Tag Archives: Dada

Dada Centennial 1916-2016

“Where is the monument to the folk who took a stand against the war rather than those who capitulated to its madness?” Robert Nelson asked in The Age on Remembrance Day, 11 November, 2015

Dear Robert Nelson, the monument exists but it is not in the architecture of state power, the column, the triumphant arch or faux tomb of imperial power dominating territory. It is a single word “Dada”.

Dada, a little word that means everything and nothing. A word like a Buddhist mantra capable of destroying all illusions by using it as a substitute for all other words. Instead of patriotism, dada; instead of reason, dada.

Not that the word works like magic but the question that Dada posed still remains as potent as ever. What is art and culture doing other than making various governments look like a humane and decent society, masking and distracting from the genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes? If this is how much of an improvement the best of art and culture can do then why continue with it?

This is not a joke, this is a serious point.

Dada Zurich

Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

One hundred years ago on the 5th of February 1916 in Zurich three “oriental gentlemen,” as Hugo Ball described them in his diary arrived at the newly formed Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire was a music and poetry night that Hugo Ball was running at the Holländische Meierei tavern in Zurich. Hugo Ball had had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself.

The “oriental gentlemen” were certainly from the east as they were Romanian. They were the architecture student and artist, Marcel Janco, his brother George and a 19 year old poet who was calling himself, Tristan Tzara.

The reason why they were there was because Romania had ended its neutrality in 1916 and joined the war on the Allied side. It was one of the stupidest decisions of the war; outstanding even considering the extraordinary stiff competition of stupid decisions made in World War One. The Romanian army was obliterated.

The three young men kept on saying “da da”, “yes yes” in Romanian. The word “Dada” was invented later that year, around 11 April 1916, the first Dada periodical appeared over a year later in July 1917. There is a long standing debate about who invented this word but it has to be remembered that they were all very drunk at the time (or using other drugs, yes, I’m looking at you Herr Huelsenbeck and your cocaine).

Historical debates about dates aside, on Friday night in Clifton Hill DADA lives! 1916-2016 celebrated a century of Dada. Over a hundred people packed into the narrow space of the shopfront bar with its tiny stage at the back with of poetry and performance. Sjaak de Jong was the MC for the evening. Most of the performances were of original material but Santo Cazzati did read a historic Tristan Tzara Dada manifesto and perform a recognisably accurate version of Raoul Haussmann’s poem, phonème bbbb.

People try to laugh Dada off but that is just a desperate tactic to hold onto the certainties of dictatorships. Attempts have been made to quarantine Dada in art galleries and libraries around the world but it keeps on breaking out with nihilistic force. For it is nothing, it is ridiculous and is better than any god/country/insert reason here that you can dream up as nobody has ever killed or died for it.


I am not Schwitters either.

“Up the stairs he went, and once more rang Grosz’s bell. Grosz, enraged by the continual jangling, opened the door, but before he could say a word, Schwitters said “I am not Schwitters either.” (Hans Richter, Dada, art and anti-art Abrams, 1964, New York, p.145)

I am not Schwitters either so I don’t know who is Schwitters. To understand a person from only one perspective is like looking at a silhouette, there are only two diamentions. The more views, the more contradictions and a three or four dimensional character starts to take shape

Hans Richter account of Kurt Schwitters “a first class businessman, a born shop keeper” (p.149) is markedly different from that of  E.L.T Mesens, of a man travelling third class with a very small suitcase that contained nothing but a spare celluloid collar for his thick flannel shirt and bunch of his Merz publications. Kurt Schwitters is best known for his Dada collages but he should also be remembered for his great modern poetry.

Schwitters cover trial

Three Stories: Kurt Schwitters by Kurt Schwitters, Jasia Reichardt (Editor) (Tate Publishing, 2011, London) is a small 32 page hardcover book with three stories and a poem by Schwitters. There is also an introduction by the editor Jasia Reichardt and an essay about Schwitters by Mesens.

The only images in the book are a couple of small marginal illustrations that accompany “The Flat and Round Painter”. This fairy tale is an absurd allegory about why all paintings are now flat. It was written around 1941 when Schwitter’s was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

“The Idiot” was originally written in Norwegian and was translated by Schwitters into English. The setting feels very Norwegian although there are no definite references to any particular location.

“The Landlady” 1945 is a short sketch of an “intelligent” landlady who would make Basil Fawlty appear reasonable.

For me the best part is his “The London Symphony” written in 1942. The realism and urbanism of this poem is truly radical as all the lines came readymade, composed from the hand painted advertising signs that Schwitters saw on the streets of London.

“Tribute to Schwitters” by E.L.T. Mesens was commissioned for ARTnews in 1958 and has been unavailable since then. There is also Ernst Schwitters reply to Mesens is a previously unpublished response by the artist’s son Ernst Schwitters and a response from Mesens. Mesens raises issue Mondrian’s attitude towards Dada and this is part of the dispute with Schwitters’s son.

Another point of difference of opinion is over the quality of Schwitter’s treatment in the English internment camp on the Isle of Man. Mesens claims that he enjoyed it but the artist’s son, Ernst Schwitters, who was in the interment camp with his father, disagrees. Although a Belgium citizen Mesens was involved and informed by the English especially Roland Penrose with whom he ran the London Gallery.


Dada Against WWI

Hugo Ball wrote in his diary: 1915 New Year.

“On the balcony belonging to Marinetti’s translator we demonstrate in our own way against the war. We shout ‘Down with war!’ into the silent night of big-city balconies and telegraph wires. Some passers-by stop. A few lighted windows are opened. ‘Here’s to the New Year!’ someone shouts. The merciless Moloch Berlin raises its concrete head.” (Flight Out of Time, a Dada Diary by Hugo Ball, edited by John Elderfield)

Hugo Ball

Hugo Ball

What was the twenty-eight year old, writer and dramaturg Hugo Ball doing protesting the war on New Year’s Eve in Berlin? It might not be surprising to people now, as Hugo Ball went on to be one of the founders of the anti-war anti-art movement, Dada. However, only a few months earlier in 1914 Ball had been an enthusiastic supporter of the war. He had volunteered three time for war service but had been refused on medical grounds. What had turned an idealistic patriot into an anti-war protester?

In late August 1914, shortly after the Germans had taken the Liége forts Ball was still an enthusiastic civilian who had boarding a German troop train as it crossed into Belgium. He was taken off the train and arrested by the German military as a spy in Liége but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist.

It certainly wasn’t an uninformed change of mind as Hugo Ball appears to have been a bit of an early battle field tourists. He wasn’t arrested as a spy again, perhaps had some kind of press credentials from the Berlin paper Zeit im Bild.

There are many reasons and influences that might explain Hugo Ball’s reversal of opinion on the ‘Great War’. Was it in September seeing soldiers graves in Dieuze, the headquarters for the German 6th Army? Finding a copy of Rabelias in the rubble Fort Manonvillers, one of the permanent fortifications of the “Verdun Fortified Region”? Or, reading lots of philosophy, the first couple of pages of his diary are full of notes on who is reading? Or, was it the influence of his girlfriend, Emmy Hennings?

If there needed to be a single cause for Ball’s reversal of opinion then it was the death of his friend, Hans Leybold who was, with Ball, the co-publisher of the journal, Revolution. The last issue of Revolution appeared in September 1914, after that Leybold was drafted into the German army and was killed shortly after in Belgium. For Leybold the war was all over by Christmas.

John Elderfield speculates that it was Leybold’s military decorations that Ball dumped into Lake Zurich on 20th of October, 1915. However, the list of medals that Ball gives, “the Black Order of the German Eagle, the Medal of Bravery, the Cross of Merit First, Second and Third Class” appear to be more imaginary rather than actual. The Order of the Black Eagle was the highest order of chivalry in the Kingdom of Prussia and, although Prussia did have a Military Merit Cross, there was no “Medal of Bravery”.

On 26/6/1915 Ball wrote: “The war is based on a crass error. Men have been mistaken for machines. Machines, not men, should be decimated. At some future date when only the machines march, things will be better. Then everyone will be right to rejoice when they demolish each other.”

(See my post: Dada and the start of WWI)


Dada and the start of WWI

On the September 15, 1914 the avant-garde film maker, Hans Richter was inducted into the German army. Two friends, Ferdinand Hardekopf, journalist, writer and shorthand prodigy and Albert Ehrenstein, a poet gave him a farewell party and they promised to meet in Zurich, in two years, if they were still alive. Was the reason for the Zurich meeting was that Hardekopf, a pacifist was around planning to go there? In Zurich Hardekopf was close to Hugo Ball.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

A few months later Richter was seriously wounded at Vilna, Lithuania. One of his brothers was killed and another wounded that same year. After recovering from his wounds and being discharged from the army Richter did travel, as promised, to Zurich where he met with two friends. They introduced him to the artists Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck.

It is worth remembering that many of the future Dadaists were initial supporting the war and that a lot can change in a few years of war and the lives of young men and women. The theoretician of Dada, Hugo Ball was so enthusiastic that at the start of the war he boarded a troop train for Belgium. He got as far as Leige where he was arrested as a spy but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist. However, in Berlin, the Herzfeld brothers were anti-war and already publishing the left wing journal, Neu Jugend.

During WWI a small group of young pacifist artists gathering in Zurich to escape the war and created art that changed the art history. Dada was an anarchic anti-art movement that formed and spread to like minded individuals around the world, setting the ground work for the contemporary art. For as the last century has shown the world has not learnt the stupid futility of war anymore than they have learnt the stupid futility of Dada. In the words of Ferdinand Hardekopf: “Dada is dead. And you?”

Yesterday Australia committed troops to fight in the Middle East, yet again, as if the last three or four times improved the situation.

On my Black Mark Facebook I am reporting on the activities of the Dadaists a hundred years ago, on the day of their centenary.


The Many Faces of Dada

The Many Faces of George Grosz (Degenerate Comix) is a graphic novel by Keith McDougall about the life of the German artist, George Grosz, adapted from the writings of Weiland Herzfelde. (See my review of The Many Faces of George Grosz #1)

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In #2 the narrative has changed from Herzfelde being the narrator to Grosz being the central character and Herzfelde’s brother becomes John Hartfield. For like George Grosz’s costume changes the Dadaists were often changing their names, working under different names or living under false names; their identities were mutating.

Who were the Dadaist exactly? Avant-garde cabaret act, radical artists, publishers, medical students every time you look they change into something else. If the Dadaists were alive today what would they be doing? Bands, zines… would they even be together at all? Given that the Dadaists appear to be a disparate bunch of hippies (Hans Arp & Hugo Ball), punks (Richard Hulsenbeck), new agers, goths, head-bangers (Max Ernst’s nickname was “Metal Head”) and other, perhaps, yet unclassified freaks. Back at the beginning of the 20th century there was still too few of any of them to bother with such classifications. However in retrospect the classifications appear clearer. “Freaks” that  very 60s word, comes from back in a time when they were still working out the identity of some of these youth tribes. In The Many Faces of George Grosz Grosz is presented as an unclassifiable freak, a proto-Dadaist.

McDougall has done his research both historically and graphically, at the beginning of Chapter 5 in Grosz autobiography there is a small illustration of a smiling man dressed up as an American Indian. In #2 Grosz takes the two Herzfelde brothers to see the Berlin’s Café Oranienburger Tor. The band at the Café Oranienburger Tor is described by Grosz in his autobiography: “the band leader known as “Mister Meshugge” carried on like a lunatic. He pretended to be quiet out of control and kept breaking his baton or hitting the poor fiddler over the head with violin.” (George Grosz, A Small Yes and A Big No, Zenith Books, 1982 p.75)

Dada history was made for comic books, the conjunction of text and images. What I dislike about many comics, including this graphic novel, is the way that story is drawn out, it worse than watching a TV series because the wait is longer. Now two years later #2 has arrived – will #3 be finished in time for the centenary of Dada? A century later it is worth re-examining Dada and the Dadaists.


Artists & Creators

People often write to me, or talk with me, with a fixed idea of what it is to an artist. (I will leave the “no true artist” fallacy aside.) An artist is someone who creates art. Before we rush to the big question of what is art; what is it to create something and remember that not all creators are artists, there are many jobs that require creativity.

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

There is the eye, the breath and the hand of the creator.

The eyes, or ears in the case of musicians, process the world in a unique mind. Creativity starts in the mind. Eyes are especially important to photographers. The eye as an extension of the mind interprets the world. It selects, organises and focuses.

The breath or the word, written or spoken, of the artist is also important to the creative act. The breath is of critical importance to poets and writers in finding their ‘voice’ but there are other creative uses for the voice. The director is speaking to actors before they perform, so the voice is not heard by the audience. The visual artist may also be directing assistants. Visual artist’s word has always been there quietly declaring that a work is finished. For many centuries the word of visual artists was overlooked until Duchamp and the Dadaists brought it front and centre again.

The hand of the artist has often been written about. The hand of the artist has been praised especially with pen and ink drawing, where the hand is clearly visible. The hand of the artist is also evident in virtuoso musicians and by extension the whole body for actors and dancers. The signature is seen as the embodiment of the hand, but no one is claiming that one creations directly from the hand of the artist are valid art, demanding the read novels in the original handwritten manuscript or decrying all novels after the invention of the typewriter.

Not that all artists use the eye, the breath and the hand equally, different arts emphasise different attributes or combinations. To assume that one way of creating is the only true and correct way is a mistake. To assume that all artists must use their hands ignores all the other ways of creating. The great man doing it all himself is itself a macho idea and forgets that some visual artists can work mostly with their eye and breath.

Not all painters are artists. Discussing Betsy, a chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo that did some painting the philosopher George Dickie notes: “Betsy (the chimp) would not (I assume) be able to conceive of herself in such a way as to be a member of the art world and, hence, would not be able to confer the relevant status.”

To be an artist, an artist must have the idea that they are creating art, a word that is used to describe the creative output of artists. They have to learn to use this word in a society, to talk about it with thumping music playing in the room. To exhibit their art and have other people describe it as art. What exactly art is, or if this word has any meaning, is the subject of endless discussion, a discourse that in itself, defines art. (As Andy said, “Art, isn’t that a man’s name?”) Part of the problem with identifying what the word “art” means is that there have been multiple meanings in the last hundred years alone but that is another subject.


Urban Folk Art

Notes towards a history of graffiti….

Graffiti has been around for millennia; it has been recorded as far back as the Sumerians (1500 and 1800 BC). But in the last few decades of the last century it suddenly changed. One of the reasons for this change was developments in technology but spray paint cans and marker pens doesn’t explain all the changes and rapid growth of graffiti/street art. Lee Newman invented the felt-tipped marking pen in 1910 but it was not until the early 1960s that they were refined or common. Aerosol spray paint was invented in 1949 Edward Seymour in Sycamore, Illinois. Other reasons for the change in graffiti are best explained by a re-examination of folk art in an urban world.

DSC07230

In trying to position street art in art history, it is not useful to understand it as the feral younger brother of pop art, as it is a kind of urban folk art. Folk art is often ignored in art history except when folk traditions and outsider artists influence modern and contemporary art.

Is it realistic for folk art in the urban context have to remain un-influenced by academic or fine art? Is it realistic for all folk art to remain the activity of amateurs? Is it realistic to expect that all folk art will be cosy, apolitical and conservative? Or is more realistic that urban folk art to attempt to actively engage in trying to change their world. Urban folk art is not outsider art; the artists are as well informed about art as they want to be. They have access to the same technology and materials as professionally trained artists. Due to this crossover of fine art ideas, materials and technology, urban folk art can be artistically progressive and even avant-garde.

Consider the single most important development in the visual arts in the last century – collage. Decoupage was a popular activity for upper and middle-class women in the late 19th Century. Commercially produced images for decoupage were available in the late 19th Century and these were cut and pasted on dressing and fire screens. It is a short step from decoupage to collage or photomontage. It should not be surprising that a young woman would make progressive artistic collages. That woman was the Berlin Dadaist artist Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978) whose photomontage and collage art used images from magazines.

Perhaps Dada should be considered, in part, as a radical urban folk art movement. Dada emerged from the home printing press movement of the 1890s (L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was an early home printing press enthusiast). Although there were trained artists in the Dadaists there many of Dadaists were neither trained as artists nor went on to a career as a professional artists like Richard Hulsenbeck was a medical student at the time he joined the Zurich Dadaists, he went on to practice psychiatry.

Stencils on back of a truck

Other urban folk art movements followed including Mail Art and punk. Mail Art movement worked with a folk art tradition of decorating envelopes, examples of which can be seen from throughout postal history. To this tradition the Mail Art added an artistic and a utopian intention that the future of art would not be high-end art objects but multiple edition art mailed to insiders. Punk took to the streets with bands using stencils and spray paint for publicity.

There are many folk art/craft elements in street art and graffiti from automotive spray painting to yarn bombing. The interior decorating craze for stencils in the 1990s lead into Melbourne’s street art stencils in 2000, it was a familiar craft technique. Street art and graffiti emerged as an urban folk art movement and due to the internet became the most international and visible urban folk art movement so far.

Yarn bombed bicycle Collingwood


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