Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery through May 27
“Dada was an anti-art movement. They rejected the past and wanted to create something entirely new, using different tools.”
—Joseph Mella, director of Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Gallery
by John Pitcher
Shortly after 7 a.m. on the morning of February 21, 1916, German forces in France unleashed hell on earth. It was the beginning of the Battle of Verdun, a conflict intended to “bleed France white.” German artillery fired off more than two million shells in the opening bombardment, turning the French countryside into a broiling volcano. Inevitably, this relentless assault became a protracted stalemate. In the end, nearly 800,000 soldiers were injured or killed.
Some 240 miles away, in the safety of neutral Switzerland, a motley collection of artists, writers, musicians, monocled dandies, and draft dodgers read reports of the carnage with disgust and dismay. A handful of these creative types soon began meeting at a Zurich nightspot called Cabaret Voltaire. Calling themselves Dadaists, they began creating a body of absurdist, irrational works that rejected all European tradition, which they saw as brutal and corrupt. From these nonsensical improvisations sprang one of the most influential avant-garde movements in the history of art.
To celebrate the centenary of this pivotal movement, Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery is mounting an ambitious exhibit called The Dada Effect: An Anti-Aesthetic and Its Influence. Produced in collaboration with Vanderbilt’s W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire Studies at the Jean and Alexander Heard Library and the Vanderbilt Department of Theatre, this wide-ranging show will feature first-edition books and journals, most of them signed by the authors. There will also be artworks by such noted Dadaists and Surrealists as Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, and Salvador Dalí, and period films by Jean Cocteau and Man Ray.
Visitors to the exhibit will feel as if they’ve entered the Dadaists’ world, since the Theatre Department has recreated the Cabaret Voltaire, complete with a likeness of the German writer Hugo Ball in cubist costume. There will also be recreations of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s Surrealist dresses, providing Nashvillians with intriguing insights into the extraordinary influence Dada has had on 20th-century fashion.
The exhibition will include an important multi-media component. Touch screen monitors will be available, llowing visitors to peruse illustrated editions by René Magritte, Jean Cocteau, and Man Ray, among many others. Wi-Fi will also be available to play Dadaist and Surrealist music.
“It was very important to us to have an interactive show,” curator Daniel C. Ridge tells Nashville Arts Magazine. “When kids go to a children’s museum, they get to interact with the exhibits. When adults go to MoMA, on the other hand, they stand quietly with their arms to their sides. We wanted people to interact with the Dada exhibit, and we felt the best way to do that would be intellectually through the technology.”
In a curious way, the Dadaists themselves were fascinated with machines and technology. During the First World War, German military leaders described their tactics as “Materialschlacht,” that is, “battle of equipment.” The Dadaists believed the Germans had it backwards. “The war is based on a crass error,” the writer Hugo Ball wrote in his diary in 1915. “Men have been mistaken for machines.”
The proto-Dadaist Marcel Duchamp had already caught on to this notion. His artwork often depicted humans as machines. Other Dadaists expressed the dehumanization of the contemporary world through pseudodiagrams, draftsman-like designs filled with dials, wheels, and pulleys. Francis Picabia’s Decouverte Dada, ca. 1918, an ink wash and collage on paper displayed in the exhibit’s first section, seems to have been drawn with a compass. It even includes a nonsensical mathematical formula: DADA = DADA.
There is some disagreement about the origin of that delightfully silly word “Dada.” The German artist Richard Huelsenbeck claimed that he and Hugo Ball first came across the word in a French-German dictionary. They soon discovered it meant different things in different languages—“yes, yes” in Romanian, “rocking horse” in French. It suggested foolish naiveté in German. The Romanian artist Tristan Tzara also claimed authorship of the word, which he used on posters and the first Dada journal.
There is no disagreement about Dada’s aesthetic. “Dada was an anti-art movement,” says Joseph Mella, director of Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Gallery. “They rejected the past and wanted to create something entirely new, using different tools.”
This movement, though, had its shortcomings. Dada was crystal clear about its proscriptions, about the things art should never be. But it was philosophically incapable of offering prescriptions. Not surprisingly, by the mid 1920s the movement had been supplanted by Surrealism.
“The Dadaists were mostly interested in breaking eggs,” says Ridge. “The Surrealists came along and started making omelets.”
Dada’s star may have faded quickly, but its light never vanished completely. Its irreverent, iconoclastic approach to art influenced everything that came after it, from abstract and conceptual art to performance, pop, and installation art. Just try to imagine one of John Cage’s and Merce Cunningham’s “Happenings” without the precedent of the Cabaret Voltaire.
Vanderbilt’s exhibition devotes considerable space to Dada’s wide-ranging influences. The show features an amazing section on Surrealism. Two striking works on loan from Purchase College include Yves Tanguy’s Lune Obscure, an oil on canvas “depicting a strange alien landscape,” and Max Ernst’s Untitled, a collage and crayon on paper that appears to show cartoonish, mechanical figures in an embrace. The show lavishes attention on Salvador Dalí, with several of his Divine Comedy illustrations. As a bonus, Fisk University has supplied some of Carl Van Vechten’s fabulous art photos of Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray.
In recent years, Nashville has emerged as a fashion hot spot, so it is fascinating to see the exhibition’s section on fashion and the avant-garde. Vanderbilt’s Department of Theatre has recreated some of designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s dresses. Schiaparelli designed “Woman’s Evening Coat” (1937) with Jean Cocteau and “Woman’s Dinner Dress” (1937) with Salvador Dalí. Both dresses blur the line between art and function.
The French have a saying about Dada, namely that “Dada explained the First World War better than the First World War explained Dada.” Perhaps for that reason, Dada’s reach extended far beyond even the Second World War. The Vanderbilt exhibit examines some of Dada’s descendants. These include Les Pataphysique, an arts movement that approached science with the seriousness of a Marx Brothers comedy, and neo-Dadaism, which Vanderbilt examines through the works of such creative icons as John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg.
The Dada Effect: An Anti-Aesthetic and Its Influence runs through May 27 at Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, located in Cohen Memorial Hall, 1220 21st Avenue South. Professor Robert Barsky will present a lecture on Dada’s influence on the Beat Generation at 5:30 p.m. April 4 at Cohen Memorial Hall, Room 203. For more information, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/gallery.