Dada & Surrealism
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Dada & Surrealism

C. W. E. Bigsby

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Dada & Surrealism

C. W. E. Bigsby

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About This Book

First published in 1972, the work provides an introduction to Dada and Surrealism. It explores the two movements and their cultural significance. It also looks at those who called themselves Dadaists and Surrealists, including their aims and achievements. In doing so, the book identifies the meaning that the two terms have acquired, which is often remote from the claims advanced by the chief adherents of each movement.

This book will be a valuable resource to those studying Dada and Surrealism and its relationship to modern literature.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2017
ISBN
9781315279831
Topic
Arte
Edition
1

Part One/Dada

1

Definitions, Statements and Manifestoes

Dada was a literary and artistic movement, international in scope and nihilist in character, which lasted from 1915 until 1922.
(Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Denomination volontairement vide de sens, choisie dans le dictionnaire parmi les plus anodines, adoptee par un movement d’art et de litterature apparu en 1916 et qui pretendait, par la derision et l’irrationel, le hasard, l’intuition, abolir societe, culture et art traditionnels, pour retrouver le reel authentique.
(Larousse)
The discrepancy in dating demonstrated above is symptomatic of the confusion which surrounds the birth of an artistic movement which seemed both to deny art and to decry the notion of formal movements. The search for origins, the attempt to trace and define this most quixotic of phenomena, has provided futile amusement for academics and artistic speleologists for the last fifty years. There can be few movements, however, which lend themselves less to solemn exegesis. Indeed, the would-be explicator of Dadaism soon encounters well-prepared defences. Fully alive to the fact that criticism has a tendency to fossilize the vital and the evanescent, the Dadaists took pains to discourage future generations of historians and critics. The Rumanian painter, Marcel Janco, refused to conceive of a valid history; Max Ernst, the German painter and poet, pointed out the impossibility of capturing the ephemeral; while Jean Arp ridiculed critical methodology in an ironical account of the founding of Dada which is a particularly effective satire of ponderous academicism:
No dadaist will ever write his memoirs! Do not trust anything that calls itself ‘dada history’, however much may be true of Dada, the historian qualified to write about it does not yet exist.
(Marcel Janco)
… a Dada exhibition. Another one! What’s the matter with everyone, wanting to make a museum piece out of Dada? Dada was a bomb … can you imagine anyone, around half a century after a bomb explodes, wanting to collect the pieces, sticking it together and displaying it?
(Max Ernst)
I hereby declare that Tristan Tzara found the word DADA on February 8th, 1916, at 6 p.m. I was present with my five children when Tzara uttered this word for the first time – filling us with justified enthusiasm. This took place in the Cafe Terrace in Zurich – I was putting a roll into my left nostril at the time. I am convinced that this word is not of the slightest importance and that only morons and Spanish professors can be interested in dates. What interests us is the Dada spirit and we were all Dada before Dada ever existed. The first Holy Virgins I painted date from 1886 when I was only a few months old and used to amuse myself by pissing graphic impressions. The morality of idiots and their belief in geniuses gives me the shits.
(Jean Arp)
Despite their distrust of programmes and their revolt against formalized systems the Dadaists delighted in publishing numerous and frequently contradictory statements of their beliefs. While considering that to define Dada was ‘un-Dadaistic’ they constantly attempted to do so, in the process revealing a characteristic predilection for paradox and contradiction. Thus Tzara could announce that there should be ‘No More Manifestoes’ while devoting considerable time and energy to compiling a large number of them. But, as he was later to say in one of his poems, ‘If each man says the opposite it is because he is right.’ It is scarcely surprising that Max Ernst should have listed Walt Whitman as one of his favourite poets.
The manifesto seemed to answer the public need for direct, polemical statement. Yet, perversely, it served merely to further the Dadaists’ aim of taunting the bourgeoisie. For while the public looked for a plain statement of intent, the bare bones of the latest artistic movement, they were caught in a web of words whose primary purpose was to demonstrate the redundancy of language. Nevertheless, though wildly and intentionally contradictory, these statements and manifestoes do serve at least obliquely to convey something of the tone and essence of Dada:
To be against this manifesto is to be a Dadaist.
… in principle I’m against manifestoes, as I am also against principle…. I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking a fresh gulp of air.
(Tristan Tzara)
Nothing was holy to us. Our movement was neither mystical, communistic nor anarchistic. All of these movements had some sort of program, but ours was completely nihilistic. We spat upon everything, including ourselves. Our symbol was nothingness, a vacuum, a void….
(George Grosz)
The honorific tide of nihilists was bestowed on us. The directors of public cretinization conferred this name on all those who did not follow in their path.
(Jean Arp)
… the misunderstanding from which Dadaism suffered is the chronic disease that still poisons the world. In its essence it can be defined as the inability of a rationalized epoch and of rationalized men to see the positive side of an irrational movement.
Over and over again, the strumming, shouting and dancing, the striving to épater le bourgeois, have been represented as the chief characteristics of Dadaism. The riots provoked by Dadaism in Berlin and Paris, the revolutionary atmosphere surrounding the movement, its wholesale attacks on everything, led critics to believe that its sole aim was to destroy all art and the blessings of culture. The early Dada manifestoes, in which nonsense was mixed with earnestness, seemed to justify this negative attitude.
In the considered opinion of this Manifesto, Dada had both destructive and constructive sides.
(Dada Manifesto, 1949)
Dada was anything but a hoax; it was a turning on the road opening up wide horizons to the modem mind. It lasts and will last as long as the spirit of negation contains the ferment of the future.
(Marcel Janco)
Art demands clarity…. We are fighting the lack of system for it destroys forces.
(Arp, Janco, etc.)
I’m against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.
(Tristan Tzara)
At Zurich in 1915, uninterested as we were in the slaughterhouses of the world war, we gave ourselves to the fine arts. While the cannon rumbled in the distance, we pasted, recited, versified, we sang with all our soul. We sought an elementary art which, we thought, would save men from the curious madness of these times. We aspired to a new order.
(Jean Arp)
Art is a pharmaceutical product for morons.
(Francis Picabia)
Dada has launched an attack on the fine arts, an enema to the Venus de Milo, and finally enabled ‘Laocoon and Sons’ to ease themselves after a thousand-year struggle with the rattle-snake.
(Jean Arp)
Art is going to sleep for a new world to be born. ‘ART’ – parrot word – replaced by DADA … Art is a PRETENSION warmed by the TIMIDITY of the urinary basin, the hysteria born in THE STUDIO.
(Tristan Tzara)
Dada hurts, Dada does not jest, for the reason that it was experienced by revolutionary men and not by philistines who demand that art is a decoration for the mendacity of their emotions … I am firmly convinced that all art will become dadaistic in the course of time, because from Dada proceeds the perpetual urge for its renovation.
(Richard Huelsenbeck)
Cubism was a school of painting, futurism a political movement. Dada is a state of mind. To oppose one to the other reveals ignorance or bad faith.
(Tristan Tzara)
Dada is German Bolshevism.
(Richard Huelsenbeck)
Do not trust Dada. Dada is everything. Dada doubts everything. But the real Dadas are against DADA.
(Tristan Tzara)
A movement which includes the nihilistic Walter Semer, the effervescent Tristan Tzara and the sober intelligence of Hugo Ball is difficult to categorize. Most of the Dadaists were young men united in a temporary alliance against the past but all were working their own way towards a personal response to art and a world in which personal maturity seemed to coincide with universal dissolution. Hugo Ball, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, defined the purpose of his venture as an attempt to ‘draw attention across the barriers of war and nationalism, to the few independent spirits who live by other ideals’. Although by degrees the Dadaists did formulate more specific objectives it is worth bearing in mind that their primary emphasis was laid on the need for individual freedom in a time of political, moral and aesthetic crisis. This is the core of Dada – the foundation of all that was to follow.

2

The Spread of the Dada Virus

The war of 1914–18 was for many final proof of the bankruptcy of a whole intellectual, cultural and social system. Religion, rational thought, humane values seemed implicitly contradicted by the slaughter initiated by Europe’s civilized nations and all too often condoned by intellectuals and artists as well as politicians and militarists. Yet while Verdun and Ypres provoked a crisis of faith for many, the disintegration of traditional values and assumptions had predated the specific evidence of the battlefield. In the age of Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein, the true scientist, the true engineer, the true artist, and, by implication, the true man, was an iconoclast. As Ibsen remarked, the artist’s function was ‘to move the boundary posts’.
In painting, impressionism paved the way for more radical experimentation. Cézanne challenged the mimetic principle only to be superseded by a group of artists who seemed to confront tradition so directly that they earned themselves the title of ‘wild beasts’ – Les Fauves. They in turn were followed by the Cubists and to a lesser extent the Futurists – artists who finally fractured a mode of thought which had dominated painting for centuries. Distrusting rationality they turned to the unsophisticated art of Africa, finding there both a naive directness and a structural technique which they saw as releasing them from a slavish adherence to the ‘real’ world. Suspicious of a methodology which seemed ill-equipped to capture the essential truth of the modem world they set out to forge their own instruments and by doing so came close to changing the nature of that truth.
In literature the symbolists sought to explode the surface of life, captured so precisely by the naturalists, in order to conjure up the imperceptible sub-world of the unconscious. They tested language and found it wanting. They sought in intuitive perception an insight denied to the literal mind. Meanwhile a writer like Alfred Jarry sought to catapult the bourgeois audience out of its stable and comfortable self-assurance by a direct assault on its conviction that art and good taste are indissolubly wedded.
It was against this background that Dada made its appearance. Although at first little more than a collection of avant-garde writers and artists who were revolted by the war and suspicious of the role which art and literature had come to play, the Dadaists gradually assumed a consciously subversive role. They ridiculed conventional taste and deliberately set out to dismantle the arts, not in any mood of formalist inquiry but in a desire to discover the point at which culture had become infected with a tainted morality and to detect the moment at which creativity and vitality had begun to diverge. It was thus from the very beginning both destructive and constructive; both frivolous and serious. As Hugo Ball explained, ‘What we call Dada is foolery, foolery extracted from the emptiness in which all the higher problems are wrapped, a gladiator’s gesture, a game played with the shabby remnants … a public execution of false morality’ (Richter, p. 32). The dissection of the arts which the Dadaists conducted, the reduction of poetry to phonetics, of music to elemental sound, and of art to planes, angles, colours and simplicity of line, was only partly a reflection of the general dissolution which characterized the age. It was also an attempt to purge them of stylistic and ethical accretions which had concealed purity of line and moral purpose alike. The discovery, by writers like Tzara and painters like Arp, of the significance of chance as an active principle, quite free of social and cultural necessities and liberated from the conditioned response of logic and reason, protected this purity even from the potentially crippling influence of the conscious artist himself. Dada, in other words, was simultaneously both art and anti-art; it despaired of contemporary society and despised its attenuated art and yet remained committed to restoring some essential quality missing from both. It is scarcely surprising that Hugo Ball ended his life as a staunch and even saintly Catholic while others later flirted with the communist party. As Hans Richter has suggested, it is precisely these tensions which gave Dada its particular quality of vitality and purpose. But by the same token these tensions were also evidence of divisions which were eventually to open up and destroy the movement.
Dada did not spring into being overnight, nor were its parents entirely unknown. In some ways it was a part of that artistic re-examination which spawned such schools as impressionism, cubism, futurism and, more exotically, suprematism, rayonism, plasticism, vorticism and synchronism. Although Picabia was to call cubism ‘a cathedral of s—’ and Huelsenbeck was to deny the significance of futurism, both left their mark on Dada. Indeed many of those associated with Dada had been attracted by one or more of these earlier movements: Huelsenbeck and Ball by expressionism, Arp by cubism and Tzara by futurism. The shock tactics, the constant resort to polemic, the experiments with ‘sound music’ and ‘simultaneous poetry’, which came over a period to characterize the Dadaists, were not new. As Richter rightly acknowledged ‘we had swallowed Futurism – bones, feathers and all’ (Richter, p. 33). Yet while the Dadaists rejected what they saw as the banality of naturalism and the anthropomorphic arrogance of romanticism they also came in time to distrust the very modernism from which they emerged.
The exact hour and date of Dada’s birth is an open question. Because it was, as its adherents never tired of repeating, a state of mind rather than a movement, it ‘existed’ before its official birth in February 1916, and survived its official death, formally pronounced in Germany in 1922. As Marcel Duchamp has said, ‘Dada is the nonconformist spirit which has existed in every century, every period since man is man’ (Cinquant’ Anni a Dada, p. 27). And in a sense it is as appropriate to begin a study of Dada with Marcel Duchamp as with anyone for he embodied many of its central tenets long before Huelsenbeck, Ball or Tzara discovered the word in a French/German dictionary as Jean Arp stuffed a roll into his left nostril.
After achieving both success and notoriety with his basically cubist picture Nude Descending a Staircase, which scandalized the organizers of the 1912 Salon des Independants exhibition in Paris and attracted huge crowds to the Amory Show held in New York in 1913, Duchamp ‘abandoned’ painting. It was a Dada gesture while Dada itself was still in the womb. Rejecting painting as merely a visual exhibition of craft, he created his Large Glass, produced a number of ‘ready-mades’ and then, with a famous and significant gesture, retired to play chess for the rest of his life. The ready-mades were simply objects which he himself had selected as being commonplace: A Bicycle Wheel (1913), A Bottle Rack (1914) and, with admirable bad taste, a urinal called La Fontaine (1917). These were anti-art gestures, mocking the whole idea of taste and form. They were in the same spirit as his mischievous exercise in demythologizing, LHOOQ. This consisted of a picture of the Mona Lisa with added moustache and beard. The new title, when pronounced in French, reduced enigma to erotica and destroyed the mystique of the masterpiece.
In a sense the ready-made is inherently ironical – the logical culmination of representational art. Yet it was never intended to be a ‘work of art’ for aesthetic appreciation. Since Duchamp’s idea of what he called a ‘reciprocal ready-made’ was a Rembrandt used as an ironing board it is difficult to mistake his purpose, while the urinal submitted to the Independents Exhibition would presumably challenge even the most abstruse of art critics. Clearly it is possible to see positive elements in work which poses questions about the nature of art, the role of the artist and the essence of taste, as indeed in his further experiments involving the role of chance (in Three Standard Stoppages he dropped three pieces of thread a metre long and then preserved the resulting shape) but his resolute withdrawal from art underlined his own sense of betrayal and disillusionment. The ‘ready-made’ was not simply an anti-art gesture. It was a challenge to a system of values. The positive value of objets-trouves, as seen by the Chinese, the Japanese and later by the surrealists, was not lost on Duchamp. But, in place of the smooth stone or the evoca...

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