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Tag Archives: Francis Picabia

Dada Meme Infects the World

At the beginning of the twentieth century for the first time in history there was enough young people not just to fight a world war and to start to create subcultures. With the Dadaists there was still too few of any of them to bother with classifications. The history of eccentrics leads people to retrospectively classify them in subcultures, those strange attractors in the chaos of society.

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Greil Marcus in his book, Lipstick Traces tries to trace Dada and punk back to the Anabaptists. Others trace them back to Cynics of Ancient Greece. Was Diogenes was a hippy or a punk?

Instead of wondering about future histories or museums, instead of trying to trace an illegitimate ancestry for Dada or punk, look at the attraction. What was the reason for their existence? Why do people around the world identify with them?

Dada and punk gave expression to a status frustration of talented and intelligent youth who had no influence in the direction of art, culture or the world. Dada was the first of many cultural guerrilla resistance forces. Operating in occupied territory, these movements attack and retreat, sometimes melting away into the general population. Their tactics change to take advantage of the local terrain and exploit weakness in psychosocial defences. For such movements survival is the same as success and both Dada and punk did so much more than just survive. They spread rapidly. Perhaps this was because the conditions were right but more likely there were already people who were doing that kind of thing looking for a larger movement to identify with.

The thing about Dada was that it was an art movement not just for the professional, trained artist, but for anyone. Many of those involved in Dada did not continue to be artists because they were medical students who became doctors, students who became teachers. Is it any surprise that Dada didn’t survive long with such an incoherent group of proto- punks, hippies and new agers.

The Cabaret Voltaire and the Dada Gallery in Zurich ended like so many artist run initiatives to come after them. Wednesday 9th April 1919 was the date for the final grand soirée in Zurich. By then Dada had already spread around the world. The debate as to where punk started, USA or England, mirrors the debate about the origins of Dada. The meme of Dada was transported in person by members of the Zurich crowd but it was also spread by mail. The impact of the postal service on Dada and subsequent similar movements cannot be ignored.

In 1917 Richard Huelsenbeck spreads the meme to Berlin where Club Dada was formed. In 1918 Dada spread to Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld in Cologne via Hans Arp. Marcel Janco took Dada back to Rumania were Contimporanul is formed. In 1918 Kurt Schwitter’s applied to join Club Dada in Berlin but is rejected so he creates his own Merz movement, or magazine, or both.

Dada was already in New York with Francis Picabia acting as the link between the Dadaists in New York and Zurich. He was already doing his own thing, publishing a zine in Spain before he ever heard of Dada. Dada continued to spread in Barcelona with Picabia to a mix of French, English, Italian and Russian.

Tristan Tzara takes Dada to Paris.

In Russia (Krutchony, Terentieff, Zdanevich) Perevoz was DaDa. Ma is the Hungarian version 1918-22 (Lojos Kassak, Sandor Barta). It was Mécano in Holland with Theo Van Doesburg.

There is the big Dada/Surrealism split in Paris in October to December of 1919. But to the east new Dada like groups are still announcing themselves. Tank in Zagreb 1922, The Green Donkey Group in Hungary, 1927 (Odon Palasowki). In Japan it was Mavo.

Dada eventually arrived in Melbourne in 1952 with Barry Humphries, Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer where it was known as Wobboism. It was so old by then that neo-Dada movements had already started in Japan and the US.

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Dada’s Success and Failure

I didn’t expect to see a painting by the Spanish Dadaist, Francis Picabia at the Art Gallery of Ontario but there it was; not from his Dada days but from the 1940s, complete with a couple of palm trees. It is like finding out that a punk band, like The Mekons have become a country/folk music group, which they have.

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Jonathan Jones, The Guardian regular art critic, amongst others, can’t understand this scenario and complains that “a tiny but brilliantly subversive protest movement has become the common currency of big-money, mass-audience art – Dada’s founders would feel sick.

No indication that Picabia was feeling sick, more like a holiday in the sun.

Of course, Mr Jones Dada has become mainstream. Wasn’t that always the intention of the Dada revolutionary council of Berlin? Wasn’t that the point of disseminating the information about Dada to the world? Why the publications, the lecture tours, the exhibitions, the records if it wasn’t to get the idea out there.

Every revolution that is completed becomes the establishment; every successful revolt permanently change the system. That is the process of history. It is not a betrayal of the American War of Independence, or other revolts and revolutions, to have its relics in a museum. But if you had the right sneer in your voice you could make it sound like it.

Would you, Mr Jones, argue that Dada was a success if they were being thrown out or sold in flea markets?

It is illogical to suggest that current ownership of Dada art and relics, or anything else, implies anything about its success or failure in anything other than being owned. The collections of museums, galleries and libraries are not a proof of the objects collected success or failure.

Does every utopian movement have to continue in an eternal purity of process in the same way that the church doesn’t in order not to be “trivialised or misappropriated”?

Should we rather not be celebrating the triumph of these nihilistic bolsheviks who made the contemporary art world? Where is the big Dada parade, with the figure of death in the lead and the oompah band bring up the end? A world where art is free to be anything. A world where in primary schools and kindergartens around the world children are taught the Dada art techniques like collage. Are little children’s art “trivial” enough for you, Mr Jones?

Sure we have all moved on and what was yesterday’s rebellion has now become a museum piece, we no longer wear monocles and ransom note typography is old fashioned.

Sure the Dadaist desire to destroy culture has been converted to a desire to make art that is as boring as life but nobody stole Dada. There are no unauthorised users of an open system, you can’t misappropriate nonsense, you can’t misappropriate nothing.

Sure, Dada failed to end the war, and it has been the same imperialist war on and off for the last century, but who hasn’t failed to do that?

Meanwhile, a century later, the current rebellion against culture is, of course, not Dada. The current rebellion is hardly recognised, invisible, underground and unthinkable.


Dada & Anarchy

Dada has long been associated with anarchy but how accurate is this association? There are many types of anarchists from the syndicalist to the anarcho-criminals. Anarchy is better able than most political movements to reinvent itself and it has done this numerous times already, from the bomb-throwing anarchists of the 1890s to the cyber anarchists of today. What kind of anarchists were the Dadaists? The short answer is anarcho-nihilists – here is a slightly longer answer.

Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst both read Max Stirner The Ego and His Own when they were young. When asked later in life what philosopher was of special significance to his work Duchamp cited Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. In 1899 a French translation of Stirner’s book was published and this is probably the translation read by the young Duchamp.

Duchamp was born in 1887, a time of anarchist bombing in Paris, something that would have had an impact on a young boy in provincial France. Woodcock describes the period of 1884-1914 as a fertile and productive period in anarchist development with the establishment of communes, schools and publications. There was also the violent anarcho-criminal tradition in France with the Marius Jacob gang operating between 1900-05, who robbed the unproductive, and the far more violent Bonnot gang in 1913. The Bonnot gang were non-smoking, tea totalling, vegetarians who read Max Stirner and loved of fast cars, women and guns.

Max Stirner (1806 -1856) was one of the young Hegelians, who developed an anarcho-nihilist philosophy in his book The Ego and His Own (1845). Stirner was one of the “The Free”, a circle of radical Berlin intellectuals. Stirner’s philosophy explains not only why the terms, anarchy and nihilism are often linked with Dada but rarely explored. Marx and Engles in the German Ideology attack Stirner’s philosophy because it places the “I” before the “we”. For the Marxists the material situation that determines meaning, for Stirner it is the individual that determines meaning, and for this belief Marx and Engles compare Stirner to the great beast of the apocalypse (quoting REV 17 in a religious frenzy to exorcise his philosophy).

Stirner’s philosophy explains the psychological basis for the Duchamp art: the questioning, attacking, proposing, joking, suggesting, tongue in cheek Duchamp’s art. There are many points of comparison both Duchamp and Stirner were restless individuals; their total rebellion against all ideals, ironically interpreting history by references (Stirner to Biblical texts and poems by Goethe and Schiller, just as Duchamp’s art is full of allusions to Da Vinci, Courbet and others). Another aspect is their use of pseudonyms, due to their own sense of alienated identity (Stirner aka Johann Casper Schmit. Max Stirner could translated as Max the Highbrow or Ironbrow or Max Headroom).

Max Ernst and Hugo Ball had studied philosophy at university and so it is likely that both had read Nietzsche. Francis Picabia (1879 -1953) claimed that he had met Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) but it is unlikely to be true and if it was it can’t have been a very meaningful connection given Picabia’s age and Nietzsche’s advanced syphilitic condition.

Richard Huelsenbeck expresses Dadaist existential nihilism. “The dadaists were interested in two main facts: shock and movement. They felt that man was in the hands of irrational creative forces. He was hopelessly wedged in between an involuntary birth and an involuntary death.” (Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dadaist Drummer, New York, 1974, p.160)

The most surprising and practical connection between the Dadaists and anarchist is that Man Ray studied art at the Ferrrer School in New York City. The Ferrrer School was established run by the anarchists, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldberg after Berkman’s release from prison for the attempted assassination of industrialist H.C. Frick. The school was named after the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ferrer. Berkman taught and lectured at the Ferrer School but didn’t actually teach Man Ray. Man Ray didn’t care about the politics he was attending because of its quality and cost (free).

Not all the Dadaists were anarchists for their whole lives; Tristan Tzara became a Communist.


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