Feature Archive

Hey, "Dada"-Dude
Where's the Rest of Me?

Dada         At the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., through May 14, 2006
Moving to The Museum of Modern Art in New York, June 8–Sept. 11, 2006
By K. Kimberly King
From first glimpse of a moustachioed, goateed "Mona Lisa" gazing down from a huge entryway banner, to a handless, pig-snouted Prussian army officer dummy in mid-flight, visitors to the National Gallery of Art's blockbuster DADA exhibit are put on notice that art is meant to shock, provoke, and shake up one's preconceived ideas, according to this 20th century avant-garde movement.

In their "demand for attention" that curator Leah Dickerman labels a hallmark of the short-lived movement, Dadaists - not unlike this century's edgiest rock and hip-hop performers - questioned the foundations of art and society. Had their repertoire included bumper stickers, "question authority" would have dominated their letterpress output.

In an example of branding pre-figuring our own age, these artistes-provocateurs chose the punchy word "Dada" out of a French-German dictionary listing respective meanings of "hobbyhorse" and "there, there". Behind the movement's child-like moniker lay a very adult manifesto: art could not turn away from contemporary life, but instead had an obligation to put on view its hypocrisies and paradoxes.

The first art movement to name itself, Dada spawned adherents in six major cities who sought, not only to engage audiences visually, but to sear them intellectually. Curator Leah Dickerman observes: "Dada was a profound, ethical response to historical circumstances" whose practitioners were "diagnosticians revealing the symptoms of modernity". She adds that, although some may dismiss Dada as absurdity, "it was a very calculated form of nonsense - protests against a civilization they thought had failed them".

Though several principals, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Max Ernst, have enjoyed single-artist exhibitions, this is the first major U.S. museum exploration of Dada.

Dada burst forth in neutral Zurich's Café Voltaire in 1916, midpoint in the World War I carnage that would eventually kill over 10 million and render crippled and disfigured more than 300,000. Over the next eight years, before Dadaists went their separate ways, variations had spread to Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris. The Gallery's blockbuster exhibit - five years in the making - divides up along those city lines.

First, for historical context, gallery-goers enter a fittingly silent, gunship grey ante-chamber featuring three minutes of documentary footage about World War I. Crafted for this exhibit, scenes deftly move from Parisians enthusiastically grasping August, 1914 mobilization orders to the haunting otherworldliness of gas-masked children and animals, to the profusion of prostheses and face masks for amputees and the grands mutilés. Because the magnitude of death and destruction in Europe -- Gallery brochures emphasize "almost 900 Frenchmen and 1300 Germans died every day" from 1914 to 1918 -- so far eclipses the 110,000 deaths of U.S. "doughboys" sent to battle in 1917, the epochal war does not carry the same significance in America. Both killing and medicine grew more advanced, producing a flood of half-mechanical male veterans.

"This led to a crisis of masculinity", notes the curator, because, in lieu of whole-bodied, authoritative males re-entering society, the shell-shocked, wounded, and disfigured limped into a new decade. Dada art catches these grim realities with missing limbs, re-mastered faces, and split craniums. Phallic hints in God, from a cast-iron plumbing trap, and Ernst's The Hat Makes the Man suggest phalanxes needing Viagra.

Although Dickerman and her team began planning Dada in 2001, well before U.S. planes bombed Baghdad, similarities in two war-riven worlds a century apart reinforce the Dadaists' insistent question: where lies the morality of a "war of choice" initially characterized as lasting only a few months, grinding on for years, seemingly unstoppably? Indeed, Washington POST columnist Eugene Robinson urged the Commander-in-Chief Bush to visit Dada to absorb "history's echoes". Those echoes proved inescapable the sunny Sunday I entered the exhibit and spotted another eager viewer a few awkward steps behind, a man in shorts with a prosthesis from mid-thigh to Nikes.

Reacting to the horror of war and the whir of modernity, Dadaists wanted to break the rules; in so doing, they influenced art to this day. One Kurt Schwitters work is on loan from the Jasper Johns collection. Robert Motherwell, whose 1978 Reconciliation Elegy hangs near the exhibit, published a 1951 anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets, to educate his generation. Heinrich Hoerle's Frau could have inspired Georgia O'Keeffe's blue-toned watercolors.

Eager to adapt then-cutting edge technology - radio, photo-illustrated press, and cinema - Dadaists needled each other and their publics via letters, postcards, journals and magazines, elements of which also landed in their collages and photomontages.

For Dadaists, art must demand, insist, hold to account, and disturb. Its practitioners challenged the reverential attitudes with which works of art had been traditionally viewed. (Ironically, Cézanne was a favorite target.) Theirs was a graphic cry to map the frontiers of insanity in a world gone mad. Collagist Schwitters lamented: "everything had broken down and now things had to be made out of fragments". Chiming in: Tristan Tzara's dictum "ART NEEDS AN OPERATION" adorns the first archway of the exhibit.

And cut the Dadaists did. Sophie Taeuber's increasingly abstract collages lead off rooms showing Zurich developments. Her husband, Hans Arp, experimented with abstraction via needlepoints, then dropped pieces of paper to form collages such as Rectangles according to the Laws of Chance. Both moved to woodwork, Hans to painted amoeba-like forms and Sophie to Dada head and 12 marionettes - the most prominent a gangly, masked "Freudian analyst".

Collage continues upstairs along oxblood walls of Berlin Dada. Suspended from the ceiling is the handless, porcine dummy labeled Prussian Archangel. His army officer's waistband reads: "In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for 12 hours with a heavily packed knapsack..." Hannah Höch injects feminism into her collages and skewers shirtless Heads of State. Works by wounded veteran Otto Dix both agitate and captivate, as with peg-legged War Cripples, ghoulish stand-ins for Cézanne's Cardplayers.

George Grosz's A Victim of Society, with collaged, mechanized facial features and a straight razor puncturing the German president's neck, exemplifies Berlin Dadaists' lasting contribution: photomontage, or collage including cut up, pasted photographs.

The Hannover portion arrays an impressive collection by a veritable one-artist Dada band: the prolific Kurt Schwitters. His complex collages, such as Two Underdrawers, and experimentation with wood, glass, and lithography invite close examination. In early use of found objects, Schwitters named his collaged candy wrappers, bus tickets and cancelled stamps Merz, a neologism evoking German words for "commerce" and "pain", and the French vulgarism for "excrement".

Next comes Cologne Dada and the jarring work of Max Ernst, who was steeped in Freudianism and specialized in "overpaintings". Mixing paint with elements from teaching aids and farming almanacs, he produced gas mask-like heads (Two Ambiguous Figures) and thighs of a headless woman squeezing a bird (The Word). Ernst dishes out more evidence that war emasculates: for limbs or genitals, he inserted columns of hats and chemistry equipment. Heinrich Hoerle, in the Cripple Portfolio, reinforces the theme with a man whose hooks struggle to hold a woman.

French-born Marcel Duchamp dominates the New York and Paris sections, which also feature works by Man Ray and Francis Picabia. His notorious Fountain (a store-bought urinal in replica) hangs from a doorway. To challenge the status of the iconic Mona Lisa, it was not sufficient to ink in moustache and goatee; Duchamp drove home irreverence with the letters "LHOOQ" which, pronounced in English, sound like "look", but, spoken in French, advertise her sexual availability.

The restless Duchamp's description of making art as the desire to push "the idea of doubt... doubt in myself, doubt in everything", courses through this impressively designed, eminently thought-provoking exhibit. Go Dada, dude!

Artists mentioned in the text:
   Hans Arp
   Paul Cézanne
   Otto Dix
   Marcel Duchamp
   Max Ernst
   George Grosz
   Hannah Höch
   Jasper Johns
   Man Ray
   Robert Motherwell
   Georgia O'Keeffe
   Francis Picabia
   Kurt Schwitters
   Sophie Taeuber
In an era when many museums' resources have fallen prey to budget cuts, it's encouraging to note that the National Gallery's handsome eight-page Dada brochure, along with a first-ever 20-page student guide, both impressively illustrated and both gratis, help gallery-goers sort out Dadaists' use of collage, photomontage, assemblage, and wordplay.

For more background, the Gallery's informative website for the exhibition employs clever graphics and a generous sprinkling of illustrations. A lavish, comprehensive 519-page catalogue is available at $40 (soft cover) and $65 (cloth).

The Washington, D.C. and New York exhibitions follow an extensive show of Dada items at Paris' Centre Pompidou from October '05-January '06. French officials clocked over 200,000 visitors to the assemblage.

- Joe Phelan


Past Articles

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      Advent Calendar 2003, narrated by Joseph Phelan
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      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

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      Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
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      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
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