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

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In Cologne, in 1920, German artist Max Ernst and a band of local dadas, excluded from a museum exhibition, organized their own—“Dada Early Spring”—in the courtyard of a pub. Out past the men’s room, a girl wearing a “communion dress recited lewd poetry, thus assaulting both the sanctity of high art and of religion,” art historian Sabine Kriebel notes in the current exhibition’s catalog. In the courtyard, “viewers were encouraged to destroy an Ernst sculpture, to which he had attached a hatchet.” The Cologne police shut down the show, charging the artists with obscenity for a display of nudity. But the charge was dropped when the obscenity turned out to be a print of a 1504 engraving by Albrecht Dürer titled Adam and Eve, which Ernst had incorporated into one of his sculptures.

In Hanover, artist Kurt Schwitters began making art out of the detritus of postwar Germany. “Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this,” he wrote of the trash he picked up off the streets and turned into collages and sculptural assemblages. “One can even shout with refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together.” Born the same year as Duchamp—1887—Schwitters had trained as a traditional painter and spent the war years as a mechanical draftsman in a local ironworks. At the war’s end, however, he discovered the Dadaist movement, though he rejected the name Dada and came up with his own, Merz, a word that he cut out of an advertising poster for Hanover’s Kommerz-und Privatbank (a commercial bank) and glued into a collage. As the National Gallery’s Dickerman points out, the word invoked not only money but also the German word for pain, Schmerz, and the French word for excrement, merde. “A little money, a little pain, a little sh-t,” she says, “are the essence of Schwitters’ art.” The free-form construction built out of found objects and geometric forms that the artist called the Merzbau began as a couple of three-dimensional collages, or assemblages, and grew until his house had become a construction site of columns, niches and grottoes. In time, the sculpture actually broke through the building’s roof and outer walls; he was still working on it when he was forced to flee Germany by the Nazis’ rise to power. In the end, the work was destroyed by Allied bombers during World War II.

Dada’s last hurrah was sounded in Paris in the early 1920s, when Tzara, Ernst, Duchamp and other Dada pioneers took part in a series of exhibitions of provocative art, nude performances, rowdy stage productions and incomprehensible manifestoes. But the movement was falling apart. The French critic and poet André Breton issued his own Dada manifestoes, but fell to feuding with Tzara, as Picabia, fed up with all the infighting, fled the scene. By the early 1920s Breton was already hatching the next great avant-garde idea, Surrealism. “Dada,” he gloated, “very fortunately, is no longer an issue and its funeral, about May 1921, caused no rioting.”

But Dada, which wasn’t quite dead yet, would soon leap from the grave. Arp’s abstractions, Schwitters’ constructions, Picabia’s targets and stripes and Duchamp’s readymades were soon turning up in the work of major 20th-century artists and art movements. From Stuart Davis’ abstractions to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, from Jasper Johns’ targets and flags to Robert Rauschenberg’s collages and combines—almost anywhere you look in modern and contemporary art, Dada did it first. Even Breton, who died in 1966, recanted his disdain for Dada. “Fundamentally, since Dada,” he wrote, not long before his death, “we have done nothing.”


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