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January 17-23, 2007

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'Dada'

Dada
(By Rudolf Kuenzli; Phaidon; 304 pages; $75 cloth)

"I am writing a manifesto and there's nothing I want, and yet I am saying certain things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles."—Tristan Tzara. The Dada artists loved manifestos—denouncing, denying and demystifying art, culture, language and, often, gleefully, each other. For a loose-knit movement that spent a lot of time arguing about defining itself and lasted all of seven years, from 1916 to 1923, Dada has exerted a lasting influence on modern art—every anti-art gesture, from Pop to Conceptualism to Damien Hirst's pickled animals, references the avant-garde outrage. Dada has been well studied, beginning with Robert Motherwell's The Dada Painters and Poets (1951), but the "virgin microbe" (as Tzara dubbed the movement) exhibits an infinite capacity to intrigue new readers. Editor Rudolf Kuenzli's Dada provides an incisive introduction to the hot spots where Dada infected mischievous malcontents, from Zurich, New York and Paris to points east. He identifies disgust with the slaughter of World War I as the main impetus for the artists who wanted to demolish Europe's rotting cultural framework: "Dada opposed society's sense of logic by creating non-sense in the form of anti-art and a-art"—indeed by picking a name that meant nothing. The Dadaist tore down language and art that supported war propaganda and substituted collage, fake ad campaigns, nonsense poetry (created by cutting up news articles and "arranging the fragments arbitrarily") and stage shows designed to piss off audiences with their aggressive absurdism. Kuenzli smartly examines lesser-known outposts of the movement, including Russia, where some Futurists may have beaten Duchamp to the idea of the "readymade" by exhibiting a pair of trousers; and even Japan, where Murayama Tomoyoshi started a version of Dada called Mavo. In addition to the usual suspects—Duchamp, Picabia, Hugo Ball, Man Ray—Kuenzli also resurrects one of the more fascinating figures of Dada: the German Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a "performance artist and proto-punk" who paraded "through the streets of Greenwich Village half-naked in her art-to-wear costumes" and may have helped Duchamp with his famous art assault, Fountain, an upside-down urinal submitted with a straight-face to the 1917 Exhibition of Independent Artists. The meat of the book lies in its many large reproductions of Dada works, parsed in detailed captions. The images showcase some marvels of cut-and-paste by Raoul Hausmann, a master at mashing up advertising images with typographic fragments, and by Hannah Hch, whose extraordinary photomontage Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Epoch of Weimar Beer-Belly Culture in Germany demonstrates how fiercely political Dada could be in the face of a world gone berserk. The book concludes with a selection of Dada poems, interviews and manifestos from primary sources. (These point to the way to www.lib.uiowa.edu/dada/, the home of the International Dada Archive, of which Kuenzil is the director.)

Review by Michael S. Gant


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