Magazine article The Spectator

Voyage of Discovery

Magazine article The Spectator

Voyage of Discovery

Article excerpt

Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism: it's funny how many names of modern art movements originated as insults on the lips of critics. Not Dada, though. The founders of art's first anartism were ahead of the game, preemptively christening their movement with a silly name designed to put any critic off his stroke.

The many derivations since attributed to the word 'dada' are missing the point, which is that, as founder Dadaist Tristan Tzara plainly stated, 'Dada does not mean anything.' Dada was a nickname given to a war baby born in 1916 at the Café Voltaire in Zurich and brought up by a Bohemian riff-raff of bachelor uncles -- and the odd aunt -- who encouraged it to misbehave.

But the movement's fundamental aims were serious. For the group of young pacifist writers and artists who adopted the name as an artistic protest against the horrors of the first world war, Dada was also a manifesto -- the first and most succinct of many -- declaring the founders' radical intention to throw all capitalism's precious art toys out of the cot.

My, how baby has grown! Who would have guessed that less than a century later it would be given the run of Europe's premier museum of modern art, occupying the top floor of the Pompidou Centre with 1,000 works by 50 artists? The first major survey of Dada since the 1966 exhibition at the old Musée National d'Art Moderne, Dada at the Pompidou Centre (until 9 January 2006) is a blockbuster and a half. Fortunately, the French know how to bust blocks gently, and have created a display that is exhaustive without being exhausting. Its checkerboard design of 40 'cells' focusing on key moments, places, themes and artists allows you to plan your moves: some cells you will linger in, others you will skip. The danger is, of course, that some you will miss: I only came across the Max Ernst cell during a last-minute mopping-up operation.

As a movement Dada is difficult to pin down, both geographically and artistically.

Having started out with mainly literary -- or anti-literary -- ambitions, it came to express itself increasingly through visual art. And without its artists -- despite the constant stream of nonsense that flowed from its underground presses -- the movement would probably only merit a prolix footnote in the cultural history of the 20th century, rather than the 1,000page directory that accompanies this show.

Thoughtfully, the Pompidou has also provided a slimline album potting the history into a few hundred words. To summarise still further, Dada was launched in Zurich in 1916 by a group including the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and painter Marcel Janco, the German writer Richard Huelsenbeck and artist Hans Richter, and the Alsatian sculptor Jean Arp and his Swiss wife-to-be Sophie Taeuber. In 1918 it was introduced by Huelsenbeck to Berlin, where it caught the satirical imaginations of George Grosz, John Heartfield and Raoul Hausmann, and whence it was spread to Hanover by Kurt Schwitters (excluded from the Berlin group for being 'too bourgeois') and to Cologne by Max Ernst and Jean Arp. By 1920 its centre of gravity had shifted to Paris and New York, exported by Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Man Ray. As an organised movement it peaked in Berlin with the International Dada Art Fair of 1920; two years later Tzara delivered its funeral oration and in 1924 it was subsumed into Surrealism.

Though its most famous successor, Surrealism was not Dada's only child. As this show reveals, the anti-ism to end all isms was ironically destined to become the Abraham of 20thcentury isms. …

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