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Processing Dada's merit

The movement of `very calculated nonsense' that influenced contemporary art gets a striking exhibition.

April 09, 2006|Stanley Meisler | Special to The Times

Washington — IT is hard to take seriously a group of grown men and women who submit a store-bought urinal to an art show, declaim meaningless sounds as poetry, stage mock trials of novelists they dislike, wear a string with two empty tin cans as a bra, provide an ax for dissatisfied art connoisseurs, call their movement Dada, and then proclaim proudly, "Dada means nothing."

Yet these artists of shock from World War I and the 1920s have now been taken seriously enough for the National Gallery of Art to mount a striking and didactic exhibition of their work -- the first time a major American museum has devoted a show solely to Dada. And Leah Dickerman of the National Gallery, who co-curated the show, has no hesitation in making sense and significance out of the maddening antics of these artists. "Dada," she says, "has arguably had the largest influence of all avant-garde movements on contemporary art."

An expanded version of the exhibition attracted almost 400,000 visitors last fall at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the home base of the other co-curator, Laurent Le Bon. Although the National Gallery show, which closes May 14, is smaller, it is still extensive, with 450 works from 50 artists, including Jean (Hans) Arp, Otto Dix, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Hans Richter. After Washington, the exhibition goes on to the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 18 to Sept. 11.

"The idea of Dada as nonsense is commonplace," Dickerman says, "but this exhibition helps us to see it as a very calculated nonsense." The art came out of a revulsion against the horrors of World War I. Many of the Dadaists were draft dodgers, discharged soldiers with wounds, or rejects disqualified from military service for physical or mental problems. All abhorred the war.

Now, after a century of sophisticated and wanton destruction on an unprecedented scale, the horrors of World War I may seem somewhat diminished. But the shock and horror were immense then. Young people had moved into the 20th century persuaded that the inventions of the industrialized age would make modern life more comfortable and exciting. Instead the new inventions -- planes, submarines, poison gas, semiautomatic rifles -- were used to kill more efficiently and more horribly. Almost 10 million soldiers were killed. More than 20 million were wounded. Many came home without legs or arms, many disfigured or in shell shock.

The horror spawned a crisis of confidence. The French poet Paul Valery said, "The illusion of a European culture has been lost, and knowledge has been proved impotent to save anything."

Dada began during the war in Zurich, the large German-speaking city in neutral Switzerland. Hugo Ball, a German, started the movement with antiwar performances at the Cabaret Voltaire. He and another German exile, Richard Huelsenbeck, came upon the name by searching a French-German dictionary. They liked the sound of the word "Dada," which means "hobbyhorse" in French. Their group was soon joined by other expatriates such as Arp, a painter from Alsace; Richter, a German artist and filmmaker; and Tristan Tzara, a poet from Romania.

As if he were turning his back on European culture, Ball, dressed in a cardboard costume, would recite what he called sound poetry and poems without words. "Hollaka hollala, anlogo bung, blago bung, blago bung, bosso fataka," he would intone. In another variation, Tzara and two other poets would recite a "simultaneous poem" together, one speaking in German, another in English and the third in French. The jumble would not sound much different from Ball's blago bung, blago bung. The exhibition features recordings of these kinds of performances.

In art, Arp broke with the norm by creating colorfully painted and abstract wood reliefs, while Richter painted what he called "visionary portraits" -- painting his subjects while he put himself into a trance-like state at twilight and could barely see them.

The name Dada might have died in Zurich if Tzara had not taken it upon himself to serve as polemicist for the movement, preparing a manifesto and newsletters that he sent to artists in Europe and the U.S. Dada, anchored in Zurich, soon developed in Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, Paris and New York.

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Historic rejections

THE best-known Dadaist at the time was probably Duchamp, the French artist who spent the war years in New York. The United States remained neutral during World War I until 1917. Duchamp had already attracted attention with his painting "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2." Painted in Cubist style, it creates the illusion of a mechanical figure in motion.

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