Dada at MoMA


(left) “Mechanical Head (Spirit of Our Age)” by Raoul Hausmann.

‘Dada’ at MoMA: The Moment When Artists Took Over the Asylum

Published: June 16, 2006

NOW is as good a time as any for a big museum to take another crack at Dada, which arose in the poisoned climate of World War I, when governments were lying, and soldiers were dying, and society looked like it was going bananas. Not unreasonably the Dadaists figured that art’s only sane option, in its impotence, was to go nuts too.

“Total pandemonium” was how the sculptor Hans Arp reported the situation in 1916 at the great Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, where Dada was born. “Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.”

I’m sure you had to be there.

The Dada show, opening Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, is pretty much an official survey (an oxymoron), and, this being MoMA, nearly all 450 or so objects in it look elegant, which they were certainly never intended to look. Interpret that as you will. The buttoned-down museum, which in many ways seems to have lost its bearings, returns to its roots.

The exhibition arrives after stops in Paris (where, papered with hundreds of documents and arranged like a chessboard of small rooms, it was by all accounts superbly eccentric) and in Washington, where it was pared down and didactic.

Splitting the difference, MoMA’s curator, Anne Umland, has added Dada touches like two separate entrances. (You choose.) She knows the Dadaists were actually closet aesthetes. After Marcel Duchamp waltzed into a plumbing equipment manufacturer on lower Fifth Avenue, acquired a porcelain urinal, signed it “R. Mutt” and submitted the now notorious “Fountain” to an art show, he claimed to be horrified when people found his readymade beautiful.

Art by declaration had replaced art by discrimination. A urinal, a snow shovel, a hat rack and a bicycle wheel fastened to a stool were art because he said so, and who was to say they weren’t? Except that, by the same token, if someone decided the urinal or snow shovel looked aesthetically pleasing, who was he to deny it?

Such became the world of modern art, and either you are the sort of skeptic who thinks that art went to hell in a handbasket, or you see that Dada opened art up to the everyday and we are its beneficiaries. That hat rack looks awfully stylish now, and so does the mobile fashioned out of clothes hangers by Man Ray, never mind if it’s still a little hard to love the silvered plumbing trap that Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Livingston Schamberg titled “God.” (I wonder if they noticed that the curlicue of the trap spells each of those letters in lowercase?)

In any event, it’s good to be reacquainted with a generation that had no market to speak of and for whom society’s corruption and exhaustion seemed a golden opportunity to make themselves useful. Politicians were responsible for mass murder, advertisers were conmen, the press self-censoring.

So Dadaists figured it was time to throw away the rules, and you can tell they had a ball doing so. Out with jingoism and the clichés of romanticism and Expressionism, whose self-centeredness they particularly despised, and in with a new spirit of internationalism, collaboration, serendipity and transparency. (Duchamp’s cracked glass was the operative symbol.) Dada stood for freedom. Art may be useless but it is also indispensable.

The show is organized by cities, different artists having come to the same notion of Dada around the same time in different places. Tristan Tzara, Hans Richter, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Arp and his wife, Sophie Taeuber, settled in neutral Zurich. Ball, seeing corpses on the battlefield, had contemplated suicide. Marcel Janco said that he could still hear the bombardments in faraway Verdun while he slept.

Out of this came antiwar happenings and lyrical abstractions. Arp and Taeuber, separately and together, made collages, jig-sawed reliefs, chalices and bowls in earthen colors, and marionettes with faces like Oceanic masks for retelling an 18th-century play, “The King Stag,” as an allegory of psychoanalysis. “Kill me, kill me. I have not analyzed myself and can’t stand it anymore!” was the king’s minister’s big line.

In Cologne, Max Ernst, who fought in an artillery brigade, turned to montages of human biplanes and other nightmare creatures, while Johannes Baargeld delved into gender-bending, a Dada obsession, escaping into the uncanny from a catastrophe that in Berlin provoked Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann and Georg Grosz to produce the most overtly political art. They devised nonsense texts, photomontages of dismembered and reconfigured bodies and of the Kaiser as a war machine excreting Dada artists, and mannequins with prostheses.

Höch and Hausmann dreamed of a populist revolution. Their works were sublime: anti-art advertisements, slapstick assemblages of ingenious designs, exploiting the implicit veracity of photographs. Cut apart, like the war wounded, the photographs reconfigured truth and proposed a new form of mass media. They teemed with half-mechanical men, de Chirico’s tailor dummies transformed into Hausmann’s “Spirit of Our Age,” a sculpture made out of a hairdresser’s wig-making dummy to which are attached a crocodile wallet, a ruler, a collapsible cup and a tape measure, as if in lieu of a brain: the essence of nullity.

In Hanover, Kurt Schwitters was transposing trolley stubs and other bits of junk into constructions whose compression was a metaphor of urban life, and he was conceiving his own castle of Dada, his “Merzbau.”

As for Duchamp, who had left his first readymade behind in Paris, with Man Ray and Francis Picabia in New York he made mischief entailing photographs and machine parts and cross-dressing and girls. Consumer culture was an obvious target. A show at Francis Naumann’s gallery on the Upper East Side spotlights the female artists who were also in town, whom the Modern leaves out, like Katherine Dreier and Florine Stettheimer. Between the two exhibitions, it’s obvious how early and crazy New York was with Dada.

After the war everybody gravitated to Paris, which turned out to be Dada’s Waterloo, a hothouse salon scene of bloviating nihilists who loved to fight. The show, like the movement, nearly peters out at this point on the Seine.

“It is the loss of community,” writes Leah Dickerman, the Washington curator, in the show’s catalog, “that haunts Dada.” She meant the loss of the prewar communities in Europe. The Dadaists themselves basically split up by the mid-20’s, succeeded by Surrealism, whose lunacy was strictly regimented by its leaders. Hitched to Surrealism in history books, Dada has suffered by association, a fate this landmark show rectifies.

It is curious to see how some artists hold up in it. Schwitters, minus the Merzbau, looks marginal; Picabia and Ernst, deft but often galling in their fastidiousness; Grosz, separated from his late work, like a major player. His watercolor-collage of a whore and suitor, a fat tart and a tin man with hollow eyes fed numbers by a pair of disembodied hands, is the classic Weimar image.

“Kindhearted malice” was Hausmann’s phrase. Cynical and traumatized, the Dadaists were tireless young optimists at heart. Despairing of the war and the effects of technology, they nevertheless discovered a world full of wonders in machines and the modern cityscape. In Viking Eggeling’s film, “Symphonie Diagonale,” abstract blips dance across the screen, aspiring to the ecstasies of music. In René Clair’s and Picabia’s “Entr’acte,” two men prance around a cannon, a ballerina turns into a bearded man and a funeral procession becomes a chase scene.

In Hans Richter’s “Ghosts Before Breakfast,” eight gloriously loopy minutes of bowler hats flying through the sky like a flock of birds, fire hoses winding and unwinding themselves, and men wearing fake beards and disappearing behind lampposts, the rudimentary tricks of film are used to replace real-world anarchy with a new, exhilarating madness.

The next German regime didn’t miss the point. The Nazis deemed Richter’s film degenerate, and Hindemith’s soundtrack for it is lost.

Dada, it turned out, was never really as impotent as it feared. It still isn’t.

“Dada” opens Sunday and continues through Sept. 11 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 708-9400.

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