The Colossus of Dada

Arthur Cravan
Arthur Cravan remains an elusive figure. A tireless self-promoter he caused a scandal and generated legends wherever he landed up and as he led a wandering peripatetic existence this meant he was infamous on both sides of the Atlantic. However what is not in doubt is that his exploits were an inspiration to the Dada movements in Europe and New York, leading to his canonisation by the Surrealists.

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland he had fond memories of his uncle, Oscar Wilde, ‘I adored him because he resembled a huge beast’ (he later perpetuated a hoax in his self-published magazine Maintenant in 1913 that he had recently had met up with Wilde, that was taken up by The New York Times; Wilde had been dead for over a decade). He was expelled from an English boarding school for spanking his teacher, certainly not the last of his anarchic provocations. He travelled throughout Europe on documents and passports he had forged himself and could convincingly pass himself off as German, French, English or Swiss depending on the locale. While in Paris he give an announcement that he would hold a talk which would culminate in his suicide. When the hall filled up in expectation he then accursed the spectators of vulgar voyeurism and proceeded to bore them with a lecture on entropy instead. Proud of his imposing physique (he was 6’4) and his boxing prowess he managed to become the French Heavyweight Champion without winning a single fight and would later go on to fight the World Champion Jack Johnson in the Canary Islands. He lasted a respectable six rounds although Johnson later noted in his autobiography that Cravan seemed out of training.

Dodging the draft he went to New York, where through the agency of Francis Picarbia, his partner-in-crime from his Barcelona days he fraternized with the future Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and would meet his future wife Mina Loy, who nick-named him Colossus. While in New York Cravan also indulged his taste for provocation; upon giving a lecture on humour he turned up dead drunk and proceeded to strip while berating the crowd, the police were promptly called and he was dragged off to the cells.

To once again  avoid military service Cravan and Loy went to Mexico where they were married. As I  wrote in my previous post  Surrealist Women: Mina Loy, Cravan set off in his small sailing boat never to be seen again, leading to all sorts of rumours and reported sightings, further sealing the legend of the anarchic poet-boxer provocateur.

44 thoughts on “The Colossus of Dada

      1. I am not sure I believe it either…but in the case of someone like Arthur Cravan who liked to create his own mythology I have gone with the old saying…if it is a choice between the myth or the reality, print the myth

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  1. Wonderful, informative and well written post. Cravan was a bit of a madman. I personally like the idea that he staged his own death. Especially because he had changed his identify multiple times in the past, and he lived for the performance. Wishing you well. ~ Mia

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    1. As I said in my post on his Mrs. Mina Loy my favourite theory though it can’t possibly be true is that he became the reclusive anarchist novelist B. Traven, the elusive showman turns into somebody whose very identity is a cipher. I am glad you enjoyed and thank you for your comments and continued support.

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  2. Excellent follow up to the Mina Loy post. What an interesting character. As I am fascinated by the idea of faking my own death and disappearing, I hope that is what Cravan did and that he went on to live an outrageous and happy life somewhere amongst people who appreciated and understood him. Now, I’m off to find a sailboat…

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  3. I LOVE the bait and switch suicide/entropy lecture. LOL. How did he become the champion without winning a fight?? How does that make any sense, lol. What a guy. Too bad he disappeared. It’s hard to hope he faked it because that means he abandoned his wife and child but hard to think he died also. Thanks for the lesson, Professor Cake! I want a man I can nickname Colossus! Sounds fun. πŸ˜‰

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    1. Craven does seem like a fun guy, always getting into bother and causing mayhem. I think he just declared himself a contender for the French title and somehow flukes his way to the title which led to the fight against Joe Jackson. He really seems to have been one of those people that the whole ‘if you want it you will get it’ schtick worked for. And the bait and switch is great, though imagine how disappointed you would feel if you attended. And the ability to appear to be either French/Swiss or German to the locals. As you can see he is a bit of a hero to me.

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      1. Honestly- if you were going somewhere in hopes of watching someone kill himself, you deserve the disappointment! That horrifies me! But yeah, he seems like the person you really want as a friend. He could, no doubt, get into any club/bar/venue he wanted. And at 6’4″ no one is messing with him.

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      2. Craven had a nihilistic verve, and of course you do deserve disappointment if you go to view a suicide. But it was packed out which tells you something. The great thing about the artists from this period is they ability to cause riots, that just doesn’t happen these days. And yes nobody messed with the heavyweight champ of the Dada-Verse.

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      3. I know! A packed venue is so disgusting but not all that surprising. I’m laughing that you love their ability to cause riots. Lol. πŸ˜›

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      4. It’s just the non English. I’m not sophisticated. Lol. I know- I wish it were artists starting riots instead of assholes.

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