- To evoke a "before", that is to try and establish Dada’s ancestry so as to better describe its history would be against the tenets of a movement that turned its back on all artistic, literary and cultural heritages. Dada considered itself as "born without a mother," or as Tristan Tzara’s said: "I don’t even want to know if there have been men before me." [Tristan Tzara, Manifeste Dada [»] 1918, cover]. The Dadaists, who wanted to make a tabula rasa of history, nevertheless maintained an ambiguous relationship with their recent past. Even though they admired certain figures such as Apollinaire, they rejected previous influences, especially those of the Futurists, to whom they owed much in the realm of typography.
Later, the Dadaists acknowledged a certain spirit of contention and anti-conformism in Lautréamont and Rimbaud, as well as in Jarry and his Père Ubu. "Cornegidouille! We will have demolished nothing if we don’t demolish the ruins as well." (A. Jarry, Oeuvres (, 2004) 289]. The Dadaists were issued from the failure of 19th century European bourgeois culture and its most sacred form, Art. Before 1916 Dada appeared occasionally in the works of isolated individuals, but without taking the unified form of a movement – one that would not be christened until that year in Zurich, and which would play the role of revealer and catalyst for existing anti-establishment energies.
- The succession of avant-garde movements beginning with Impressionism, and their aesthetic ideas, accelerated at the beginning of the 20th century and culminated in the collapse of the absolute principles of Art, discrediting schools, and ultimately questioning the usefulness and legitimacy of Art itself. All these were elements that fed Dada’s negation. Furthermore, the coming to perfection of photography put into question the status of the artist.
What is the role of the artist when a machine can portray any subject perfectly? Certain painters and future Dadaists felt this impasse deeply, having already experienced the new ideas ranging from Impressionism to Cubism: "At that time, art was subject to an internal fever, and the newly-born signs were already undergoing a transformation. Can they wear out that fast?" (G. Ribemont-Dessaignes, Déja Jadis (1958) 19]. From the generation of Picabia, Ribemont-Dessaignes and Duchamp, which by 1915 had firmly established their artistic vision, Dada would inherit a distaste for systems and hierarchies, a sense of the inanity of aesthetic theories, because all of them were outmoded, equivalent, and severely limited to the sole realm of the eye.
- Moreover, Dada would inherit the idea that "life has the edge [...] over all expression of life, over art and thinking." (G. Ribemont-Dessaignes, Déja Jadis (1958) 43]. Arthur Cravan came to the same conclusion, condemning artists and affirming the principle of the superiority of life. He declared in the fourth issue of his magazine Maintenant [»]: "Soon, we will see nothing but artists in the streets, and will have a hard time finding a man"; "Painting is to walk, run, drink, eat and do one’s business." (A. Cravan, Oeuvres (, 1992) 69, 78]. Setting out to be a living example of one his own theories – which in fact is what he represented for a number of Dadaists – the poet-boxer created a veritable myth around himself, fed in particular by his magazine, a prototype for later Dadaist magazines. He put himself in the fore, displaying his extraordinary sense for slogans – playing already with advertising codes – and a taste for violent polemics. His magazine, in particular, was "the first in which certain extra-, and even anti-literary concerns gained the upper hand over the authors." (A. Breton, Lettre à René Gaffé, November 3, 1932]. Cravan was known for the scandals he provoked, as well as for verbal or physical violence (during the July 5th, 1914 conference, he shot a gun on stage), vulgarity, and affronts to civil manners and patriotism. In short, behavior and attitude were of paramount importance to him. "Every great artist has the sense of provocation, but for morons beauty is only to be found in pretty things." [Marie Lowitska alias A. Cravan, Oeuvres (, 1992) 93]. His was a strategy of scandal that would become an integral part of Dada.
- These anti-authoritarian minds dismissed all schools. The best example is Marcel Duchamp's [»] Nu descendant un escalier, which thumbed its nose at academicism (and the traditional reclining nude), and was an assault on good taste and modesty. All this would have sufficed to make Duchamp scandalous, but Duchamp did not concern himself with the precepts of the avant-gardes – academics in the making. He rejected the Futurist imperatives that banished the nude, while his painting earned the condemnation of the Cubists that made up the selection committee of the 1912 Salon des Independants, who saw in it a critique of their own movement.
New York, where the painting was shown in early 1913, became for these new "refusés," a place where new endeavors and a new artistic debate could be possible. And it was there that Duchamp and Picabia chose to live upon leaving France at the beginning of World War I. They formed what Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia then called "the New York pre-Dada group". By the time of his arrival in the U.S. in August 1915, Duchamp had already liberated himself from the retinal painting he had challenged, with the Nu descendant un escalier being its last instance in his work. From 1913 on, he launched into provocative experiments that aimed towards an extra-pictorial art. The ready-mades [»] (Bicycle Wheel in 1913, Bottle Rack in 1914) embody these ideas, and represent a turning point in the history of art, as well as an affront to the supremacy and seriousness of painting. From that point on, the making, the styles, or aesthetics were of no importance, what matters were ideas, and everything hinged on the artist’s choice.
- At that same time, Picabia hadn’t yet abandoned a particular ideal of aesthetic perfection – Orphism – an ideal he continued to nourish until 1914 in paintings such as Udine (1913) and Animation (1914).
Nevertheless, following his trip to New York in 1913, which made a deep impression on him, the mechanical world acquired an important place for him, which was perhaps at the heart of his adopting a new style.
In fact, Picabia, unlike Duchamp, did not give up painting, but he did progressively detach himself of the tricks of the painter’s "trade," producing from 1913 on, "mechanomorphic" drawings such as Dessin de la Jeune Fille née sans mère (April 1913). Alfred Stieglitz’s magazine, 291 [»], of which 12 issues were produced between March 1915 and February 1916, was the first to publish works of this type, in particular Picabia’s five "machine equivalent" portraits, in one of which Stieglitz appears as a photographic camera and in another Picabia himself as a car horn. This style, perceived as a subversion of art, provoked as much of a scandal as Duchamp’s ready-mades, and its iconoclastic, provocative and ironic style, which played on the gap between the image and the title, would become the hallmark of the Parisian art production.
- In Russia in the early 1910s it was another realm, that of language, that a few artists set out to turn on its head. The Slap in the Face of Public Taste manifesto published in 1912, and most notably signed by Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, is remarkably close to Dadaist discourse both in its content – a rejection of existing language conventions, a desire to create a new vocabulary, and a contempt for good taste and glory – and in its invective towards the public and the violent tone it adopts. At that same time, Khlebnikov and Kruchonykh (and soon after, Malevich) took painting down the "alogism" and "Zaum" path. It is easy to establish parallels between these first attacks on the "old" language that literally try to go beyond reason (Zaum can be translated as "beyond reason") and the obsessions of Dada. The destruction both of logic and of the deceitful conventions of language that was an essential goal of Dada – notably evident in Tristan Tzara's concerns and works and in Raoul Hausmann's phonetic poems [»] - caused the related approach of the former to be named "Russian Dadaism". Through Ilia Zdanevich (author of the 1923 Ledentu le Phare, poème en zaoum) and his imprint, 41 Degrees, Parisian Dadaism recognized and assimilated this "trans-mental poetry" that is Zaum.
- The War, which drove Duchamp and Picabia to the U.S., also led pacifist artists across Europe to move to free and neutral Switzerland. Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, Walter Serner and Marcel Janco met there in 1915.
The onset of the hostilities in 1914 brought to a fever pitch the feelings of rejection of a bourgeois society that had begotten the horrors of the war. This common disgust undoubtedly played the role of unifying agent for some young people who had, if not contradictory, at least dissimilar feelings and experiences. They were writers, painters and political beings with different allegiances: Expressionism, Cubism, etc. It was from this coming together, and the confrontation of these energies, that was born a categorical refusal of the past, along with an enormous thrust towards life: Dada.
- TEXT CREDITS
Jeanne Brun, 'Avant Dada', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) 122-123. The translation was part of the Press Kit, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 53-55 [Press Kit. Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
- IMAGE CREDITS
banner: (detail) Raoul Hausmann, 'Mechanischer Kopf' (Der Geist unserer Zeit), 1918 [Collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris].
- image left: Marcel Duchamp, Nu descendant un escalier (1912) [Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection]