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Recoiling from the shock: how Dadaism swallowed a post-war Europe

When Ludwig Kirchner painted his Self-Portrait of a Soldier in 1915 amid his nervous breakdown, it’s unlikely he knew how powerfully it would evoke the plight of European art. Glassy-eyed, pallid, and inattentive to both the nude model behind him and his bloody stump of a right hand, in the painting Kirchner is back in his studio – but in military uniform. Unable to comprehend the 600,000 German casualties from just a year of fighting, Kirchner’s work encapsulated the crisis faced by artists in WWI: jaded, liminal, and seeing little way of making sense or meaning out of the grotesque reality before them.

Once the war began, disillusionment was quick to set in. F.T Marinetti avowed in his 1912 Manifesto of Futurism to ‘glorify war…the only hygiene of the world’, but in wartime the movement began to lose momentum: Boccioni’s triumphant Charge of the Cavalry (1915) began to look naïve obsolete against the machine-gun atrocities facing Italian soldiers on the front. Meanwhile British artist Paul Nash, having enlisted for the Artists Rifles in 1914, had his romantic view of rural landscapes explode in Flanders. The piece he created in 1918, We Are Making a New World, was an acerbic satirisation of the Futurists’ surging, masculine optimism: the ‘new world’ was a ravaged one, of barren trees and grave-like mounds.

Other responses were even more visceral. Otto Dix’s The Trench (1923) is a gut-wrenching painting: the viewer is pulled into an apocalyptic beach scene, where on the right-hand side a corpse is tipped upside-down, stiff legs outstretched in a way that would be comical if it weren’t horrific. The public was so alarmed by the painting that it was covered by a curtain at its first viewing. ‘It was as if Dix needed to vomit his memories in order to purge himself of all that haunted him’, (The Guardian, 2014), but beyond painful catharsis, nothing else remained for the artist: only perverse detail, forcing its own recording.

It was the desire to escape this obligation of distilling war into art, that produced Dada. It found its nesting ground in neutral Switzerland – specifically the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, a thriving club for avant-garde artists. Coined by the Romanian artist Tristan Tzara, who chose its name at random from a German-French dictionary, the movement was anti-war, anti-establishment, even anti-art. Its manifesto, read out by Hugo Ball to the club in July of 1916, delighted its left-leaning audience. But the concept wasn’t politically one-sided: arising of no agenda, it was the perfect iconoclast, calling for destruction of all repressive traditions and traditions. But its nihilism spoke loudest of all: in the middle of war, seeing the apathy of the government over Europe, no wonder it resonated when death was deemed ‘a thoroughly Dadaist business, in that it signifies nothing at all.’

Dada succeeded because it dismantled. Responding to the catastrophe brought by technological development in the war, machinery lost its functionality and became monstrous. The art sought to represent the futility Dadaists saw in life: Man Ray’s The Gift was an iron with spikes, while Raoul Hausmann’s Rationalization is on the March! assembled the human form out of different mechanical objects to comment ironically on the impact of industrialisation.

Innovation was at Dada’s core. Scorning the unnatural pretence of oil-paints – life ‘squeezed out of tubes’- the artists used ready-made materials: newspaper clippings, photographs, ink-printed lettering. Richard Huelsenbeck, a fellow Dadaist chronicling the movement in 1920, explained the reasoning in En Evant Dada: conventional art forms, used by the German Expressionists, were seen as a bourgeois phenomenon: ‘abstract, pathetic gestures which presuppose a comfortable life free from content or strife.’ Art made the Dada way became relevant because it participated in life itself; its materials gleaned from mundane activity, it was totally universal. and

Hannah Höch’s photomontage work Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919) mastered this new technique: in it, an effusion of photographs and text tumble like gore from a wound, assaulting the viewer. Excessive and non-sensical, the chaos was a culmination of the war. Yet through it, art was also being democratised: Hans (Jean) Arp’s According to the Laws of Chance came with instructions for DIY – cut clippings out of newspaper, let them fall, and paste them where they did. What began as anti-war revolted too against the imposition of art culture practices by the European intellectual elite – in its buying, selling, and production.

But then Dada expanded beyond its art, morphing as it did into a political rather than an aesthetic revolution. Berlin Dada was vigorously political, with John Heartfield and George Grosz returning to Germany to start subsume smaller anarchist groups, begin the Der Dada publication, and even form its own party – a kind of German Bolshevism. Joining in the savage satire of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), Weimar regime. Ironically, by the time of the First International Dada Fair, a subverted art exhibition, the movement had accepted its position in the mainstream renounced art completely.

It had doubled back and consumed itself: by 1920 Huelsenbeck would declare Dada to be dead. The factionalism that was tearing the group apart was only to be expected of a group founded on a total distrust of unity. But the floodgates had already been opened. Max Ernst’s Murdering Collage of the same year, with its fusion of metal and human limb, was the nascent beginnings of anti-war surrealism; the effects of which would ricochet through the 20th century.

And Dada could never really die – emancipated from the confines of ‘Movement’, the Dadaist is flexible and unexpectedly immortalised. Its capital was in its democracy: it was acceptable that no one could pin Dada down or define it, so long as everyone could join in, utter a cry themselves into the void of war and violence. Flaring out, Dada was only a palliative solution – but, inspired by disgust, it was the only one possible.

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