that it was refused in the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 in New York). Our respectful attitude in front of the urinal seemed funnier to me than Duchamp’s bearded Mona Lisa with the obscene caption 'LHOOQ' (which, when read out in French sounds like the equivalent of "she's hot, or burning with desire"). But here again he is contesting what is an original work: the Louvre’s Joconde must be a copy, since it is Duchamp’s version of it after having shaved! According to the curator of the exhibition: "Duchamp wished to break with any kind of mythology linked to the artist and with ‘retinal’ painting, replacing the olfactory experience of turpentine with gray matter, and underscoring the importance of choice."
Their works cry out by now. The massive NO affects you and you can almost hear Duchamp saying: "abolish all judgement"; Arp saying: "abolish all authorship"; Tzara saying: "Do away with the skeleton of conventions." But you haven’t heard Schwitters yet: "the garbage of the world will be my art", or "anything an artist spits out is art."
I must admit that when I started my visit of this exhibition, I had the uncomfortable impression that the Dada group originally started out acting bizarre trying to get famous fast, and the whole thing was a great marketing idea: don’t wait for the critics to give you a name, make one yourself, after all those who were branded ‘Impressionist’, or 'Fauve' or ‘Cubist’ got famous not just because of their originality but also because of a recognizable brand name. On seeing a Dada exhibition, André Gide agreed: "that showy name, that absolute insignificance was perhaps what is really to be known about the exhibition."
But then I did change my mind in the end for I sensed a philosophy behind every work, and I ended up thinking exactly as Duchamp wanted: these are not works of art (at least not fine art), but works with a meaning. Therefore, this is more than anything else a philosophical movement fuelled by contestation. The Dada controversy snow-balled and attracted so many different trends to join their basic philosophy which was "reject preconceived ideas". Ghandi said: "listen to the little voice within", but the Dadaists went further saying, "question the little voice also, for it could lead you astray!"
As the curator of the exhibition remarked so rightly: "much like the 17th century libertines who placed no value on political ideals or religious beliefs, the Dadaists believed in nothing and were committed to nothing. They are slaves of nothing, not even desire, sexual identity being deliberately eliminated." I hope the reader of this article also questions everything but does not feel that contestation in itself is a viable philosophy.
But as we gather around a work called 'Vierge' (Virgo or the ‘the virgin’) it appears that although they may have questioned religious dogma, they did keep something resembling spirituality, as a sort of a non-analyzable, non-divisible atom. The bystander’s comments on this picture were truly creative. "High above is the constellation of Virgo, beautiful and bright, and below is this machine with negative and positive currents that is connected to the constellation. Inside this cold and ugly machine humanity is taken in a sort of a ‘vise’; it has been eliminated, it has been taken hostage to this machinery, caught up in the system." Perhaps spirituality is this ‘meaning’ from which we cannot escape, even if we are more Dadaist than the Dadas, the way Francis Picabia seemed to be. For Picabia "Dada was born prematurely in New York in 1915 and died gradually in Paris. Even though Picabia declares in his manifesto that "Dada, wants nothing, absolutely nothing, and what it does is to make the public say ‘we understand nothing, nothing, nothing’. In fact the Dadaists are nothing, nothing, nothing and they will surely succeed in nothing, nothing, nothing, they did not entirely succeed in that respect.
Something Doris Lessing wrote came to mind (in her foreword to Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’) on how manipulation of ideas could affect negatively several generations: perhaps the anarchy of Fascism and today's terrorists had been seeded by the Dadaists. The exhibition conveys strongly how effectively the Dadaists used provocation through irony, rebellion through anarchy, showing mankind’s slavery through mechanical and social systems, a universal giving-up of freedom, truth, justice, love, beauty and poetry for cold, dismal and insignificant calculations.
But the Dadaists are not the only ones who can question everything. I question the negativist foundations of their questions and think that given everything, we are lucky to be where we are today in our relative freedom. God is not dead, nor is beauty, and the bourgeois are still paramount with a value system even more dedicated to materialism. And, fortunately, world war seems ever more remote as the world turns into one great global burg, a gigantic super-city (not a global village since the economies of scale are concomitant with diseconomies of superficiality of human interactions). So we are lucky that the Dadaists are a thing of the past, even if they proclaimed that they lived for the present and rejected the idea of the past and the future.
Resisting the temptation to use the Dadaist method of denigrating everything, we can say that, despite desultory jabs in all directions, the Dadaists did have several redeeming features. They were the first to consciously internationalize a major movement in the arts (described as "polyglot and supranational"), and they did manage to develop the nascent techniques of collage and montage. Their linguistic revolution in the form of phonetic poetry was quite an accomplishment, while their provocations and encroachments into performances with readings and dance provided a paradigm shift that clearly lay the groundwork for Surrealism and could also be seen as the beginnings of multimedia.
Art Lovers' Paris
Chronology of the Dada movement: 1916-1923
1913: A similar movement to Dada was founded in New York by Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Albert Gleizes, Jean Crotti, Joseph Stella, Morton Schaneberg and Man Ray.
1915: A revue called 291 was published in New York and served as precursor for the Dada revues.
February 1916: The Dada movement was founded by a group of poets, writers and artists including Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber, Marcel Janco, Richard Hülsenbeck and Tristan Tzara. They got together in a recently opened literary and artistic café in neutral Zurich, the Cabaret Voltaire. Although claiming to be a way of life rather than an artistic movement, the group essentially had in common a strong feeling of revolt against the failure of the social order that led to wars, like the one still raging a few miles away. They found a stage in the Cabaret Voltaire to vent their rejection of the established order, using extremes of buffoonery and provocation in their ironic, cynical and nihilist even anarchistic artistic expression.
In April that same year, the name Dada was coined for the movement, and in July Tzara read the first Dada manifesto.
January 1917: The first issue of 391 was published by Picabia in Barcelona.
March 1917: The Dada Gallery opens in Zurich with the 'Sturm' exhibition.
1918: With the end of the war, Picabia went to Switzerland and met the Dadaists. Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara strike up a strong friendship and the New York movement merges with that of Zurich.
April 1918: Dadaist manifesto, written by Tzara, published by Hülsenbeck in Berlin.
1919: First Dadaist exhibition in Berlin and publication by Raoul Hausmann of Der Dada. The internationalization of the movement starts in earnest. In Cologne, Hans Arp, Max Ernst and J.T. Baargeld create a new Dada branch called 'Foundation of the Dada Conspiracy'. Kurt Schwitters founds the Hanover group inventing ‘Merz’ (meaning 'nothing'), while the Romanian branch is founded by Marcel Janco. In France, the publication of passages from 'Champs magnétiques' in the revue 'Littérature', edited by Louis Aragon, André Breton and Philippe Soupault, creates strong interest.
January 1920: Tzara shows up in Paris where the first Dada season starts with a Vendredi de Littérature (literary Friday).
With the help of Francis Picabia, Tristan Zara, André Breton and Louis Aragon, and with the arrival of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray in 1921, the movement expands in France, but it is more literary than elsewhere and its destructive principles become softened.
First International Dada Fair held in Berlin aroused vehement reaction from the press and the public as well as bringing several indictments for disturbance of the peace.
1921: Paris becomes the center of the movement. The 'Great Dada season' starts and the Montaigne Gallery in Paris holds a Dada Salon.
1922: Theo van Doesburg contributes to the publication of ‘Mécano’, a Dada insert in the De Stijl journal, and with Kurt Schwitters spreads the Dada message throughout the Netherlands. The International Constructivist Group at Weimar, although a Dadaist show organized by Theo van Doesburg, attracts participants from the Bauhaus. André Breton and Tristan Tzara fail to see eye to eye and the Paris Congress is a flop. The Dada group begins to break up.
1923: Schwitters creates a publication called 'Merz' and a Merzbau at his home in Hanover.
The Dada movement gradually peters out in Paris, and the future Surrealists, with their more positive mindset, are on the rise.
1924: The Surrealist Manifesto of André Breton finally puts an end to the Dada adventure.
Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
He called Dada ‘the rebellious spirit of a movement' that he had always viewed positively. He lived away from the epicenter of the movement in New York and created his first Ready-made, a urinal called 'Fountain' and signed R.Mutt under the influence of the mass-production of industry. He was a major instigator of Dada, with Picabia, as fomenter of controversy, for whom Dada really only existed between 1913-1915 and died before the Swiss/German/French experiment.
Francis Picabia (1879-1953)
Born in Paris of Cuban-Spanish descent, he was older than the other Dadaists and had a successful career as an Impressionist and Cubist painter as well as co-founder of the Section d'Or behind him when he broke off with his Parisian gallery to gain greater freedom. He exhibited in New York in the Armory Show of 1913 and again lived in New York in 1915 where he teamed up with Duchamp and contributed to the magazine 291. In Barcelona in 1916 he founded a travelling journal, the incendiary periodical 391. He played hot and cold with the Dada movement until 1921 when he publicly announced his estrangement from it.
Max Ernst (1891-1976)
After being demobilized (he was one of the few Dadaists to actually fight in the war), Ernst met with the Dadaists in Cologne. Dada gave him the liberty to express his horror at the war in which he was traumatized. He also produced lithographs and collages under the influence of Giorgio di Chirico and natural science encyclopedias. André Breton converted him to Surrealism in 1924.
Sophie Taeuber (1894-1943)
She was a major contributor to the Dada movement. She designed original and beautifully finished marionettes for the ‘Roi Cerf’. She worked with Arp in collages and in remarkable hand-turned, brightly painted wooden heads.
Man Ray (1890-1976)
In his Dada period, he painted with an air gun giving up the hand-made, the way his friend Duchamp created the Ready-made. He then turned to Dadaist photography by creating Rayographs (photos without a camera, creating abstract forms by the effect of light on photographic paper). In 1921 he joined the Paris Dada group, making numerous portraits of its members.
Hans Arp (1986-1966)
One of the founding members of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich alongside such key Dada figures as Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. Although self-taught, he contributed his knowledge of modern art and made Cabaret Voltaire an exhibition venue for De Chirico, Modigliani and Picasso. His collaboration with Sophie Taeuber produced collages based on random gestures. He also worked with Max Ernst in four-handed collages called Fatagaga. His sense of humor was such that he would take his odd-shaped hand-turned wood sculptures for a walk on a leash in Zurich.
Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)
A Romanian poet inspired by the Symbolists, he was one of the team who helped Hugo Ball and others with creating the Café Voltaire. He was extremely self promotional and disseminated the name Dada by glueing and pasting it everywhere. He wrote the Dada manifesto in 1918 and was instrumental in developing the Dada movement in Paris.
Source for the chronology of the Dada movement: the catalog of the exhibition.