Our Art Belongs to Dada

A mind-bending exhibition proves why today's art owes so much to the gang with a silly name, twisted sense of humor, and passion for creative anarchy. Martin Filler finds the modern method to their madness.

One of Sigmund Freud's great insights was his recognition of how we unconsciously use jokes to express harsh truths we're too inhibited to confront head-on. It is also a key to the enigma of Dada, one of the most misunderstood yet influential of all modern art movements. During Dada's brief heyday in the years following World War I, the loose confederation of iconoclastic European and American artists and writers associated with it came across as little more than a bunch of publicity-savvy pranksters. It wasn't all fun and games, though, and the Dadaists' serious high jinks ultimately changed the way art is defined, made, and perceived.

The enduring contributions of this short-lived group are on full display in "Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris," the first comprehensive overview of the movement seen in the United States in decades. After opening at the Pompidou Center in Paris—where it was the succès fou of the fall season—a smaller but still potent version of the show is now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through May 14. Its last stop will be New York's Museum of Modern Art this summer.

Subversive, inclusive, and uneven, Dada never fit neatly into the well-worn narrative of modern art's orderly evolution that has long been advanced by MoMA. Yet, without Dada's precedent it is hard to imagine many later breakthroughs in 20th-century art—some in MoMA's own collection. Robert Rauschenberg's ever-startling "Combines" of the fifties and sixties came straight out of Dada, with the same bizarre but somehow beautiful juxtapositions of found objects and blithe disregard for traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture. Andy Warhol's brilliant appropriations from the celebrity-industrial complex went far beyond Dada's prescient fascination with advertising and mass media. Present-day art provocateurs such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, and Kiki Smith continue to draw from the Dada playbook.

Dada began as an impassioned response to a world gone mad. Amid the horror of the Great War, an international group of pacifist draft-dodging painters, poets, and performers took refuge in Switzerland and made sober Zurich the unlikely birthplace of a new avant-garde. They saw nationalism as the root evil tearing apart Europe and believed that an international brotherhood of artists opposing destructive jingoism could lead the way to a better future.

High-minded as their goal was, these artists shared a radical, sometimes lowbrow, notion of how to achieve it. Art shouldn't concern itself with ideal beauty, they agreed, but should heighten human awareness of the real by any means possible. As the dramatist Hugo Ball and the cabaret singer Emmy Hennings (Dada's Adam and Eve) put it, "We want to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, confuse."

They and their network of collaborators found infinite ways to do all that. Marcel Duchamp gave a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa a moustache, cocking a snoot at that overrated icon and outing her latent androgyny while mocking the preciousness of "original" art in the bargain. Hans Richter used the burgeoning medium of film to make some of the first abstract movies. And Kurt Schwitters recited nonsensical "sound poems" that reduced old ladies and generals to spontaneous tears of joy.

Dada's goofy name—French baby talk for "hobby horse," as well as Romanian for "yes, yes"—was picked at random from a dictionary. Its best self-definition was written by the poet Tristan Tzara: "Dada doute de tout/Dada est tatou/Tout est Dada/Méfiez-vous de Dada" ("Dada doubts everything/Dada is an armadillo/Everything is Dada, too/Beware of Dada"). That playfully contradictory combination of irrational and logical gets right to the heart of the Dada spirit. Have fun but think for yourself, Tzara warns, for no movement, even ours, should be followed blindly.

Tzara had a good point, especially if you try to penetrate the pretentious, mind-numbing manifestos the Dadaists felt compelled to churn out, like every other avant-garde group at the time. Dada was about action, not philosophizing, and among its numerous progeny is performance art. In January, a 77-year-old French performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli thrust the current Dada exhibition into the headlines by vandalizing one of the works at the Pompidou. Wielding a hammer, Pinoncelli attacked the seminal sculpture that Duchamp first created in 1917 when he took a white porcelain urinal, turned it upside down, signed it "R. Mutt"—after the Mutt and Jeff comic strip—and slyly titled it Fountain. (Describing his action as "a wink to Dadaism," Pinoncelli chipped the piece slightly, but it was repaired; another version is being shown in Washington.)

With Fountain, Duchamp advanced several revolutionary ideas. By declaring an object of the lowliest function a sculpture, he made the case that anything can be art if an artist says it is. Because a readymade, as Duchamp called his found-object pieces, isn't actually fabricated by the artist, technical skill is no longer everything. Indeed it is nothing. The same goes for the artist's signature: If it no longer validates authenticity, you might just as well use the name of a cartoon character. And since this pissoir is indistinguishable from any number of others, it's essentially worthless—or should be: The damaged Duchamp was valued at $3.6 million. As the saying goes, It's the thought that counts.

The Fountain assailant was a repeat offender. In 1993 he urinated into it, a somewhat more imaginative performance than his latest effort. (This time he received a suspended three-month prison sentence and a $262,000 fine.) Few originals of Duchamp's readymades survived for long, but that didn't faze their creator. He simply got another bicycle wheel or snow shovel or bottle rack and—voilà!—the work was reborn. In fact, the defiled Fountain is one of many that Duchamp produced, irrelevant to experts who voted it the most influential work of modern art in a 2004 poll, edging out Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, arguably MoMA's holiest relic.

Although many now esteem Picasso the ultimate modern art maverick and mistake his friend Gertrude Stein as a Dadaist because of her quirky baby-talk prose, the movement dismissed both artist and writer as too bourgeois. In 1916 the American Dada collector Walter Arensberg wrote of Duchamp, "Marcel dislikes the element of taste...in the writings of...Gertrude Stein...also in work of Picasso."

Picasso too tasteful? Come to think of it, his cerebral, monochrome Cubist compositions (contemporary with the birth of Dada) now seem the dutiful labors of an aspiring modern old master. Yet, much in this vibrant Dada survey—principally organized by the National Gallery's admirable Leah Dickerman—exudes such unruly energy that it's the art equivalent of Ezra Pound's perfect definition of literature as "news that stays news." Some of the artworks might have been made yesterday: Indian Trepanning, a 1920 biomorphic wall assemblage by Christian Schad (not a recent piece by Elizabeth Murray), Chariot, a boldly striped watercolor, done around 1922–23 by Francis Picabia (not by Daniel Buren), and Obstruction, a voluptuous cascade of clothes hangers from 1920 by Man Ray (not by Droog Design).

Other things in the show feel timeless in a different way, above all Max Ernst's disturbing waking-dream/nightmare tableaux, which emanate from somewhere deep within the untamable lizard brain of a species not so civilized as we like to pretend. The works foreshadow the Surrealism that Ernst, Man Ray, and other Dadaists would soon become closely identified with. By the mid-twenties Dada had petered out, though several of its central concepts—especially incongruity and the power of the unconscious—were adopted by the Surrealists and exploited even further. Dada's legacy is so pervasive, it's almost taken for granted. But these 90-year-old creations still have the power to titillate, disgust, and shame us, no small accomplishment in a world where the wildest hallucinations of the past century haunt us as uncanny predictions of our present one.


DADA'S DRAMATIS PERSONAE

No early modern art movement featured a more colorful cast of characters than Dada, which was also more international in scope and hospitable to women than most other avant-garde groups. Here are some memorable Dadaists—from kingpins to muses—whose creative activities varied greatly, though they all shared the credo that life could be a work of art in itself.

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) Now deemed the Big Daddy of Dada, Duchamp, not Picasso, might have been the Artist of the 20th Century. Although he ostensibly gave up art for chess, he worked in secret for 20 years on his last masterwork, the semipornographic installation piece Etant donnés, which was revealed only after his death.

Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) This German baron's widow became a Dada mascot in New York, where she made a few creditable artworks herself and starred in Duchamp and Man Ray's film The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair. Obsessed with Duchamp, she suffered mental illness, dying tragically in Paris.

Hannah Hoch (1889–1978) Her biting political photomontages are less famous than those of her Berlin Dada colleague John Heartfield, but Höch was a social critic of the first order and a lesbian typifying the liberated "new woman" of the wide-open Weimar Republic. Surviving everything, she worked to the last in a Berlin suburb.

Man Ray (1890–1976) Né Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky, this master of multiple mediums was a spark plug of American Dada but, convinced that "all New York is dada and will not tolerate a rival," he fled to Paris. There he found his true calling in photography, producing his abstract "Rayographs" without using a camera.

Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) A Dada leader in Hannover, Germany, he's best known for his incomparable collages of found objects, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera. Nothing topped his Merzbau (a.k.a. The Cathedral of Erotic Misery), transforming his home into a grottolike environment encrusted with the detritus of bourgeois life. Alas, it was lost in World War II.

Sophie Taeuber (1889–1943) With her future husband, Hans Arp, she was part of the original Dada circle in Zurich and one of its only Swiss members. Teaching textile design by day and performing modern dance at the group's Cabaret Voltaire by night, she also made costumes for a Dada marionette play dealing with psychoanalysis. Ach du lieber!


DUCHAMPIAN CHAMPION

Is the market for Dada so rarefied because the movement was so brief? Because it discouraged precious artifacts? Or because many of its creations were ephemeral? The Dadaesque answer: Yes, no, maybe, all of the above. If you want to collect in this limited field, you'd do well to start with Francis Naumann, the foremost scholar on Marcel Duchamp and, since 2001, a Dada dealer.

Naumann has been gaga for Dada since he and his identical twin, Otto—a top-tier specialist in Dutch old masters (their galleries are in the same Manhattan townhouse)— were teenagers. "Because we both loved art," Francis recalls, "our mother got us a subscription to Time/Life art books. When the Duchamp volume came, I took one look at the Bicycle Wheel and said, 'Holy s——, this is art!' My life never was the same again." A few years later he blew $45 on his first Duchamp, a 1945 cover design for Vu magazine. "It was a lot for me," he says, "but back then anyone could buy anything by Duchamp."

In the seventies the artist's Bôite en valise—a boxed multiple with miniature replicas of his most famous pieces—sold for less than $5,000. Naumann is now offering the one pictured here for $145,000. He also has a rare toy by Duchamp for $45,000 and a unique replica of a 1923 sculpture that Man Ray made in 1963, titled Indestructible Object. "The notion that works could just be re-created," Naumann notes, "points to the Dada belief in the preeminence of the idea over the object."
Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 22 E. 80th St., New York; 212-472-6800; www.francisnaumann.com.