- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

The National Gallery of Art’s “Dada” — the 1916-1924 international protest movement against World War I’s horrors — throws visitors into multiple “chambers of horrors,” in which both victorious and defeated pig-like men snarf and snarl. Pig-snouted men and comparatively imbecilic-looking ones dominate much of the show, starting with the gas-masked soldiers of the exhibit’s first shocking film and continuing with the simulated suspended pigheaded officer-puppet by Berliners John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter (“Prussian Archangel”).

The war’s disabled are made horrific in Berliner Otto Dix’s “Card-Playing War Cripples” and George Grosz’s “Blood Is the Best Sauce,” one of his most gut-wrenching drawings. Near the exhibit’s end, Francis Picabia declared in Paris that his portraits of “modern personalities,” as the valuable exhibition brochure puts it, resemble “repetitive, senseless machinery.”

What’s more, Marcel Duchamp vehemently upset traditional art with his “readymades” — machine-made objects he called “art” — and altering a print of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic “Mona Lisa” by adding a moustache, goatee and vulgar lettering.

The exhibit is organized by Paris’ Centre Pompidou and the National Gallery in cooperation with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit, in 450 films, photographs, collages, paintings, sculptures and constructions by 50 artists, is the first to survey this often maligned movement.

Dada is often called the juvenile stepchild of the surrealist movement that pre-empted it in 1924, but it’s never before been fully surveyed. Even so, it’s still difficult to get a handle on it.

Co-curator Leah Dickerman, the National Gallery’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, says “it’s the most influential of all avant-garde movements and one of the least understood.”

Not since Hieronymus Bosch’s and Francisco Goya’s horrific renderings of human depravity has there been such an attack — and a collective one at that — on man’s baser nature. As Bosch and Goya in their times, dadaists were the “bad boys” of early 20th-century Europe.

But the dadaists of the six main “dada cities” — Zurich, Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, New York and Paris — used 20th-century, machine-age tools. Shock, humor, satire, nonsense, absurdity and chance were their outrageous and brazen instruments as they probe the psyche. Among their more nonsensical manifestos was “art is dead,” “dada triumphs” and Tristan Tzara’s “The beginnings of dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust.”

Miss Dickerman aims to show dada artists’ connections in these cities. The Alsatian Hans Arp first worked in Zurich, then Hannover with the collagist Kurt Schwitters. Raoul Hausmann began the movement in Zurich, then transported it to Berlin. First working in Zurich, the poet Tristan Tzara wanted to make dada international. Both Mr. Picabia and Mr. Duchamp brought a later kind of dada to New York and Paris.

Some images, of course, linger more than others. For example: Mr. Arp’s innovative use of collage and chance in “Untitled (Collage With Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance)” (1916-1917) and his companion Sophie Taeuber’s brightly painted “Freudian Analysis” (1918).

As visitors climb to the second level’s “Berlin” section, they look at Heartfield’s and Schlichter’s “Prussian Archangel” from below and its satiric spoof on a German Christmas carol.

Mr. Dix’s and Mr. Grosz’s distorted men and women are the show’s images most successful in castigating the war, but Georg Scholz’s “Farmer Picture” expresses even more fury after Scholz’s begging for, and rejection of, food for himself and his family. The father, mother and severed-headed child are grotesque expressions of his hatred.

As the war subsided — and artists such as Max Ernst, Man Ray, Mr. Picabia and Mr. Duchamp removed themselves geographically and psychologically from dada’s beginnings — the exhibit, also, winds down. The figures and their art shown here, though somewhat dry, unalterably influenced the cubism, surrealism, painting, sculptures, happenings and installation art that followed.

A much larger version of the exhibit with 1,700 objects — organized within a chessboard framework — opened at the Centre Pompidou in October. The exhibit was designed around dada movements, rather than cities as in Washington, but visitors to the Parisian exhibit say it was more mazelike and somewhat confusing.

It attracted 377,000, however, so put on your running shoes for a sprint to the National Gallery of Art.

WHAT: “Dada”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through May 14.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

ONLINE: www.nga.gov

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