Ninety-two years ago, a Serbian nationalist assassinated the archduke who was heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and started the first world war. A couple of years later, in 1916, two Zurich poets named Hugo Ball and Richard Hulsenbeck wanted a name for the raucous, sarcastic anti-art antics they had in mind for their nightclub, the Cafe Voltaire. They wanted something short and snappy, something that would convey their utter revulsion with the bourgeois rationalism and military pigheadedness--once the major powers turned on their war machines, they couldn't turn them off--that had led to the carnage in which all Europe was steeped. Out of a French-German dictionary popped a slang term forhobbyhorse: dada. Perfect.
Last week, on the heels of the vice president of the United States' shooting his hunting buddy in an opera buffa accident right out of "The Pickwick Papers," "Dada"--a somewhat prim retrospective of modern art's wackiest movement--opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (It runs through May 14.) Coincidence? A dadaist wouldn't think so: this movement reveled in the ironies of chance.
Dada was the first avant-garde style to "brand" itself immediately by means of its own art, magazines, theater festivals and music. Max Ernst wrote an almost trademarkable slogan, dadamax, on his collages, and a trend-hopping composer put out sheet music for a "dada fox trot" in 1920. From Zurich, the movement --spread mainly to five other cities. In Berlin--by 1918 a starving metropolis filled with crippled veterans and street-fighting political armies--the movement took the form of enraged, but oddly beautiful, drawings and paintings of militarists and whores by George Grosz and Otto Dix. In Cologne, Ernst (who later became a surrealist) was the main man. At a big dada show held in a Cologne pub, viewers had dirty poems recited to them as they passed by the restroom urinals on their way to see the artwork; a hatchet attached to an Ernst sculpture encouraged... well, audience participation. Hanover dada was a one-man operation of Kurt Schwitters, who made gorgeous assemblages out of gutter scraps, proclaiming, "One can even shout with refuse." In Paris the accent fell, of course, on debunking revered masterpieces. Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on a poster of the "Mona Lisa" and captioned it l.h.o.o.q., meaning--when sounded out in French--something a little more explicit than "she has hot pants."
Dada even reached New York. Duchamp, there for a short stay, caused a furor by submitting a urinal to an art show whose rules said anything would be accepted. His "Fountain" was rejected as mere plumbing, prompting Duchamp to remark, "That is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges." Duchamp's photographer pal Man Ray put in his two cents in a letter to the Romanian dadaist Tristan Tzara: "Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is Dada, and will not tolerate a rival." But only eight years after its founding, dada died when a new group, the surrealists, decided it was time to put the shards of modern art together again with the glue of the Freudian subconscious.
"Dada" is a smallish show for a major museum production (450 pieces, but most of them memorabilia-size), and some of the work--for example, Duchamp's deadpan "ready-mades" and Hannah Hoch's inchoate collages--look less subversive and a lot more cozy here than they must have when they assaulted conventional sensibilities long ago. It's hard for us to imagine the horrific thrills that dada's new techniques (stop-action film animation, photomontage, spinning spirals) gave audiences back in the day. (It's also hard for us to imagine a war in which 600,000 men died in a battle over a few hundred yards of trenches, and cavalry horses wore gas masks.) But "Dada" is informative and elegantly staged, with galleries coherently organized by city. Lathering such decorum over the ultimate art rebellion can, however, be taken a bit too far. A press release notifies us that during the course of the show the "National Gallery offers a Central European-inspired menu in Cafe Dada" on the terrace. Max, baby, where's that hatchet?