Rah! Rah! Dada!
The subversive moment in modern art.
May 1, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 31 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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 Taeuber, 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 UStreet 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 the 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. A 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 20th 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. 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."