Up

DADA IN PARIS by Michel Sanouillet
MIT Press. 705 pages. £20.95. ISBN 978-0-262-51821-5

AN AUDIENCE OF ARTISTS: DADA, NEO-DADA, AND THE EMERGENCE OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM by Catherine Craft
University of Chicago Press. 307 pages. £35.50. ISBN 978-0-226-11680-8

THE SEAWEED'S SECRET by Max Jacob, translated by Alan Dixon Spectacular Diseases. 40 pages. £7.50. ISBN 0-946904-55-3 

Reviewed by Jim Burns

 

 

One of the fascinating aspects of the Dada movement, if it was a movement, is that no-one can ever really succeed  in saying exactly what it stood for. Or against, for that matter, though it might be easier to deal with the negative side of the question than with the positive. Michel Sanouillet, discussing Hugo Ball's contribution to the formation of Dada, says that he "laid down the ideological foundations of Dadaism as early as 1916." And he further refers to Ball's "notion of Dada primitivism and its corollaries, the search for creative spontaneity and the opposition to every manner of fabrication and routine in art; the artist's awareness of his strict dependence on an outside world that until then had been an object of scorn; and, most of all, the beginning of the major action brought by Dada against language." There is a mixture of the positive and the negative in that summary, with "the search for creative spontaneity" requiring "opposition to every manner of fabrication and routine in art."

That the Dadaists might have had a positive programme, if they had a programme, wasn't something that occurred to many people when Dada was in its heyday, roughly 1916 to 1923. The antics at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and later at various locations in Paris, seemed to be just provocations. Which they were, though with the intention of not just upsetting the largely bourgeois audiences attracted to the events, but of also trying to break new ground. For many people, however, the pronouncements by Dada activists seemed to sum up what was intended. "Dada smells like nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing," wrote Francis Picabia, and Tristan Tzara said: "Do not trust Dada. Dada is everything. Dada doubts everything. But the real Dadas are against Dada."

It's usually accepted that Dada was born in Zurich in 1916, with Tzara, Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, and others, all present. And it was in many ways a cry of rage against a world which was tearing itself apart and slaughtering millions as it did. But there had been stirrings elsewhere which perhaps indicated that, even prior to 1914, something was about to happen. The Italian Futurists provided an example to follow. Tzara and Janco were Romanians and brought certain absurdist Yiddish traditions with them (see Tom Sandqvist’s Dada East:The Romanians of the Cabaret Voltaire) to Zurich. Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings had participated in Berlin cabaret performances. And though they were not involved directly in what went on in Zurich, in New York Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray, appeared to be working along parallel lines. Duchamp's "A Bicycle Wheel" and "A Bottle Rack" were, in the words of C.W.E.Bigsby, "anti-art gestures, mocking the whole idea of taste and form."

When the Zurich group began to break up after 1918 some of its members moved to Berlin, where Dada took on a much more strident and often political form and allied itself with the newly-formed German Communist Party. The most significant move was to Paris, where an existing body of poets, painters, and others, had been awaiting the arrival of Tristan Tzara. Copies of Dada had already reached Paris from Zurich, and Max Jacob had written enthusiastically to Tzara as early as February, 1917. Picabia's 391, then being published from Barcelona, had also come to the attention of the Parisian avant-garde. There was already a receptive audience for what Dada seemed to represent. Philippe Soupault later wrote: "Revolt was fomenting. We were sharing our anger. It was at that point that we intercepted signals that were so disruptive it was as if they had come from another planet." Soupault, André Breton, and Louis Aragon decided to start a magazine, Littérature, to promote their ideas, though from Sanouillet's description of its contents it strikes one that it was, in many ways, fairly conventional in tone. The editors, after their demobilisation, had done what ambitious young writers do and had mixed with established writers and editors and "attended sophisticated matinees and literary meetings." The need for recognition within an existing framework perhaps pointed to a difference between the Parisian would-be Dadaists and those who had been active in Zurich. A further indication  of a separation of intentions before Breton and Tzara had met can be found in The Magnetic Fields, a text by Breton and Soupault published over several issues of Littérature in 1919. Breton in retrospect declared that it was "the first surrealist (and in no sense Dadaist) work, since it was the fruit of the first systematic applications of automatic writing". Sanouillet challenges Breton's claims which were, no doubt, written to suggest that he owed little to Dadaism, and he points out how examples of automatic writing can be found in Dada poems and in the writings of Francis Picabia.

Leaving aside this dispute (and  others like it were soon to become a regular occurrence between Dadaists and surrealists, and among the Dadaists themselves) it was Breton's meeting with Picabia in December, 1919, which is generally taken to be the starting point for Paris Dada. Tzara turned up in January, 1920, and the scene was set for a period of activity involving provocation, in-fighting, and a form of power-struggle between Breton and Tzara for leadership of the new movement. Sanouillet's description of those early days is fascinating to read, though cynical readers with an amused awareness of how  and why literary movements rise and fall will not be surprised by the tales of writers plotting against each other. Sanouillet tells how Tzara negotiated with Paul Dermée to distribute Dada and act as a kind of publicity agent for Dada in France. But Dermée had angered Breton and his followers with a lecture he'd given on Max Jacob, so a message was sent to Tzara to warn him that if he printed any of Dermée's poems then Breton, Soupault, and Pierre Reverdy would refuse to be in the same issue. Soupault also wrote to inform Tzara that his "whimsical literary connections"(Sanouillet's phrase)  would not add to Dada's reputation, and that an eclectic policy was open to criticism. What can be seen at work is, of course, an attempt by Breton's followers to exclude those outside their circle, a not unusual activity among small avant-garde groups but hardly in the Dada spirit. Sanouillet mentions Picabia's disgust at returning to Paris after four years and finding that people were behaving exactly as before: "all these men who turn art and intelligence into a performance, all these individuals who work at being great men and nothing more."

Once the Paris Dada group got into its stride there were the usual public events to outrage the general public and publicise Dada, though not all of them succeeded. Sanouillet provides a detailed account of them and the audience reactions and newspaper reports. There are useful observations to be made. The audiences were inevitably bourgeois and expected to be provoked and reacted accordingly. I'd guess that they were disappointed if the poets and others didn't do or say something outrageous. When the Dadaists tried to break away from their bourgeois origins and appeal to a working-class audience they failed. The account of an event at the Universite populaire de fauborg Saint-Antoine is revealing. Referred to by Sanouillet as "this old institute with its anarchist tendencies," it provided an audience of "enlightened workers, simple, attentive, and even ready to be open to anything new, providing that it went against bourgeois values." The Dadaists launched into readings of their poems and manifestos, "But faced with that sea of confident faces completely indifferent to cubism, artistic squabbles, and modern poetry, most of the manifestos rang false, and evoked nothing more than tepid surprise." Sanouillet adds that, "instead of revolting, the proletarians just asked for explanations. Disconcerted, since it is easier to read a Dadaist text than to comment upon it, Aragon and Ribemont-Dessaignes launched, unsuccessfully, into a long-winded defence of Dada's aims and methods, with their patient Marxist hecklers dogging them at every step."

Even at the early stages of Paris Dada there were indications of divisions in the movement. According to Sanouillet, in January, 1920, there were "signs of the schisms that would take place later within Dada," as various people, principally Tzara, Picabia, and Breton, vied for, if not control, then acknowledgement as a  leader of Dada. It was difficult to deny Tzara's claim to being its founder, though Janco, Huelsenbeck, and Ball would dispute this, but Picabia had the money and the contacts to place him in a prominent position, and Breton had a strong following among Parisian intellectuals and writers. Tzara was, in Sanouillet's words, "a simple, penniless Romanian immigrant," for all his liveliness and activity in Zurich.

With Breton's clique falling out with Picabia, and Tzara increasingly sidelined, the nature of Dada was changing. Breton and Aragon began to plan a new programme which, according to Sanouillet, would no longer be "improvised and fanciful, as before, but concerted and meticulously organised. The part that Breton and Aragon played in this plan's conception can be easily discerned; the seriousness of the programme, the absence of spontaneity and humour, the rejection of improvisation, the threatening tone of the attacks - all of this prefigured surrealism." He quotes Aragon justifying what might be described as the new hardline policy, and suggests that delegates to the founding convention of the French Communist Party, which was taking place around the same time, would have fully approved of it. Needless to say, Tzara and Picabia were not in agreement with what Breton and Aragon saw as the future of Dada.

Breton increasingly dominated any gathering of Dadaists (even get-togethers in cafes became more like seminars than easy-going gatherings) and the mood was changing. He decided to set up a mock trial of Maurice Barres, who had, at one time, been a role-model for young writers but had turned increasingly conservative. The affair went ahead, and only Tzara seems to have treated it in true Dada fashion. For Picabia it was a defining moment and he promptly made public his disassociation from Dada. Another event master-minded by Breton was the 1922 conference which highlighted the difference between how Breton and Tzara thought of Dada. Breton proposed that "cubism, futurism, and Dadaism are not, all things considered, three distinct movements, but rather that all three are part of a more general movement whose meaning and scope are not yet fully known to us." Tzara replied: "Modernism is of no interest to me, and I think it will be a mistake to say that Dadaism, cubism, and futurism rest on a common foundation. These latter two tendencies were based on an idea of intellectual or technical perfection above all, whereas Dadaism never rested on any theory and has never been anything but a protest . "

By 1923 it was all over and Breton had established the surrealist movement. Sanouillet, summing up, points to the "primarily literary vocation" of Parisian Dada, while "in the United States the Dadaist revolution initially played out on the artistic plane, and in Germany on the political level." He says that Dada and surrealism "each expressed in its own way, in their entirety and complexity, the anxiety of an era and the pronounced wish of some particularly exacting minds to feel no satisfaction with partial solutions." They had their "sights on the same objective: the destruction of art, or at least of a certain conception of art." Surrealism provided a "semblance of coherence to a doctrine that had none" but it was "too often Dada without laughter."

Dada in Paris was first published in 1965, and this is a new edition, revised by Anne Sanouillet and translated by Sharmila Ganguly. The main text is supported by almost 200 pages of correspondence between Breton and Tzara, Picabia and Breton, and others. There are extensive notes and a large bibliography, plus details of on-line sources. It is obviously an essential book for anyone interested in the Dada movement generally and Paris Dada in particular.

It's perhaps useful at this point to look at where the word Dada originated as a name for the movement. Tzara was generally given credit for finding Dada in a French dictionary where it was shown as relating to a child's hobby-horse. Jean Arp in an idiosyncratic statement ("I am convinced that this word is not of the slightest importance and that only morons and Spanish professors can be interested in dates") testified that Tzara found it. However, Richard Huelsenbeck, in a 1936 document, claimed that he had noticed the word in a dictionary that Hugo Ball was leafing through: "I was standing behind Ball looking into the dictionary. Ball's finger pointed to the first letter of each word descending the page. Suddenly I cried halt. I was struck by a word I had never heard before, the word dada," and later, in 1949, Huelsenbeck thought it necessary to state that "Dadaism was not founded by Tristan Tzara at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich." It's interesting to look at Tom Sandqvist's Dada East, where he says that the Romanian Orthodox Church has two saints by the name of Dada.

It was this kind of claim and counter-claim that bedevilled Robert Motherwell as he compiled his ground-breaking anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets in the late-1940s (it was published in 1951). Motherwell is a key figure in Catherine Craft's An Audience of Artists: Dada, Neo-Dada, and the Emergence of Abstract Expressionism, along with Marcel Duchamp whose presence in New York was important, even if he produced little that could be said to be directly influential. In fact, Duchamp was critical of much of the art coming out of New York in the 1940s and 1950s, though he doesn't seem to have made public pronouncements about, for example, the Abstract Expressionists. But his general comments indicated how he felt: "I was interested in ideas - not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind." Duchamp saw America as an "open country" and a "perfect terrain for new developments," and was disappointed that artists continued to use the same old materials in well-established ways.

Duchamp's relationship to Dada was always problematic. What he had done prior to 1916 quite clearly tied in with what happened in Zurich, but he never allied himself totally with Dada. Craft says that he "kept a careful distance from the movement during its existence, reluctant to relinquish his independence especially as he saw Dada shape itself into a movement like any other, its members bickering over control and fighting with other cliques in the art world." He did use the word Dada, but just as "a conveniently vague word denoting freedom, nihilism, humour, and iconoclasm." It was some time later, in the 1940s, that he began to identify with Dada as "a sort of nihilism to which I am still very sympathetic." Craft suggests that he "reached for Dada as a way to fit into the history of modern art without conforming to it, to belong without joining."

Robert Motherwell was probably the most intellectual of the Abstract Expressionist painters, though Barnett Newman perhaps matched him in terms of analysing and documenting events and personalities and ideas. Motherwell said he decided to get involved with compiling his anthology because he wanted to know more about surrealism and he realised that Dada was a precursor of surrealism. When he started to gather material he discovered that Dada was a much broader and varied subject than he'd originally thought. Contact with Hans Richter, who had been involved with Dada in both Zurich and Berlin, persuaded him that Dada wasn't, as he initially believed, a French movement, and that it "came out of the general European situation, and that every country made something different of it."

The anthology was certainly important in terms of drawing attention to Dada at a time when it had tended to sink from sight, or had become just a footnote in the development of surrealism. Craft refers to the uncertainty about how much Dada influence can be discerned in the work of the Abstract Expressionists. She quotes Motherwell as saying that he detected "a real Dada strain in the minds of the New York School of abstract painters that has emerged in the last decade." But, as she says, cubism, abstract art, and surrealism were of much more importance in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Some painters, such as Clyfford Still, did make statements to the effect that it was necessary to reject the whole of the past completely, but this didn't necessarily align them with Dada. Craft has it that "most of the Abstract Expressionists were intensely critical of Dada, explicitly including it in the heritage of modern art they felt compelled to reject - even as they learned about Dada from Motherwell's work." Motherwell himself wondered how it was possible to think of Dada as a part of Abstract Expressionism, "when we all loved art, a most anti-Dada attitude."

To be fair to Catherine Craft, she does highlight the frequent inconsistencies in trying to trace a direct line from Dada to Abstract Expressionism. As she points out, "the visual evidence of Dada's influence on Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Motherwell can be linked just as readily - and often more convincingly - to other artists, such as Miro, Picasso, and Henri Matisse.” Personally, I' m not sure that attempts to show that Dada influenced Pollock and Kline and de Kooning can be usefully sustained. Pollock may well have said, "You've got to deny, ignore, destroy a hell of a lot to get at the truth," but that remark doesn't necessarily have a Dada strain in it. It seems to me to be far too practical to be akin to the negation apparent in Dada. The Abstract Expressionists may well have "revisited issues associated with Dada, such as the promise of a new beginning offered by a tabula rasa, negations relation to creativity, and the fragmented availability of the past," but did they do it knowingly, or were they doing what each new group of artists did as they struggled to establish a new beginning?

Craft devotes a chapter each to Motherwell, Pollock, and Barnett Newman, and they're interesting in themselves but add little to the case for seeing a Dada influence in their work. In Newman's life she admits that "there is very little in his work to link it directly with Dada, as he would be the first to insist." Elsewhere, she quotes tellingly from a talk that Newman gave in which he attacked Dada and pointed out that the insistence that a coat rack or urinal could be a work of art led to museums showing screwdrivers and automobiles because who's to say what is art? He extended his comments to suggest that the Museum of Modern Art ought to "put on an exhibition of machine guns. After all, they beautifully function, they're wonderful forms, they're full of content, and they actually make noise." He then said that the result of an anti-art situation like the one he'd described was "an alliance between a good many artists and a good many aestheticians with the philistines. The philistines also believe that you can't tell one thing from another, and that a toilet is as good as a Titian, really."

As with Paris in the 1920s the New York art scene of the late-1940s and the early-1950s had its own cliques and feuds, and Craft's chapter about them makes for lively reading. She indicates that the reactions of other artists were essential, and that even a negative appraisal of one's work was better than no appraisal at all: "Not to be seen by other artists was not to exist as an artist oneself." Barnett Newman stopped exhibiting in public for several years after fellow artists failed to attend the opening of his 1951 show. There could be positive aspects to one's work being seen by other artists, but it didn't always turn out that way. After he'd visited another Newman exhibition, Willem de Kooning remarked to Philip Guston, "Well, we don't have to think about that anymore," and Bradley Walker Tomlin, helping Robert Motherwell to hang a show for Mark Rothko, said, "My God, Bob, this is not painting at all." As happened with Dada and other art movements rivalries soon sprang up. Pollock and de Kooning fell out, Newman broke with Rothko. As the art dealer, Betty Parsons recalled: "It all went from love to hate in four years."

Craft's discussion of Neo-Dada is useful, especially as it's a term that can be applied almost as loosely as Dada. And she draws attention to the work of William C. Seitz, who wrote one of the first scholarly studies of Abstract Expressionist artists and was of the opinion that "Dada was a more appropriate metaphor for them than surrealism." That, of course, may be an art history idea, and as referred to earlier it's often difficult to ascertain just how much, if anything, the artists knew about Dada and saw it as any sort of influence. Craft says that Neo-Dada was a term originating in the 1950s to label "Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and a handful of other young artists whose work seemed sharply at odds with that of Abstract Expressionists." She goes on to say: "Critics and historians have tried various strategies to make sense of Neo-Dada, but the primary tactic has been the division of artists associated with the label into two different camps, one influenced by the conceptual concerns of Duchamp and the other by the collage aesthetics of Kurt Schwitters." I rather like the comment of the conservative critic Hilton Kramer who said that Johns and Rauschenberg "differ from real Dada in this respect; that Dada sought to repudiate and criticise bourgeois values, whereas Johns, like Rauschenberg, aims to please and confirm the decadent periphery of bourgeois taste."

An Audience of Artists has a great deal to offer a reader interested in Abstract Expressionism, its possible forerunner, Dada, and its later development, Neo-Dada, if indeed that was the case. I have my own doubts about this line of thought, but Catherine Craft has amassed a great deal of information and documentation and writes clearly and knowledgeably.

Max Jacob was one of the first to pay attention to what the Dadaists were doing in Zurich when news of their activities reached Paris. He's usually more associated with surrealism, but it is possible to see how some of his early work, at least, would fit easily into a Dada context. The Seaweed's Secret offers a small selection of his poems, including the following from his book, Le Laboratoire central, published in 1921:  

ACIDULOUS MUSIC

Boom! Mam! Amsterdam.
Norland's not round Northowram!
Poppa's not on top!
The rat's ipecac's not packed with chocolate
No go slow in Congo? oh! bold Limpopo!
Mortal port, export the bort (ditto).
Smash; of glass of splash of ash
Rage, mage, disengage
You who squeeze choose ripe cheese
Poppa's not on top.
The ipecac of the Satrap of Stepnyak.
I wish for this piss
Here! this is his bit of spit.
True? True? 

I'm not qualified to comment on the accuracy or quality of the translation, but this English version reads well in its own right and seems to have an authentic Dada touch to it. It's probably unfair to suggest that a small book like this can illustrate the transition from Dada to surrealism, and in any case Max Jacob  was too much of an individual voice to be easily slotted into a category. Alan Dixon's introduction provides a short survey of his life, which was marked by poverty, a string of routine jobs, eccentricities of behaviour, and ill health. Born Jewish he converted to Catholicism in 1915 when he was almost forty, but this didn't stop him being arrested in 1944 by the Nazis and sent to the Drancy internment camp. He died there shortly after being arrested.