Tag Archives: Tristan Tzara

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.

100-Jahre-Dada-Lead

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.

Advertisements

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.


Duchamp’s Letters

Other people are a mystery that we attempt to solve by creating a story based on what we know about them. These biographies attempt to understand a person but will always fail. And they will always be subject to revision due to new evidence. Providing new documentary evidence on Duchamp is Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ludion Press, 2000)

As a Duchamp aficionado reading his selected correspondence subtly altered my view of him again. Duchamp research had already reached a fever pitch when I finished my thesis in 1991 and continued through the 90s. Academic careers have been built on studying Duchamp. Affectionately, Marcel raised some controversy even before it was published: “Duchamp Scholars Face Off in Art in America Hate Mail” by Jeffery Hogrefe, (10/1/99) New York Observer 

Affectionately, Marcel is exceptionally annotated, transcribed and laid out with care; with sidenotes including mini-biographies of people mentioned in letters. Most of the letters are in French (translations are provided), Duchamp arrives in New York unable to speak English but later letters show a developing confidence in English.

There is no dirt; the hot love letters to Marie Martins are not included in this book, her family still wishes to keep them private. The letters to his family, friends and other artists provide details about his life and loves. Duchamp is surprisingly patriotic in WWI and although unfit for military service does volunteer work at the French Embassy in New York. His letters tell more about the effect of Prohibition or WWII on his life than art.

Duchamp’s correspondence demonstrates that for most of his life he did not think of himself as an artist. Paris, 19 Oct. 1923  “All painting and sculpture exhibitions make me sick. And I would like to avoid being associated with them.” These letters are about Duchamp as trainee librarian, French teacher, cinema cameraman, chess player, businessman, exhibition organizer and art dealer.

There is some new information in the book about Duchamp’s art. There is a letter to his sister Suzanne describing the Fountain scandal attributes its creation to a female friend. Signing his letters Rrose Selavy, Rose-Mar-cel, Duch etc. Duchamp states that Rrose Selavy’s date of birth is 1920 and it is apparent from the letters that Rrose Selavy was a business name for some of Duchamp’s ventures.

However the information most of interest to art historians concerns Duchamp’s dealings with other artists, collectors and museums. He writes many letters about arranging exhibitions, loans of art, and importing art to the USA (including when Brancusi sculptures were classified as “not art” by US Customs). There are plenty of details about the art business even though Duchamp is continually making disparaging remarks about art dealers.

Duchamp would have preferred emails; he wishes that telegrams were not so expensive. There are a few telegrams in the book including the well-known “Pode Bal” telegram to Tzara regarding Duchamp’s non-participation in Salon Dada. Not so well known is that it is addressed to Jean Crotti.

“It’s very hard to say in just a few words, especially for me as I have no faith – religious kind – in artistic activity as a social value. Artists throughout the ages are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery pulls some of through and ruins others. To my mind, neither the winners nor the losers are worth bothering about. It’s a good business deal for the winner and a bad one for the loser. I do not believe in painting per se. A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. In other words, no painter knows himself or what he is doing.”

Marcel Duchamp to Jean Crotti 17 August, 1952


%d bloggers like this: