For art that was about noth­ing, Dada was re­ally some­thing

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY NI­COLE LEE book­world@wash­ Lee is a writer based in New York

If you’re look­ing for a sin­gle def­i­ni­tion of the anti-art move­ment known as Dada, you won’t find it — try as you might — in Jed Ra­sula’s ex­cel­lent and com­pre­hen­sive nar­ra­tive bi­og­ra­phy, “De­struc­tion Was My Beatrice.”

What you will find, how­ever, is a se­ries of procla­ma­tions by the artists in­volved about what they think Dada is, or should be. “Dada is for­ever the en­emy of that com­fort­able Sun­day Art which is sup­posed to up­lift man by re­mind­ing him of agree­able mo­ments,” wrote one artist. “The Dadaist loves the ex­tra­or­di­nary and the ab­surd. He knows that life as­serts it­self in con­tra­dic­tions,” wrote another. “The true dadaists are against DADA,” pro­claimed a third.

It was in its con­tra­dic­tions and com­pli­ca­tions that the spirit of Dada thrived. The slip­pery term takes its en­to­mo­log­i­cal ori­gin from “yes, yes” in Ro­ma­nian, “hob­by­horse” in French and the tail of a sa­cred cow for a par­tic­u­lar African tribe. This ob­scure but rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment saw the birth of new artis­tic cre­ations such as lan­guage-less po­etry that adopted “sym­me­tries and rhythms”; ready-made works such as Mar­cel Duchamp’s “Foun­tain,” made from a porce­lain uri­nal; and cabarets that cel­e­brated “both buf­foon­ery and a re­quiem mass.”

Ra­sula ex­am­ines Dada from its “vir­gin mi­crobe,” be­gin­ning with its Zurich ori­gins in a cabaret in 1916 and then vault­ing along to Amer­ica, where a par­al­lel, though at the time un­rec­og­nized, move­ment was sparked by a cou­ple of enig­matic French­men, in­clud­ing the mag­netic Duchamp. Through ex­cerpts and anec­dotes from the artists’ di­aries, art jour­nals, per­for­mances and art­works, Ra­sula de­tails the thoughts, wor­ries, pas­sions and sex­ual es­capades of artists whose larger than-per­son­al­i­ties drove the move­ment that sput­tered through cities as var­ied as Ber­lin, Paris and Tokyo.

Ra­sula also pep­pers his nar­ra­tive with ref­er­ences to other artists who have butted up against Dadaism, such as the Marx Broth­ers, Char­lie Chap­lin, Ru­dolf La­ban, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, as well more con­tem­po­rary fig­ures such as Yoko Ono, David Bowie and the brains be­hind Monty Python. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to be able to trace back the seed of most mod­ern art, in­clud­ing pho­tomon­tage and graphic de­sign.

But, as An­dré Gide once said, “The day the word Dada was found, there was noth­ing more left to do.” And so, even though the energy of Dada proper ends af­ter roughly 200 pages, Ra­sula goes on to sto­ically ex­am­ine its in­flu­ence as it fights for sur­vival against the more con­sis­tent move­ments of con­struc­tivism and sur­re­al­ism.

The book’s many char­ac­ters pop in and out of the story, some­times con­fus­ingly, but for the most part, Ra­sula han­dles his deeply re­searched ma­te­rial flu­idly. He har­nesses many fine de­tails and puts them in a larger con­text. The re­sult is a book that ul­ti­mately hu­man­izes what might seem like a sense­less and an­tag­o­nis­tic pe­riod of art history.

“Dada be­longs to ev­ery­body. Like the idea of God or of the tooth­brush,” said Tris­tan Tzara, one of the founders of the Zurich cabaret. And ac­cord­ing to Ra­sula, in­deed it does.

By Jed Ra­sula Ba­sic. 365 pp. $29.99 DE­STRUC­TION WAS MY BEATRICE Dada and the Un­mak­ing of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury

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