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The irreverent, rowdy revolution set the trajectory of 20th-century art

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Two of Germany’s military leaders had dubbed the war “Materialschlacht,” or “the battle of equipment.” But the dadas, as they called themselves, begged to differ. “The war is based on a crass error,” Hugo Ball wrote in his diary on June 26, 1915. “Men have been mistaken for machines.”

It was not only the war but the impact of modern media and the emerging industrial age of science and technology that provoked the Dada artists. As Arp once complained, “Today’s representative of man is only a tiny button on a giant senseless machine.” The dadas mocked that dehumanization with elaborate pseudodiagrams—chockablock with gears, pulleys, dials, wheels, levers, pistons and clockworks—that explained nothing. The typographer’s symbol of a pointing hand appeared frequently in Dada art and became an emblem for the movement—making a pointless gesture. Arp created abstract compositions from cutout paper shapes, which he dropped randomly onto a background and glued down where they fell. He argued for this kind of chance abstraction as a way to rid art of any subjectivity. Duchamp found a different way to make his art impersonal—drawing like a mechanical engineer rather than an artist. He preferred mechanical drawing, he said, because “it’s outside all pictorial convention.”

When Dadaists did choose to represent the human form, it was often mutilated or made to look manufactured or mechanical. The multitude of severely crippled veterans and the growth of a prosthetics industry, says curator Leah Dickerman, “struck contemporaries as creating a race of half-mechanical men.” Berlin artist Raoul Hausmann fabricated a Dada icon out of a wig-maker’s dummy and various oddments—a crocodile-skin wallet, a ruler, the mechanism of a pocket watch—and titled it Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age). Two other Berlin artists, George Grosz and John Heartfield, turned a life-size tailor’s dummy into a sculpture by adding a revolver, a doorbell, a knife and fork and a German Army Iron Cross; they gave it a working light bulb for a head, a pair of dentures at the crotch and a lamp stand as an artificial leg.

Duchamp traced the roots of Dada’s farcical spirit back to the fifth-century b.c. Greek satirical playwright Aristophanes, says the Pompidou Center’s Le Bon. A more immediate source, however, was the absurdist French playwright Alfred Jarry, whose 1895 farce Ubu Roi (King Ubu) introduced “’Pataphysics”—“the science of imaginary solutions.” It was the kind of science that Dada applauded. Erik Satie, an avant-garde composer who collaborated with Picasso on stage productions and took part in Dada soirees, claimed that his sound collages—an orchestral suite with passages for piano and siren, for example—were “dominated by scientific thought.”

Duchamp probably had the most success turning the tools of science into art. Born near Rouen in 1887, he had grown up in a bourgeois family that encouraged art—two older brothers and his younger sister also became artists. His early paintings were influenced by Manet, Matisse and Picasso, but his Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2 (1912)—inspired by early stop-action photographic studies of motion—was entirely his own. In the painting, the female nude figure seems to take on the anatomy of a machine.

Rejected by the jury for the Salon des Independants of 1912 in Paris, the painting created a sensation in America when it was exhibited in New York City at the 1913 Armory Show (the country’s first large-scale international exposition of modern art). Cartoon parodies of the work appeared in local papers, and one critic mocked it as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” The Nude was snapped up (for $240) by a collector, as were three other Duchamps. Two years after the show, Duchamp and Picabia, whose paintings had also sold at the Armory Show, traded Paris for Manhattan. Duchamp filled his studio on West 67th Street with store-bought objects that he called “readymades”—a snow shovel, a hatrack, a metal dog comb. Explaining his selections some years later, he said: “You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.” Duchamp didn’t exhibit his readymades at first, but he saw in them yet another way to undermine conventional ideas about art.

In 1917, he bought a porcelain urinal at a Fifth Avenue plumbing supply shop, titled it Fountain, signed it R. Mutt and submitted it to a Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York City. Some of the show’s organizers were aghast (“the poor fellows couldn’t sleep for three days,” Duchamp later recalled), and the piece was rejected. Duchamp resigned as chairman of the exhibition committee in support of Mutt and published a defense of the work. The ensuing publicity helped make Fountain one of Dada’s most notorious symbols, along with the print of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa the following year, to which Duchamp had added a penciled mustache and goatee.

Parodying the scientific method, Duchamp made voluminous notes, diagrams and studies for his most enigmatic work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (or The Large Glass)—a nine-foot-tall assemblage of metal foil, wires, oil, varnish and dust, sandwiched between glass panels. Art historian Michael Taylor describes the work as “a complex allegory of frustrated desire in which the nine uniformed bachelors in the lower panel are perpetually thwarted from copulating with the wasplike, biomechanical bride above.”

Duchamp’s irreverence toward science was shared by two of his New York companions, Picabia and a young American photographer, Man Ray. Picabia could draw with the precision of a commercial artist, making his nonsensical diagrams seem particularly convincing. While Duchamp built machines with spinning disks that created surprising spiral patterns, Picabia covered canvases with disorienting stripes and concentric circles—an early form of optical experimentation in modern painting. Man Ray, whose photographs documented Duchamp’s optical machines, put his own stamp on photography by manipulating images in the darkroom to create illusions on film.

After the war ended in 1918, Dada disturbed the peace in Berlin, Cologne, Hanover and Paris. In Berlin, artist Hannah Höch gave an ironic domestic touch to Dada with collages that incorporated sewing patterns, cut-up photographs taken from fashion magazines and images of a German military and industrial society in ruins.


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