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Dada Loves MoMA
DADA Deconstructed & Resurrected by MoMA at MoMA

by Valery Oisteanu

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was Dada (1916-1924), whose light burned briefly but brightly. What was Dada? As Tristan Tzara put it, “Dada is a state of mind. Dada is a supreme religion of truth and true feelings, feelings that can be communicated through ‘wireless telepathy.’ Dada is the collective power of healing!”

It’s hard to believe that, 90 years after its birth, Dada, separated from its Siamese twin, Surrealism has finally gotten its own grand traveling exhibit in Paris, Washington and New York (the last big exhibit in Europe was at Kunsthaus Zurich, Global Dada, in 1994). Indeed, Dada Loves MoMA is the largest exhibit ever, featuring more than 450 masterpieces by nearly 50 artists in an eccentric display. But the movement sprang to life mainly thanks to a subversive creative core of Eastern European Jews who gravitated to the west and charmed the world — a key point that largely is missing from this show and its otherwise splendid telephone book-sized catalogue.

Tristan Tzara, Marcel Ianco and Claude Serner escaped conscription into the Romanian army during World War I and traveled to Zurich to present their own brand of avant-garde theater at the Cabaret Voltaire. Subsequently, Dada became the first art movement to conquer the minds of artists, musicians and writers from all over the world, in the process creating an international language of “ever-expanding radicalism.” The aesthetic revolution grew first in Europe and, soon after, everywhere. But Dada also was loathed and feared by fascists and communists. Dadaists were declared decadent, degenerate and immoral, the product of subversive “Jewish minds,” and most of all in total contradiction to Aryan standards of thought.

As MoMA curator Anne Umland pointed out at the press opening, there are two entries to the show (but “no exit,” as Sartre put it): the one the left is titled “New York-Dada,” exemplified by Marcel Duchamp artworks, and the one on the right is the “Zurich-Dada” of Cabaret Voltaire memorabilia, masks and puppets. What is missing is Tzara’s philosophical and spiritual legacy. Dada for him was a spiritual quest; in his manifestoes and lectures, he shaped the first contemporary humanistic art movement that was multi-cultural, anti-war and anti-inhumanity.

As Tzara wrote during World War I: “I warn you there is no beginning or end to disasters, and we are not trembling. Dada will replace pain from one continent to another. Dada is the abolition of false prophets. Dada is the belief in the god of spontaneity. Dada is the roar of controlled pain. Dada is freedom, and Dada is the meeting point of all contradictions. It’s the focal point of all things contrary. Dada is the new humor and the intuitive sublime. 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. Throw away the old rules. Manipulate your chance. Dada is a virgin microbe that will get into your brain only in the places where the conventional is not present!”

Back at the MoMA, however, Dada has been neutered, declawed, made flat, didactic, symmetrical and linear, a presentation of faux-history of the time when divisive sentiments bubbled to the top at the International Art Fair in Berlin in 1920, inadvertently creating a Dada-Diaspora.

But history beckons us to meet some of its makers. Hugo Ball (1886-1927), the High Priest of Dada, was born in Germany and became involved in theater as a director in Berlin and Munich. He was a contributor to the early avant-garde magazines Der Aktion and Revolution. In 1915 he moved with poet/dancer/singer Emmy Hennings to Zurich. Inspired by the theosophical spiritualism of Kandinsky/Steiner, Hugo and Emmy performed nightly their poems and particular brand of absurdist musical theater at the Cabaret Voltaire. Their initial intention was to attract a wide range of avant-garde artists from various modern movements and create a synthesis of all the arts.

A political firebrand in his younger days, Ball held on to his anarchistic principles right to the end. “Karawane” (Caravan Poem) is an example of his own particular contribution to Dada, the sound poem (lautgedicht), introduced July 14, 1916, performed while dressed in a shaman’s costume made of cardboard tubes. His intention was to free vowels from syntax and meaning.

For his part, Kurt Schwiters, turned down from joining the elitist “daddies of Dada” group, left for Holland to join forces with Paul Citroen and Theo von Doensburg to form his own brand of Dada and a magazine called Merz. Then, shortly after Tzara’s arrival in Paris (1920), Andre Breton hijacked Dada to create Surrealism, which swallowed the earlier movement lock, stock, and barrel in 1924. Dada, now presented in the best museums, without political commentary on war, without the intent of revolt, became the safe pop-produce of a consumerist society.

Although the chronology of the MoMA exhibit is ambitiously broken into some seven timelines in six cities with related Dada events, the displays are somewhat reminiscent of a pedestrian wax museum, with many replicas of artworks instead of originals, and the only address to the poetical revolution are the books and magazines hermetically sealed in display cases.The main Dada activity actually took the form of literature and performance, while visuals came in mainly from the sets and masks and costumes of the on-stage work. Two or three spots in the display provide us with rare audio-poems that are piped from above as if it was elevator musak: The volume of “shouted collective poems” is so low as to be practically inaudible.

On the plus side, the exhibit shows how different artists in different locations manifested Dada’s obsession with machines. Duchamp offered optical-kinetic art (Rotoreliefs) and ready-mades with moving bicycle wheels; Picabia produced machine portraits, made from gears; the Germans made political montages, and the French tried to shock with the new. The exploration of the unconscious and the absurd paralleled the desire for the destruction of traditional esthetic values. German artists from Berlin, Cologne and Hanover are represented at their best here; many of them came with revolutionary experience from the New Objectivity movement during the Weimer Republic. Here are George Grosz, Otto Dix, Christian Schad and the principal Uber-Dada instigators Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Sophie Tauber, Hanna Hoch, John Heartfield, J.Baargeld and Raoul Hausmann, whose collages are still the best examples of the “challenge to painting” that German Dada-artists had to offer. And, happily, Kurt Schwitters has had his crown of Avant God fully restored. Unfortunately, the Nazi regime burned some of these artists’ works. That they did not destroy all is thanks to Hanna Hoch, who buried the “degenerate” artworks in her garden and stood vigil over hundreds of collages for many years, when they were forbidden to be exhibited in Berlin.

Today the Dada fever is spreading fast in New York, and several other galleries are displaying art from that period:

  • Daughters of New York Dada is an exhibiting of six major women artists way ahead of their time: Beatrice Wood (1893-1997), Florine Stettheimer (1874-1944), Clara Tice (1888-1973), Katherine Drier (1877-1952), Mina Loy (1882-1966) and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927), at Francis Naumann Fine Arts. They were all associated in one way or another with Duchamp as friends or lovers, and he stated that ”The American woman is the most intelligent woman in the world – helping the world tendency to completely equalize the sexes!” Among a great selection of work are unknown collages by Mina Loy: Christ on a Clothes Line, in a ghetto setting, and a haunting piece on poverty called Communal Cot with papier-mâché people sleeping on the floor.
  • Hans Richter [1888-1976] Dada: Art and Anti-Art displays rarely seen work (more than 100 drawings, assemblages, etc.) and a comprehensive overview of Richter’s artistic career, including his visionary films, at Maya Stendhal gallery in Chelsea through Sept. 16.
  • Tempo Tempo! The Bauhaus, this summer at the International Center of Photography, offered never-before-seen works of Marianne Brandt (1893-1983), fascinating photomontages on paper, influenced by Moholy Nagy and H.Hoch, with collages very relevant to that period.
  • The Swiss Institute presented Dada sound archives of original recordings of poetry, music and performances until July 15.
  • Several great publications, CDs, DVDs and films are also being shown during this time at MoMA. Finally Dada can be appreciated independently from its modern and post-modern inheritors.

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