My art belongs to Dada

Born 100 years ago in Switzerland, Dada was absurd, anarchic and astonishingly influential

May 31, 2016
Hugo Ball (1886-1927), German dada author and poet, wearing a "cubist suit"
Hugo Ball (1886-1927), German dada author and poet, wearing a "cubist suit"
Read more from Kevin Jackson: The haunted summer of 1816

It was the evening of 23rd June 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire, in Zurich. (Unless it was the evening of 14th July, at the Waag, a rented hall not far from there. Few parts of this often-told story are beyond dispute.) Hugo Ball, a skinny young German author and poet who in recent years had taken to carrying an ancient skull around with him at all times, mounted the stage wearing what he described as a “Sorcerer’s” costume. His body was covered with a blue-painted obelisk made of cardboard; he had wings, red on the inside, gold on the outside; giant lobster claws; and a blue and white striped hat, two feet tall. He faced the audience, felt a moment of stage fright, then began to flap his wings and shout:

         hollaka hollala

         anlogo bung

         blago bung

         blago bung

         bosso fataka….

And so on. The Dada movement, hatched just a few months earlier by Ball and his pals, had made a spectacular public exhibition of itself.

Within a matter of days, the Cabaret Voltaire was a roaring success. People came to drink, fight, pass out, smash the tables and chairs, and, above all, to be enjoyably shocked by the “six-piece band” of the original Dada cell. Hugo Ball would pound away at a piano; his girlfriend, Emmy Hannings—he loved her partly because her face reminded him of the old skull—would sing and do the splits; Tristan Tzara, the dapper Romanian poet, would wiggle his behind like a belly-dancer; while Tzara’s fellow countryman Marcel Janco (who had made the Sorcerer’s costume), the German poet and medical student Richard Huelsenbeck, and the Alsatian artist Hans Arp would bang drums, miaow like cats, burp, sigh, moo and recite ancient or improvised poems. It was utter chaos, and the punters loved it.

Was there more to it than mere anarchy? Yes; or possibly no; or possibly blago bung. Look up “Dada” in reference books of art history and you will usually find it mentioned in passing as a short-lived local craze that became diluted into the rather more polite (and, eventually, lucrative) rebellion of Surrealism, or into the politically engaged art of Germany in the Weimar period. You may also read that it was essentially a protest movement. Outside neutral Switzerland, the young men of Europe were blowing themselves to lumps of bone and meat in their millions; Dada was a howl of rage not only against the present War but against the classical humanist values that both sides claimed to represent—logic, clarity, harmony, order. Dada was a fart in the general direction of Western Civilisation.

Such accounts are not altogether wrong, and in later years some of the founding members began to spout the same, rather pious, party line about Dada always being at heart an anti-war movement. This, to put it mildly, does not quite tally with contemporary records. (Huelsenbeck, circa 1917: “We were for the war, and Dadaism today is still for war. Life must hurt…”)  Whatever its original intent, the Dada spirit soon mutated and, like an opportunistic virus, spread rapidly around the globe, infecting New York, and Paris, and Berlin, and Tokyo. Among the big names who carried the Dada torch for at least a few years were Francis Picabia, George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Richter, Max Ernst and, most influential of all, Marcel Duchamp.

The founding sextet were rapidly eclipsed by the new recruits. For most of them—except for Ball, who died in 1927—life after Dada was a long anti-climax. As the critic Greil Marcus put in his eccentric and quite brilliant “secret history of the twentieth century”, Lipstick Traces, “…they returned again and again to their few days in the Zurich bar. They tried to understand what had happened to them. They never got over it.”

Marcus argues, passionately, that Dada should be regarded, not as a quaint footnote to modernist art, but as a full chapter in the long history of the Gnostic heresy. It’s a weird contention, but he has his evidence. In 1917, Hugo Ball wrote that “Modern artists are Gnostics and practice things that the priests think are long forgotten; perhaps even commit sins that are no longer thought possible.” Critics have seen the long-term effects of the Cabaret Voltaire in phenomena as diverse as happenings, conceptual art, the rock music of Frank Zappa in the 1960s and the punk eruption of the 1970s. And others, less tolerant, regard the whole affair as nothing more than embarrassingly silly, late-adolescent posturing. Perhaps Greil Marcus came closest to the heart of the matter when he proposed that “Dada was a prophecy, but it had no idea what it was prophesying, and its strength was that it didn’t care.” There are mysteries here that, a hundred years on, remain hidden in plain sight.

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