- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

The National Gallery of Art’s “Dada” show (opening tomorrow and running through May 14) presents works of painting, sculpture, photography, film, collage and readymades drawn from the dada centers of Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York and Paris.

The organizers assert that the dadaists “challenged tradition” and changed art-making forever. All fine and good — were not this the kind of claim made so often during the last century that it is likely to elicit from today’s viewers little more than a polite yawn.

While the dadaists, indeed, may represent a crucial chapter of “the historical avant-garde,” why should this movement hold any special interest for Americans who are not historians of the time?

The dadaists, who flourished during World War I and the six years after it, arose simultaneously in Zurich and New York before establishing themselves in Paris and in Germany. They are perhaps best known for their aggressive manifestos, withering satiric photocollages and uproariously chaotic “evenings,” during which they performed absurdist poetry and song.

From the beginning, Americans generally had mixed feelings about European dadaism, and this attitude was held even by the avant-garde circle that gathered around Alfred Stieglitz’s extremely influential New York art gallery at 291 Broadway.

When Stieglitz’s good friend the American photographer Edward Steichen scouted out the art scene in France in the spring of 1920, he wrote back to Stieglitz in New York that dada was “the last word in modernism, as vapid and empty as international diplomacy but unlike the latter is frankly and openly an expression of contempt for the public.”

What particularly disturbed Mr. Steichen was “the hollow empty laugh” coming from a masochistic public willing to pay to be insulted.

The fortunes of dada in America have always been tied to those of the French-born Marcel Duchamp, a self-styled “an-artist” (neither an artist nor an anti-artist, as he liked to say) who became an American citizen in the 1950s. He first found fame with the showing of his “Nude Descending a Staircase” at the 1913 New York Armory Show. His fame — or infamy — only grew larger with his further provocations: “Fountain,” the men’s urinal he purchased at a hardware store and unsuccessfully tried to show as a readymade sculpture at the 1917 exhibition of the New York Society of Independent Artists, and the mustache and goatee he penciled on a reproduction of the “Mona Lisa.”

Visiting Paris in the summer of 1921 Mr. Duchamp wrote back to a friend in New York that the dadaists were a disappointment, explaining, “From afar, these things, these Movements are enhanced with a charm which they don’t have in close proximity.”

The Parisian dadaists wanted to claim Duchamp as one of theirs, but he remained a very American dadaist by never claiming to be a dadaist at all until after the movement had faded into history. When the Parisian dadaists asked him to exhibit with them, Mr. Duchamp sent them a terse cable that read simply “NOTHING DOING — DUCHAMP.” Asked later why he declined to participate, he replied, somewhat disingenuously, that he did not even know what dada was.

Mr. Duchamp does not explicitly say so, but what was lacking in European dada as he saw it was the spirit of gentle humor present everywhere in his work.

The literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote in an article that appeared in February 1922 in Vanity Fair that young Americans going to France were surprised to discover that Parisians were more interested in American popular culture than in their own European avant-garde. The young French, Mr. Wilson observed, wanted something with life and energy in it and looked at American movies, music and dance with fascination. To them, Mr. Wilson found, “our skyscrapers may be monstrous but they are at least manifestations of force; our entertainments may be vulgar but they are at least terrifically alive.”

Mr. Wilson concluded that the French, and the dadaists in particular, should be wary of the American influence. America’s modern marvels could not be imitated because they were unpremeditated and unself-conscious.

“The electric signs in Times Square,” he wrote, “make the Dadaists look timid; it is the masterpiece of Dadaism produced naturally by our race. Our monstrosities are at least created by people who know no better. But yours are like risque stories told by well-bred young girls to show off their sophistication; they sadden even the ribald; they make even the barbarian wince!”

Spectators who visit the dada show hoping to encounter the zany art of iconoclastic merry pranksters — Harpo Marx with a paint brush, so to speak — may well be disappointed. With the major exception of the work of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, the dada show sparkles with only glimpses of madcap humor while presenting roomfuls of high Teutonic seriousness masquerading as nonsense.

Yes, the collages of Kurt Schwitters are stunningly beautiful, and the imagery of Max Ernst is iconographically intriguing — but, as with so much of today’s avant-garde art, the ratio of self-conscious cleverness to humor in this exhibition is seriously out of balance.


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