One hundred years ago, amid the devastation of WWI’s trench warfare, Dada — the political, absurdist avant-garde art movement that flourished from around 1916 to the mid-1920s — was born among artists and writers in Paris, New York, Zurich, and Cologne as a critique of the brutality, nationalism, censorship, authoritarianism, and conformity of the times. Dedicated to creating critical, hyper-contemporary, chance-based collaborative works that flew in the face of conventional notions of art, Dadaists made “anti-art” instead.
Any formal exhibition about Dada, therefore, is bound to reveal a contradiction. Outside the opening of MoMA’s 1968 exhibition “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” the Times reported, were “300 hippies” protesting with signs that read, “Surrealism means revolution, not spectator-sports.” And yet, according to “Dadaglobe Reconstructed,” now at MoMA, Dada’s fierce though often playful interrogation of what appears in a museum remains within the discourse of, and therefore belongs within, a museum — as co-curator and Dada scholar Adrian Sudhalter explained at the exhibition’s opening.
“Dadaglobe Reconstructed” is premised on an unrealized 1921 anthology, a 160-page magnum opus called Dadaglobe spearheaded by poet and Dada co-founder Tristan Tzara. Though never completed, the project spurred the creation of many Dadaist works, some of them iconic today. The exhibit now reunites — after six years of archival sleuthing by Sudhalter — over a hundred of those works by more than forty artists from all over the globe.
This book-turned-exhibit shows just how steeped Tzara’s project was in the idea of remediation, the translation of a work from one genre or medium to another — as was Dada itself. In his call for submissions, Tzara instructed the contributor to send: 1) a photo of his head (“which you can alter freely, although it should retain clarity”); 2) two or three photos of his works; 3) three or four black-and-white drawings (one could be colorful, but using no more than three colors — due to constraints on printing); 4) or, in place of a color drawing, a designed book page (“Every page must explode,” Tzara decreed).
The clever, often delightful, responses to these instructions now hang on the walls of MoMA. Sophie Taeuber’s photographic portrait includes a wooden head, half-concealing her own face — a striking answer to Tzara’s request for clarity. (Similarly, Theo van Doesburg, a/k/a I.K. Bonset, is photographed with the back of his head facing the camera, “Je suis contre tout et tous” scrawled over him like a halo.) The portraits are witty, irreverent — and even many of the other submissions feel like portraits, of the artists and of the movement: George Grosz’s Dadabild (1919), in which a man’s legs and head become “dada dadada,” in various repetitions and typefaces, emphasizes how this titular word is at once the language of every nation and none.
The occasional sculpture sits atop its pedestal, but the exhibit most closely examines Dada’s preoccupation with text: letters and literary submissions, including poems and Tzara’s solicitations. (A choice sample: Man Ray writes to Tzara, “All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.”) Dadaglobe the anthology was to have been a self-portrait of Dada. At its best, the exhibit helps us reimagine the movement’s radical media mix at a time when we’re so saturated with assembled images that we no longer see the seams.
Another recent Dadaist adaptation, meanwhile, goes the opposite way. A new book has been made from the final work of Hannah Höch, one of Dada’s few female artists. Her largest photo-collage, made in 1972–73, Life Portrait is self-referential, including images of Höch as a baby and at age 83, as well as pieces from collages made throughout various stages in her career. Each spread pairs images cropped from the larger work with text by art historian Alma-Elisa Kittner that offers historical and biographical context.
While Life Portrait was created well after Dada, the style of photomontage Höch helped to pioneer during the movement’s heyday remains front and center. Monochrome photographs of herself, and of the tiny objects she collected, are cut and placed among photos of plants, animals, furniture, outer space, and disembodied eyes and lips, and then pasted over colorful, abstract collages. Images of important figures in Höch’s personal life also appear — like Raoul Hausmann, fellow artist and self-named “Dadasoph,” with whom she had a long affair. Decades later, the look and feel has become familiar, and it’s a treat to see how Höch originated the form.
Flipping through the book, Life Portrait, originally a single four-by-five-foot piece, at times feels too expansive to be contained between two covers. I found myself wishing I could see it displayed as it was originally — whole, imposing, overwhelming.
And yet it was Höch herself who divvied it up: She’d separated it into 38 parts and planned to publish a book about the project herself. Motifs from the collage were to appear with excerpts from conversations between Höch and her collaborators, the photographers Liselotte and Armin Orgel-Köhne. (The new book is based on these old plans.) Either way, Life Portrait is visual autobiography, the ultimate self-portrait — a refraction of the artist through many eras of work and life, made by a woman in a male-dominated field (her work, Kittner tells us, was not widely received until the 1960s).
“I think that every artist gifted with fantasy is obsessed by some ever recurring ideas,” Höch said in 1959 — and if Life Portrait at times feels solipsistic, it’s worth recognizing that this final project was simultaneously an archive of society, culture, and history. Another portrait of the artist, A Thousand Greetings From Italy (1920), on view at MoMA, shows her young and unsmiling, but with the hint of a daydream in her eyes, surrounded by simple red doodles and the names of Italian cities. The work is of a piece with both Life Portrait and Tzara’s earlier anthology, and while it may not have wound up in either, it clearly belongs in the reconstructed “Dadaglobe.”
11 West 53rd Street
Through September 18
Hannah Höch: Life Portrait
Introduction and text by Alma-Elisa Kittner
Photographs by Orgel-Köhne
96 pp., The Green Box