February 15, 2016

Zurich Celebrates the Dada Centennial

Although Hans Arp may have had a point when he quipped "Dada was there before there was Dada", as far as art historians are concerned the art movement burst into being precisely on February 5, 1916, on the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.  Now, 100 years later, Zurichois are welcoming Dada aficionados to fete the centennial of this short lived but highly influential meteor in art history.

Indeed, the normally very staid city of banking and chocolates has gone a little gaga over their claim to artistic fame with special exhibitions in two museums, performances in the original Cabaret Voltaire and a pervasive Dada-intoxication in the air!  It was my great good fortune to be in Zurich for the kick-off to their Dada celebrations and I can tell you, it showed a different side to the conservative Swiss as we think we know them.

Unknown Photographer
"Portrait of Tristan Tzara", c. 1920

First a little background.  The Dada Movement was an anarchistic one, born as a reaction to capitalism, bourgeois ideas of art, and the horrors of World War I.  On February 5, 1916, a group of artists and writers including Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck, initiated a series of performances at the Cabaret Voltaire that were unlike anything ever before seen on stage.  Avant garde to the extreme, these concerts caused a sensation in the art world and Dada was born.  It soon spread from Zurich to Berlin, then Cologne, Hannover, Paris and New York where artists and writers such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Francis Picabia, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Theo van Doesburg and many others were completely engaged in spreading this new gospel.  Though reincarnated in various forms by later generations, the Dada flame was short lived.  It burned brightly until about 1920 and was completely extinguished in 1924 when it was superseded by the publication of Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto".

But let's get back to the beginning, one hundred years later.

The evening of February 5, 2016 saw the opening of two Dada themed exhibitions, the first being "Dadaglobe Reconstructed" at the Kunsthaus Zurich and "Dada Universal" at the Swiss National Museum or Landesmuseum Zurich.

"Dadaglobe Reconstructed" is the culmination of six years of artistic detective work and dogged determination by the American scholar and art historian, and my friend, Dr. Adrian Sudhalter.  To explain it in a nutshell, in 1920, Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia, both now working in Paris, came up with the idea to solicit works from 50 Dada artists and put them together in a volume called "Dadaglobe".  It was to be the ultimate Dada compendium comprising 300 pages in an edition of 10,000.  The letters were sent and many artists responded with photos, collages and writings from all over Europe and New York.  By 1921, Tzara was well along in assembling the publication when his collaborator, Picabia, renounced Dadaism and subsequently withdrew his financial support.  Dadaglobe was never realized, and the artists' submissions remained tucked away in Tzara's files until he died and his papers were dispersed at auction in 1968.

Dadaglobe was for all intents and purposes forgotten although some of these submissions became recognized as Dada masterpieces in their own right.  Through painstaking research, Dr. Sudhalter has re-assembled all of the 160 small format works on paper that had been sent to Tzara for inclusion in the publication, and she presents them here, and in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, as she believes Tzara had intended.  This is a tour de force of academic rigor, an important contribution to twentieth century art history and an homage to the genius of Tristan Tzara.  "Dadaglobe Reconstructed" will be coming to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in June.

Across the river and behind the train station, in the middle of a construction site, is the Landesmuseum Zurich, where "Dada Universal" also opened on February 5.  This exhibition, presented in a temporary pavilion in the courtyard of the museum, is a very theatrical and entertaining introduction to Dada with an emphasis on its influences and its legacy.  Arranged in themed glass boxes, and accompanied by a sound track and continuously looping videos, the curators have assembled some truly iconic Dada objects, like Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain", as well as some items whose presence was a little difficult to figure out.

Through several very generous loans from The Israel Museum, the Kunsthaus Zurich, and other private and public lenders, "Dada Universal" explores how the Dadaists were shaped by ideas from the ancient Egyptians to Nietzsche, from the Dodo bird to Hopi Indians.  More convincing, in my opinion, were the arguments for who or what was directly descended from Dada.  Without Dada, there would be no Pop Art, no Sex Pistols, no Mary Wigman, no David Bowie, no Mad Magazine and no Lady Gaga.  In other words, today's world would look quite a bit different.

Nowhere in Zurich was February 5 celebrated more enthusiastically than at the "Ground Zero" of Dada - the Cabaret Voltaire.  Located at No. 1 Spiegelgasse in the old town, this historic site was nearly lost to the wrecking ball but thanks to a public outcry and the civic mindedness of the Swatch Corporation, the building was saved and now functions as a cultural center with an emphasis on performance art.

Hugo Ball in an early Dada performance at the Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

A fan chaneling Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, 2016

As you can imagine there was quite a crowd gathered at this Dada shrine, but by some miracle I was able to snake my way through, first to the bar for a "Dada Absinthe" and then to a spot right next to the small stage where the opening festivities were about to begin.  A pianist played music by Erik Satie in a marathon recital while the director of the Cabaret, Adrien Notz and various dignitaries officially kicked off the centennial season.

The Mayor of Zurich speaks through an
improvised megaphone at the Cabaret Voltaire

The city of Zurich is embracing its Dada heritage with great enthusiasm, and why not?  While Dada may not exactly be a household name, it has truly had a universal influence on art and popular culture.  The band of insurgents who performed in Zurich a hundred years ago could never have imagined how their vision has endured.  Dada Siegt!

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