Richter’s Memoirs on Dadaism and Its Beginnings


Art and Anti Art

Richter’s Memoirs on Dadaism and Its Beginnings

Hans Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art begins with the initial formation of the Dadaists in Zurich, Switzerland. Its establishment commenced with Hugo Ball’s entrepreneurial spirit opening the Cabaret Voltaire at No. 1 Spiegelgasse in February 1916, which was formed for exhibitions of both studio and performance art. The original group, consisting of Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Richter, Hans Arp, Marco Janco, Tristan Tzara, and Richard Huelsenbeck, held lively shows of their creative endeavors, and even managed to bring about a few movements pre-Dada.

Embracing bruitism, or the shaping of provocation into art, artists such as Tzara, Huelsenbeck, and to a degree, Ball, originated a form of performance art known as poeme simultané. Richter defines this poetry as “a contrapuntal recitative in which three or more voices speak, sing whistle, etc., simultaneously, in such a way that the resulting combinations account for the total effect of the work, elegiac, funny or bizarre.” Other varieties of avant-garde art began to take shape, with train of thought readings, chanteuse singing, abstract wood and plaster reliefs, and even tapestry. A newsletter and manifesto was also developed to spread the ideals, or lack there of, of Dadaism. The actual beginning of a movement called Dadaist is unknown. Even the history behind the word “Dada” is argued. It can be debated that there were earlier stirrings elsewhere in Europe before Cabaret Voltaire came into existence. Picabia had similar ideas in 1913; some Russian art in 1915 was typical of the development, as were Italian political manifestos and revolts. As to the term “Dada,” each artist from the group gives their own version of how it was invented; some believe Dada was a product of the Romanian confirmatory “da, da” which would have been spoken often by both Romanian Tzara and Janco. Richter “had assumed…that the name Dada, applied to our movement, had some connection with the joyous Slavonic affirmative, ‘da, da’- and to me this seemed wholly appropriate. Nothing could better express our optimism, our sensation of newly-won freedom, than this powerfully reiterated ‘da, da’ – “yes, yes’ to life.” Other accounts state Dada was chosen at random out of a dictionary, was the French word for hobbyhorse, or was a German word for “the preoccupation with procreation and the baby-carriage.”

The world’s growing dissonance within itself was reflecting in the hearts and minds of revolutionists, artists, and the general populace. The chaotic elements of the First World War were jaggedly ripping and crushing men’s spirits. This distortion, confusion- this utter lack of hope and the complete realization of horror at the evil of mankind against mankind spilled, poured, and deluged over the masses. The only way to react was to produce those same emotions either in art, literary word, or revolt. Dadaism in itself was a form of anarchism, according to Richter. “Dada not only had no programme, it was against all programmes… and, at that moment in history, it was just this that gave the movement its explosive power to unfold in all directions, free of aesthetic or social constraints. This absolute freedom from preconceptions was something quite new…there was to be a brief moment in which absolute freedom was asserted for the first time. This freedom might (and did) lead either to a new art- or to nothing.”

World War I brought about a reckoning that crippled the souls and caused frailty of faith. This can be seen in many Dadaist works. Janco’s plaster reliefs mixed together a colloidal substance of straight edges, rough spheres, and clashing colors, all combined with an ingredient of decay, seen in the messy, flaking paint. Nothing is sacred or immortal- we all fade away from our bright, cacophonic lives to dust. Arp’s poem “Kaspar is Dead” reflects the same heart-wrenching psychological effects in a literary manner. “…who will now chase away the siroccoco devil when he wants to beguile the horses./ who will now explain to us the monograms in the stars./ his bust will adorn the mantelpieces of all truly noble men but that’s no comfort that’s snuff to a skull.” What is heroism in this monstrosity? What is heroism when so many must perish, leaving the rest to survive after they are gone? What is heroism when war takes away all of the “truly noble.” It is worth nothing, just as snuff is useless to an inanimate, dead skull. But by 1919, the original group began to dissipate. Ball had his crowning artistic achievement in July of 1916, when he recited a phonetic poem to the audience’s acclaim. According to Richter, since then “Ball progressively disengaged himself from Dada. ‘The most direct way to self-help: to renounce works and make energetic attempts to re-animate one’s own life.”’ In April 1919, the height of the Zurich Dada movement as a whole came to a climax during a large evening presentation. The audience rioted due to a performance by Dr. Walter Serner, thus achieving the goal first set forward by the Dadaists. After that, the Dada Ideal faded away. Armistice had been reached in Europe. “…We no longer lived on island, isolated in the middle of a war. Europe was accessible again. Besides, revolution in Germany, risings in France and Italy, world revolution in Russia, had stirred men’s minds, divided men’s interests and diverted energies in the direction of political change.” The chaos and disturbance that had initially formulated the ideas and theories behind this method of art, literature, and philosophy no longer existed. Dadaism had to move on from the Cabaret Voltaire and Zurich; its lack of program initiated a different phoenix to rise from the ashes. New York, Paris, and Berlin were next.

New York began its Dadaist movement with out any real connection to the Zurich group. The founder, Arthur Stieglitz, was a photographer with a dream. He did not want photos to simply represent the factual reality they portrayed- he wanted them to invoke emotion and be as “artistic” as an oil painting. In 1902, Stieglitz formed a group of similar-thinking photographers known as Photo Secession, started up the periodical Camera Work, and opened the 291 Gallery. These group of artists included Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. Probably his most influential idea was the New York Armory Show, which he set up and launched on February 17th, 1913. By the conclusion, over 100,000 people had seen the Armory art. Marcel Duchamp had helped this by exhibiting his painting Nu Descendant un Escalier No. 1, which was a sensation amongst the public.

Stieglitz’s Camera Work’s title was changed to 291, and it began to take on a new edge with Picabia contributing many of the articles and pictures. His most famous were his Machines, which take on a rigid and mechanical “anti-art” attitude. Picabia and Stieglitz had very different perceptions on art. Richter suggests that Picabia had “…an absolute lack of respect for all values, a freedom from all social and moral constraints, a compulsive urge to destroy everything that had hitherto been given the name of art. All this was directed towards a position quite different from any that Stieglitz could have adopted.” Although Stieglitz himself did not find justification in the Dada movement, he nevertheless both patronized and supported those who did, helping it grow and flourish in New York. Thus the Triumvirate was formed.

The “Triumvirate” of the New York Dadaists was the veritable Picabia, Duchamp and Man Ray. Each had his selective qualities and personal philosophies that, although dissimilar, nevertheless embraced a particular aspect of the Dadaist perspective. “Picabia could be described as the destroyer, Duchamp as the detached anti-creator, and Man Ray as the tireless, pessimistic inventor.”

Francis Picabia, the “destroyer” of the group, wrote scathing essays against art and its universal uselessness. His sketched inventions of mechanical, futile objects only reiterated this fact. His art anarchism pumped new blood into the Dadaist movement in Zurich, New York, and Paris. If anything, he began spreading the rumors of Dadaism in Paris even before Tristan Tzara came. As if to present his feelings even more, Picabia never stayed with one movement. He was always one of the precursors, and then would move on as soon as he felt whatever what he was doing had hit a nerve in the art world. From his mechanizations to his cubist elements, his abstract geometricals, and to his surrealist paintings, Picabia never had one “look” to his name. He destroyed meaning in art by simply not giving a meaning to it.

DuChamp held a very existentialist belief that life had no meaning, and so he did not care what men thought or felt. Life is what one perceives it to be, it is not an actual reality. Because of this, Duchamp chose a rather sensational method to prove his point. At a meeting of businessmen, Duchamp placed in front of them a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, and a urinal. He then proclaimed them to be art. His idea was that art is only art if you make it to be art. With out the opinion and personal feelings attached to it, a Rembrandt can be as ordinary and un-artistic as a bicycle wheel, or a bicycle wheel can be just as beautifully stirring and artistic as a Rembrandt. Everything, including these “ready-mades,” is based on an individual’s point of view. “These works…are not works of art but of non-art, the results of discursive rather than sensory insights.” Thus, DuChamp can be considered an anti-creator: if anything he devalues an object rather than esteems it.

Man Ray was one of the most prominent artists in the Paris scene. His photography, which at the time was still beginning to take hold of the world, brought on new ideas on how to capture reality, by proving that even an objective method of proving fact is still subjective based upon the viewers tastes. He invented many methods of photography, including Rayographs, which projected the shadows of the subject onto supersensitive paper. Ray came to Paris in 1921, and was the lover of the most influential people of the Paris art life- Kiki, whose name was known in every group at the time. Together, they managed to start a fire with their connections and talents. Man Ray took a hold of a media that had yet to become popular- and he used it to his advantage. One of his famous photos is “Le Violon d’Ingres” in which he takes a picture of a model’s back reminiscent of Ingres’ “Le Grande Odalisque,” and adds two violin f-scrolls in order to play on the beauty of the woman’s back. In addition to photography, Man Ray also delved into film. Return to Reason was show at the Soirée du Coeur á Barlé on July 7th, 1923. The title of the film, obviously ironic in accordance to Dadaist theory, presents a journey into abstract expressionism, relying more on photographic ingenuity to involve the audience. In order to get the desired “surreal” effect, Man Ray developed a series of experimental techniques to change the film. “Acquiring a roll of a hundred feet of film, I went into my darkroom and cut up the material into short lengths, pinning them down on the work table. On some strips I sprinkled salt and pepper, like a cook preparing a roast, on other strips I threw pins and thumbtacks at random; then turned on the white light for a second or two, as I had done for my still Rayographs. Then I carefully lifted the film off the table, shaking off the debris, and developed it in my tanks. The next morning, when dry, I examined my work; the salt, pins and tacks were perfectly reproduced, on a black ground as in X-ray films, but there was no separation into successive frames as in movie films. I had no idea what this would give on the screen. Also, I knew nothing about film mounting with cement, so I simply glued the strips together, adding the few shots first made with my camera to prolong the projection.”


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