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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 14, 1994|Thomas Frick

THE DADA ALMANAC edited by Richard Huelsenbeck. (Serpent's Tail: $19.99; 175 pp.) Born from the cultural despair of rootless artists and intellectuals in Europe after the traumatic onset of World War I, about all that can be said unequivocally about Dadaism is that for its brief life its adherents and promoters reveled in apotropaic primitivism, an anti-political internationalism and a fervent devotion to artistic boundary crossing. It's perhaps the first intellectual movement whose desperation is such that its humor and its seriousness cannot be easily distinguished. Poet and performer Richard Huelsenbeck was the original editor of the "Dada Almanac," issued in Berlin in 1920, it was the movement's largest and one of its last collaborative publications. As he states in his introduction, "One cannot understand Dada; one must experience it." Though the Dadaists refused to have their movement defined, they themselves played perpetually with mock definitions, and the "Almanac" is full of them: "The Dadaist is equally an artist and an eel-worshipper"; "DADA--this is a word that throws up ideas so that they can be shot down"; Dada "has war and peace under its toga, but decides in favor of the cherry brandy flip." Along with Hans Richter's classic firsthand account, "Dada: Art and Anti-Art," "The Dada Almanac" is an excellent place to "experience" Dadaism in its on terms and in all its contradictions. This new edition reproduces the original's illustrations and eccentric typography and adds a densely historical preface, additional documentary photographs and, most helpfully, extensive marginal glosses. It also makes available significant texts by lesser-known figures such as Walter Mehring, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and Raoul Hausmann. If there's a reason that the Dadaists appeal to our own cultural confusions, it can undoubtedly be discovered here.

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