With Dada it is hard to know where the humour ends and the mystification begins. This is certainly the case with one of its most notorious succès de scandale, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917.
Fountain is a ready-made sculpture, a porcelain urinal signed by R.Mutt. It was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition at the inaugural show in The Grand Central Palace, New York. The committee, of whom Duchamp was a member, decided to ‘suppress’ Fountain by hiding it behind a partition, as the rules of the society meant that any artwork presented by a fee-paying artist had to be accepted. After the show Duchamp retrieved Fountain from its hiding place, got Alfred Stieglitz of the 291 gallery to photograph the sculpture, which was then published with accompanying essays in The Blind Man magazine. Shortly after the original Fountain was lost (probably thrown out into the garbage, a fate of a many a ready-made as the peripatetic Duchamp liked to travel light), though in the 1950’s and 1960’s Duchamp made a number of reproductions that can be seen in museums across the world.
Part of the text in The Blind Man in defense of Fountain would arguably have a greater impact on Modernist and Post-Modernist aesthetic theory than the actual work.
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
After half of century of Conceptual Art we are wearily familiar with this view and lose sight of how genuinely revolutionary such a concept would have been in 1917. It also shows how little art and aesthetics have progressed since the high water marks of Modernism. I have never really been sure if Duchamp’s assault on art and taste was anything more than an elaborate piss-take, but by God nobody, not even Warhol, has ever done it better.
Francis Picabia constantly perplexes and undermines artistic expectations. A wealthy, hedonistic playboy with great personal charm, Picabia also possessed a notoriously acerbic wit and personified the savage negation at the heart of Dada.
Picabia’s career spanned many movements across continents, but is best remembered for his involvement with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Arthur Craven in the creation of New York Dada and his mechanomorphic drawings from 1915 onwards. Always on the move and with entry to every fashionable social circle, Picabia moved to Barcelona then to Zurich for the remainder of WWI. Asked to describe his impressions of the War, Picabia remarked that he was bored to hell. After WWI he moved back to Paris and participated in further Dada shenanigans with Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton, contributing ferocious manifestos for Dada events which he watched from private boxes with the mistress of the time.
With a nature both aristocratic and anarchic, Picabia rapidly lost patience with the various groups and movements and would denounce Dada and later Surrealism. From 1925 he returned to painting with a vengeance after a ten year hiatus, working on the Transparencies series which involved multiple images confusingly superimposed. Then in the forties came the nudes copied from girlie mags; astonishingly unaesthetic, these paintings are so appalling that you cannot stop looking and in a certain respect represent the culmination of Picabia’s anti-art stance.
Dada Cannibalistic Manifesto
You are all indicted, stand up! It is impossible to talk to you unless you are standing up. Stand up as you would for the Marseillaise or God Save the King.
Stand up, as if the Flag were before you. Or as if you were in the presence of Dada, which signifies Life, and which accuses you of loving everything out of snobbery if only it is expensive enough.
One dies a hero’s death or an idiot’s death – which comes to the same thing. The only word that has more than a day-to-day value is the word Death. You love death – the death of others.
Kill them! Let them die! Only money does not die; it only goes away for a little while.
That is God! That is someone to respect: someone you can take seriously! Money is the prie-Dieu of entire families. Money for ever! Long live money! The man who has money is a man of honour.
Honour can be bought and sold like the arse. The arse, the arse, represents life like potato-chips, and all you who are serious-minded will smell worse than cow’s shit.
Dada alone does not smell: it is nothing, nothing, nothing. It is like your hopes: nothing like your paradise: nothing like your idols: nothing like your heroes: nothing like your artists: nothing like your religions: nothing.
Hiss, shout, kick my teeth in, so what? I shall still tell you that you are half-wits. In three months my friends and I will be selling you our pictures for a few francs.
In 1937 the reigning National Socialist party held an exhibition of Degenerate Art (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst) in the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten Munich, featuring Modernist, Expressionist, Dada and New Objectivity work by Grosz, Nolde, Klee, Ernst, Schwitters and others considered decadent by the regime. It was a huge success attracting over a million visitors in its first six weeks before going on tour nationally. Considerably less successful was the concurrent exhibition of Great German Art (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung) of approved Nazi art that was meant to serve as a contrast and counterpoint to the Degenerate Art. Even Hitler and Goebbels, failed artist and novelist respectively, thought the works on display at the Great German Art Exhibition were weak, however puerility has never got in the way of good propaganda and it allowed Hitler to rail against cultural disintegration and declare war on the ‘chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers‘ of Modernism.
It was a war that the Nazi’s were bound to lose. The art produced by the various Modernists school in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic is rightly venerated while the work of the official artists with their banal landscapes and monumental sculptures of a blandly idealised male form never rises above the level of monstrous kitsch (with the exception in the field of architecture; Albrecht Speer definitely possessed talent, but then architecture is in a certain sense fascistic, as a walk around Rome shows).
In a good illustration of Orson Welles quote in The Third Man about the chaotic warring Italian city states that produced Michelango, Da Vinci and the Renaissance, in contrast to Switzerland with its 500 year history of peace and brotherly love that has only given the world the cuckoo clock, the art of the Weimar Republic possesses its strength because of the decadence of the period, not in spite of. The calamitous defeat of Germany in WWI and the heavy reparations demanded by France and Britain, plus the use of right wing Freikorps by the Socialist government to suppress the Spartacist uprising ( see “Everyman His Own Football”) meant that Weimar Republic was unloved by both right and left. Added to the political turmoil was mass unemployment and the staggering hyper-inflation that led to frenzied consumption in the cafes, cabarets, bars and cinemas as the money in your pocket was being reduced in value by the minute. Factor in the war wounded beggars and prostitutes of both sexes lining the streets that must have resulted in the fevered, nightmarish atmosphere of a society in the midst of collapse, yet paradoxically yielding a exhilarating sense of dangerous freedom, especially sexually. Berlin attracted thrill seekers from outside of Germany who could visit one of the city’s 500 erotic venues, some of which catered exclusively to homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites and aficionados of BDSM (including the young Francis Bacon).
The main currents of art in the Weimar Republic were Expressionism, Dada and the New Objectivity. Expressionism would have a major, lasting influence on graphic design and film. Many of the artists and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany ended up working in Hollywood where they would have an immeasurable impact upon the development of the horror and film noir genres
Below are just a few examples of the art of Weimar Republic, concentrating on the bold, innovative woodcuts of the outstanding Kathe Kollwitz; the chilling New Objectivity portraits of Otto Dix and the unsurpassed satirical savagery of George Grosz’s Ecco Homo series, as well as stills from two highly influential German Expressionist movies, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Weine The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Berlin was the most decadent city of the 20th Century, as it had two periods of decadence, the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s and 30’s and then the late 70’s in West Berlin, however that is a whole other story.
In 1922 Rene Crevel told his friend and mentor Andre Breton about a visit he had made to a Spiritualist seance. It was the time of the mouvementflou, the increasingly nihilistic Dada had negated itself out of existence and Surrealism was yet to come into being. Breton was intrigued and arranged an event with his friends. The results were startling; and this was the beginning of the Period of the Sleeping Fits. Crevel and Robert Desnos were particularly susceptible to falling into the trance state and answering questions that was put to them by the group, sometimes with unnerving effect. Each day they would spend longer in a trance, Desnos even had the ability to write while asleep. Both Crevel and Desnos began to rapidly lose weight and Desnos became convinced that he was possessed by Rrose Selavy, Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, even though he had never met Duchamp. Events began to spiral out of control and the experiment with trance states was abandoned completely when Crevel led a group suicide attempt.
Desnos loved to sleep (most photographs show him asleep) and his poetry vividly evokes that universal yet nebulous state Below is his 1926 poem SleepSpaces, translation by Mary Ann Caws.
In the night there are naturally the seven marvels of the world and greatness and the tragic and enchantment.
Confusedly, forests mingle with legendary creatures hidden in the thickets.
You are there.
In the night there is the nightwalker’s step and the murderer’s and the policeman’s and the streetlight and the ragman’s lantern.
You are there.
In the night pass trains and ships and the mirage of countries where it is daylight. The last breaths of twilight and the first shivers of dawn.
You are there.
A tune on the piano, a cry.
A door slams,
And not just beings and things and material noises.
But still myself chasing myself or going on beyond.
You are there, immolated one, you for whom I wait.
Sometimes strange figures are born at the instant of sleep and disappear.
When I close my eyes, phosphorescent blooms appear and fade and are reborn like carnal fireworks.
Unknown countries I traverse with creatures for company.
You are there most probably, oh beautiful discreet spy.
And the palpable soul of the reaches.
And the perfumes of the sky and the stars and the cock’s crow from two thousand years ago and the peacock’s scream in the parks aflame and kisses.
Handshakes sinister in a sickly light and axles screeching on hypnotic roads.
You are most probably there, whom I do not know, whom on the contrary I know.
But who, present in my dreams, insist on being sensed there without appearing.
You who remain out of reach in reality and in dream.
You who belong to me by my will to possess you in illusion but whose face approaches mine if my eyes are closed to dream as well as to reality.
You in spite of an easy rhetoric where the waves die on the beaches, where the crow flies in ruined factories, where wood rots cracking under a leaden sky.
You who are at the depths of my dreams, arousing my mind full of metamorphoses and leaving me your glove when I kiss your hand.
In the night there are stars and the tenebral motion of the sea, rivers, forests, towns, grass, the lungs of millions and millions of being.
In the night there are the marvels of the world.
In the night there are no guardian angels but there is sleep.
In the night you are there.
In the day also.
The poet, trail-blazing feminist and legendary gadfly of the avant-garde, Mina Loy, first collection of poetry was published in 1923 as Lunar Baedecker: the very title, a reference to the immensely popular Baedeker travel guides, was misspelled. Although admired by T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, among others, Loy disappeared somewhat from view until being posthumously resurrected in the 1990’s as a unjustly neglected pioneer of both Modernism and Feminism, when a number of critical editions and previously unpublished works, including her novel Insel, detailing her relationship with the Surrealist Richard Oelze, saw the light of day.
Below is the title poem of the collection (spelled correctly), which employs a jewelled, archaic and Symbolist vocabulary to successfully skewer the sterile affectations of the aesthetes and dandies of the art and literary worlds that she knew so well.
A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies
Peris in livery
for posthumous parvenues
with the chandelier souls
from Pharoah’s tombstones
to mercurial doomsdays
in furrowed phosphorous—
the eye-white sky-light
of lunar lusts
“Wing shows on Starway”
of ecstatic dust
and ashes whirl
from hallucinatory citadels
of shattered glass
into evacuate craters
A flock of dreams
browse on Necropolis
From the shores
of oval oceans
in the oxidized Orient
of Eros obsolete
in the museums of the moon
Pocked with personification
the fossil virgin of the skies
waxes and wanes—-
This Dadaist journal, published on February 15th 1919 and selling a remarkable 7,600 copies before being banned and confiscated by the police that very day, shows Berlin Dada and its most aggressively politicized and satirical. This is hardly surprising considering the atmosphere in Berlin; just weeks before the Spartacist uprising was brutally crushed by the majority socialist SPD government who sponsored the use of extreme right-wing para-military Freikorps to suppress the revolt, leading to the subsequent murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht whose bodies were unceremoniously dumped in the Landwehr canal.
The title is an exhortation to not allow yourself to be kicked around by others but to do it yourself (excellent advise as pertinent today as it was then). The cover shows the heads of leading SPD figures, including Minister of Defense Gustav Noske who had sanctioned the deployment of the Freikorps, arrayed around an open fan with the caption ‘Prize Competition: Who is the Prettiest?’
Everyman His Own Football is a rare example of the card carrying German Communist Party (KPD) faction Herzfelde-Heartfield-Grosz and the anarchist contingent of Johnnes Baader and Raoul Hausmann collaborating. The later strained relationship between the KPD and the Herzfelde-Heartfield-Grosz faction, marked by mutual misunderstanding and occasional contempt foreshadows the difficulties experienced between the Surrealists and the French Communist Party (PFC) in Paris in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.
A little known masterpiece of deadpan absurdity, What A Life! is a delightfully curiosity from 1911 by Edward Verrall Lucas and George Morrow. It has been called a proto-Dadaist satire and would influence Surrealist collage techniques. It was displayed at the landmark MOMA exhibition in New York of 1936 entitled ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism’.
The illustrations that the text are built around are taken entirely from the general catalogue of Whiteleys, a fashionable London department store of the time. Below is the entire work for those with a passion for obscure oddities
What a Life!
E. V. L. and G. M.
Illustrated by Whiteley’s
As adventures are to the adventurous, so is romance to the romantic. One man searching the pages of Whiteley’s General Catalogue will find only facts and prices; another will find what we think we have found — a deeply-moving human drama.
In Paris, the former members of Dada mainly gravitated to the Surrealist movement under the leadership of Andre Breton, including the German artist Max Ernst who had been active in Cologne Dada. For the Dadaists in Germany, however, the reality on the ground was much starker. Faced with the political and economic chaos of the Weimar Republic, notably the hyper-inflation that had resulted in the erosion of the middle class; rapid and unprecedented social changes and the unbridled excess and decadence of the cities, as well as a purely artistic reaction against the prevailing style of Expressionism in German art circles led to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Different interpretations of the New Objectivity can be found in the various regions of Germany, however it was the verists tendency predominant in Berlin who have shaped the popular conception of the Weimar Republic, notably Rudolf Schlichter, Christian Schad, Otto Dix and especially George Grosz (see also Eclipse of the Sun), all of whom were involved in the highly politicised Berlin Dada (see “Everyman His Own Football”).
Grosz’s early paintings, although painted in the manner of German Expressionism, possess a ferocity that is all together new, notably in 1916’s fevered and over-saturated Suicide and the hellish city-scape of The Funeral (Dedicated to Oscar Panizza) from 1917. After the war Grosz was one of the leading figures of Berlin Dada which was by far the angriest of all the various Dadas. A photograph from 1918 shows Grosz as Dada Death and with his friend John Heartfield he invented the technique of photo-montage. His engagement with Dada lent a sharpened satiric edge in his work of this period, including Panorama (Down with Liebknecht) from 1918 and the collage influenced Daum marries her pedantic automaton George in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it and Republican Automatons both from 1920.
The Verists emphasis on a new kind of clinical, detached portraiture suited Grosz’s style of savage caricature and enabled him to memorably lay bare the ugly and sordid metropolis of prostitutes, politicians and profiteers. Along with Eclipse of the Sun the 1926 painting Pillars of Society is one of Grosz’s most stinging critiques of the corruption inherent in the upper, ruling strata of society.
Grosz was also a brilliant draughtsman and his street scene drawings retain a compelling immediacy. His erotic work ranks amongst the finest of the century (I will post separately on this topic).
Grosz, a vehement critic of Hitler emigrated to America in 1933 when the National Socialists came to power. The New Objectivity was unsurprisingly declared ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazi regime. Grosz abandoned his previous subject matter after his move to America and his style softened considerably (with a few occasional exceptions) and in the process lost most of its brutal energy. He returned to Berlin in 1954 where he died in 1959.
In 1963 the Pasadena Art Museum held the first major retrospective of the works of arguably the most important artist of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp (see The Process of Perfection). Involved with (though never a full member of) Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, Duchamp’s readymades and dismissal of ‘retinal art’ was to have a profound influence on Conceptual Art and Pop Art.
At the opening Duchamp met the 20 year old writer Eve Babitz who had gate-crashed the event naked, an act of revenge against her married boyfriend Walter Hopps who had neglected to invite her to the party. The subsequent chess match was photographed by Julian Wasser, the chronicler of the West Coast art scene.
Duchamp was a serious chess player and after effectively retiring from art in 1923 devoted himself to the game, playing in the French Championships and writing a weekly chess column.
Eve Babitz was a seminal figure of 60′ and 70’s Hollywood, a West Coast counterpart to Edie Sedgwick. Her famous lovers include the Pop Artist Ed Ruscha and his brother Paul, Jim Morrison, Steve Martin and Harrison Ford. Her novels detailing the LA milieu include Eve’s Hollywood, L.A Woman and Slow Days, Fast Company are undergoing a resurgence of interest and are the basis of a TV series currently in production by Tristar Television.
Artworks including in the photograph are TheBride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and Chocolate Grinder.
After WWII the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, arch avant-gardist and art world provocateur was widely have believed to have turned his back on art to dedicate himself to competitive chess. However for the next twenty years Duchamp would work in secret on his tableau Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall 2 The Illuminating Gas), it was to be his final work. The tableau was only installed after Duchamp’s death in 1968 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It immediately caused a sensation. The tableau is only visible through two tiny peep holes which presents a mysterious scene whose meaning remains elusive. In the foreground against the painted sylvan landscape is a naked female (comprised of parchment, hair, glass, paint, cloths-pegs, and lights). Her head is hidden, all that is visible above the torso is strands of blonde hair. The posture of the body is extremely disturbing, the immediate impression is of violence against the supine figure. The model for most of the figure was Duchamp’s lover from 1946 to 1951, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. After meeting Martins Duchamp increasingly introduced the erotic into his previously cerebral art and he would obsessively draw her voluptuous figure. Duchamp’s second wife Alexina (Teeny) was the model for the arm. Duchamp consulted extensively with both women during the artistic process.
A work as opaque as Etant Donnes invites all manner of interpretations. For me several features are highly suggestive of alchemy and Hermeticism. The oil lamp could be alluding to the alchemical fire that accelerates the process of perfection in the Great Work. The headless women was a frequent symbol of Mother Nature in early cultures and her position could be taken as someone ready for either childbirth or sexual intercourse. If this is the case then the spring would refer to the womb where new life is formed and nourished. Is Etant Donnes an alchemical allegory on artistic creation?