What would our lives would be like if Dada’s radically anarchic aesthetic had taken over? Would people be proclaiming abstract sound poetry on street corners? Would they wander about, like the notoriously free-spirited Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, bizarrely arrayed in pilfered goods and castoffs—a bra made of two tin cans tied with string, rows of curtain-ring bracelets pinched from Woolworth’s, a bustle of electric lights? Perhaps they’d hole up, like Kurt Schwitters building his Merzbau, an installation cobbled together from bits of urban and natural detritus. Perhaps every public gathering would become a provocation.
Dada Triumphs!, a 1920 photocollage by Raoul Hausmann, includes a map with the word “DADA” emblazoned across the northern hemisphere, announcing this movement’s vast territorial ambitions. In fact, though Dada’s reach extended well beyond the heart of Europe, it stopped far short of world domination. “Dada” focuses on international networks of peripatetic artists responding maniacally to the twin debacles of World War I and the unrelenting pressures of industrialization. Dada began during wartime, among artists who had sought refuge in Switzerland and a still-unaligned United States; by 1924 it had fizzled, sacrificed to the internecine Parisian struggles that gave rise to Surrealism, its more popular successor.
Today, the ghosts of Dada must content themselves with a single province: the art world, which remains largely under the sway of Marcel Duchamp, Dada’s sly patron saint and most elegant prankster. With a curatorial nod to chaos, the show boasts two separate entrances, signaling Dada’s dual origins: the raucous, proto-performance-art soirees at the Café Voltaire in Zurich, and the radical experiments Duchamp conducted while in exile in New York.
Enter through Zurich, and you hear archival recordings of someone loudly declaiming nonsensical syllables and encounter Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s fantastical marionettes for an 18th-century play that the Dadaists had updated to reflect their own psychoanalytic preoccupations. The effect is both charmingly artisanal and—due perhaps to the ineffable nature of performance—elusive. Enter via New York, and you’re confronted with Duchamp’s readymades, those industrially produced objects that, once removed from their contexts, acquired the status of aesthetic icons, and now suggest a sort of Big Bang theory of contemporary art.
Either way, there are plenty of pleasurable surprises, like the Baronness’s airy portrait of Duchamp—a temporary assemblage, surviving only in a photograph, of a champagne glass topped with a clock spring and feathers. And there’s enough to still jar your senses. Dada, after all, had crawled out of the trenches; several of its male artists had been wounded in combat or suffered from shellshock. Others, like the German political satirist John Heartfield, feigned insanity to avoid military service, and the habit, once adapted, became hard to shake. Mayhem was their antidote to a world gone mad; they aimed, in the words of poet/provocateur Richard Huelsbeck, for an art that would “let itself be thrown by the explosions of last week.”
Perhaps because last week, the drumbeat of war was gaining momentum, Berlin Dada’s highly politicized interventions seemed particularly apt: Hannah Hoch’s photomontage of two paunchy Weimar officials in their bathing suits, or George Grosz’s magnificently grotesque portrait of the German Republic’s president, transformed through photomontage and collage to evoke the mutilated visages of veterans filling Berlin’s streets. Also wonderful are the movies on display, bidding belated adieu to the 19th century, like Hans Richter’s hilarious Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927), in which a bunch of men chase vainly after their bowler hats. And the entire show evoked a deep nostalgia for bohemia, which the forces of capital long ago pushed to the margins of our urban centers. Artists now go to graduate school to have experiences that were once available in Greenwich Village. Would that we could bring them back.