November 1987 – January 1988

1987 marks the centennial of the birth of Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Kurt Schwitters–three of the most renowned participants in the Dada movement which flourished from 1916 to 1923. Dada was founded in Zurich by a group of young artists and writers who sought in neutral Switzerland a refuge from the war which had engulfed the rest of Europe. In February 1916 they founded the Cabaret Voltaire, and some two months later the name “Dada” was chosen for the movement which grew out of the cabaret’s activities. No one knows for certain how the name was chosen, but the most popular story is that the word (French for “hobby-horse”) was picked at random from a dictionary. The cabaret evenings, prototypes for Dada performances throughout Europe, presented the art, drama, and poetry of the Futurists and Expressionists along with the often chaotic, often whimsical creations of the Zurich Dadaists themselves. Although these early performances were seldom overtly political, from the outset the movement was dedicated to attacking the cultural institutions and values which its members believed had led to the world war. The tools for this attack, radical for the time, are familiar to us now as the most basic concepts of the modern arts: chance, collage, abstraction, audience confrontation, eclectic typography, simultaneity, and disruptions of linguistic convention. After the war, Dada spread to all parts of Europe, taking root especially in Paris and Berlin.

Of all the members of this cosmopolitan group, none better typified the European plight than the Alsatian Hans Arp. Born in a province which had passed back and forth between France and Germany, Arp grew up speaking and writing both languages fluently. Even Arp’s first name (he used both “Jean” and “Hans”) expressed the ambiguity of his nationality, an ambivalence which could be tolerated in neither of the warring nations. Arp’s answer to the insanity of war was to explore the operations of chance both in his poetry and in his visual art. Chance was to be an antidote for the arrogant rationality which, he felt, epitomized European civilization.

Like most of the Dadaists, for whom the boundaries separating the different arts were as problematic as the boundaries separating nations, Arp was active both-as a writer and a visual artist. Besides creating his own poetry and visual works, he collaborated with the other Dadaists by illustrating their publications. After the war, Arp spent a few more years in Switzerland, followed by a brief sojourn in Cologne, where together with the German artists Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld he founded a short-lived branch of Dada. For the rest of his life, spent chiefly in France and Switzerland, Arp continued to paint, sculpt, and write poetry in French and German. From his initial experiments with random visual shapes grew the abstract, rounded, “organic” forms which typified his work from the early twenties until his death in 1966.

Marcel Duchamp first achieved fame not in his native France, but in America, where his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2” was the rage of the Armory Show, the 1913 New York exhibition which had introduced modern art to America. Duchamp’s “Nude,” combining elements of Cubism and Futurism, came as a total shock to a public which was unfamiliar with artistic trends in Europe during the previous decades. When Duchamp first arrived in America in 1915, still virtually unknown in France, he found that his 1912 painting epitomized modern art for the American public. He became the star of an artistic circle which shared many notions remarkably similar to those of the Zurich Dadaists. Duchamp’s most characteristically Dada gestures involved chance and found objects. He was fascinated with the everyday, mass-produced objects which had only recently come to dominate the human environment in Western Europe and America: he was particularly interested in their implications for the activities of the artist. Beginning around 1913, Duchamp had been selecting such objects and displaying them as works of art. These “readymades,” as he named them, called into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about the nature of artistic activity, and forced the viewer to face in a radical way the question, “What is art?” Duchamp’s most notorious readymade–and perhaps the most famous artistic gesture of the twentieth century–was a urinal which he inverted, entitled “Fountain,” and submitted to an exhibition under the alias “R. Mutt.”

In 1919 Duchamp returned to France, where he was enthusiastically championed by members of the thriving Paris branch of Dada. From that time until his death in 1968 he moved between Paris and New York, eventually taking U.S. citizenship. ostensibly giving up art in the early twenties, Duchamp became the prototype for the modern “conceptual” artist. He wrote a series of inscrutable, punning aphorisms, became an expert chess player, took on a number of alter egos, and engaged in a series of gestures designed to radically re-examine the role of the artist in society–all while secretly working on his final art work, an “environment” piece whose existence was revealed only after his death.

Kurt Schwitters was born in the provincial German city of Hanover. Around 1919 he began experimenting with the collage techniques for which he became famous. Like Duchamp’s readymades, Schwitters’ collages used the everyday objects of contemporary civilization–train tickets, string, newspaper fragments, wire, and so on–but unlike Duchamp, whose artistic gesture consisted in redefining an object by selecting it for display and renaming it, Schwitters spent hours cutting, pasting, and combining his found objects into totally new compositions. One of his earliest collages included the isolated syllable “Merz” cut from the name of a local bank. Soon Schwitters had adopted this syllable as an all-purpose term for his visual and literary works, for his artistic style, as the title of a magazine which he published from 1923 to 1932, and, when he was in effect blackballed by the Berlin Dadaists, as the name of a one-man avant-garde movement based in Hanover. Schwitters’ methods included many of the devices exploited by other Dadaists; besides his collage techniques, he is known for his experimental typography, his visual and sound poetry, and his innovative approach to publishing. During the Nazi era, Schwitters spent several years in exile in Norway; when the Germans occupied that country, he fled to Great Britain, where he died in 1948.