4. Berlin Dada, 1917–22

Source: Oxford University Press

More so than in other cities, Berlin Dada was circumscribed by political events, as was already evident in Huelsenbeck’s ‘Der neue Mensch’ (Neue Jugend, 23 May 1917), which marked his return to the collapsing city. At the artistic Alte Café des Westerns, he met political writers and artists for whom Berlin Dada constituted an extension of their opposition to the status quo; they included Franz Jung (1888–1963), Gerhard Preiss, Heartfield and his brother Wieland Hertzfelde (1896–1988), and Grosz. They were joined by Walter Mehring, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch and the self-publicist Johannes Baader (1875–1955). Their disgust with the contemporary cultural situation was exposed in February 1918 in Huelsenbeck’s lecture on Dada at the Galerie I. B. Neumann, which initiated the Club Dada (12 April). There he called for an art ‘which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of the last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash’ (Dada Manifesto, Berlin, 1918). While reiterating his moral concerns, he rejected the ideals of abstraction and of Expressionism, which was rapidly passing into the establishment. Hausmann, who became his close collaborator, responded with experiments across different media. Most notable were his phonetic poems (e.g. ‘Selenautomobile’, Dada matinée, 6 June), which, by the pronunciation of single letters, extended the Zurich sound poems. The form’s abstraction was most evident in the printed ‘scores’, dubbed ‘optophonetic poems’, in which the force of each letter was indicated by its size. This was closely related to the mixed typography and overprinting of slogans that characterized Berlin Dada publications, such as Club Dada (1918).

The military defeat and the abdication of Emperor William II in 1918 brought the political crisis to a head and was followed by the brutal suppression of the communist-inspired Spartakist uprising (January 1919) by the Socialist Weimar government. The Dadaists responded in two publications in February: Baader’s manifesto Dadaisten gegen Weimar, and Jedermann sein eigner Fussball, published by Hertzfelde’s Malik Verlag. The former was simply anarchic, proclaiming Baader as President of the Earth, while the latter urged the renewal of the revolution and was immediately confiscated. Heartfield’s cover of Jedermann … was one of the earliest uses of the quintessential Berlin Dada medium of Photomontage. The collaging of photographs from the mass media allowed the artists to dissect reality through unexpected combinations with other images or with words, without retreating into realism. Heartfield and Grosz made photomontage a satirical weapon, throwing back the images issued by the establishment media, while Höch and Hausmann added comments on everyday culture (e.g. Hausmann’s Art Critic, 1920; London, Tate; for illustration see Hausmann, raoul). Assemblages of found objects, notably Hausmann’s Mechanical Head: Spirit of our Age (wooden hatmaker’s dummy with objects, 1919; Paris, Pompidou), also employed this technique. In both works the use of immediate and ephemeral materials ensured against commercial value.

The critical nature of this work meant that few German Dada periodicals survived confiscation, the exception being Hausmann’s Der Dada (1919–20), which included contributions from Picabia in its third number (April 1920, edited with Heartfield and Grosz). This reflected the heightened international activity of 1920. In February, Baader, Huelsenbeck and Hausmann undertook an increasingly riotous performance tour to Leipzig, Teplitz-Schönau, Prague and Karlsbad. In May, at the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe, paintings and drawings were combined with Dada posters, photomontages and assemblages, including a uniformed dummy with a pig’s head, for which Grosz and Heartfield were fined for ridiculing the military. The show was accompanied by the Dada Almanach (Berlin, 1920), edited by Huelsenbeck, which included contributions from Zurich, Barcelona and Paris Dada. That it included Tzara is remarkable, as Huelsenbeck bitterly attacked his ambitions in En avant Dada: Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus (Hannover, 1920). These events marked Berlin Dada’s culmination, as personal conflicts led to its fragmentation shortly after.

The celebration of Vladimir Tatlin in such works as Tatlin at Home (photomontage, 1920; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.) by Hausmann indicated the Dadaists’ continuing aspiration for a revolutionary art, which developed into an exchange with international Constructivism in the 1920s. Richter and Eggeling, who arrived in 1918 but did not participate in Berlin Dada, completed the abstract film Rhythmus 21 in 1921, the title indicating musical structures. In October Hausmann and Arp wrote ‘A Call for an Elementarist Art’ (De Stijl, iv/10, 1922) with the Suprematists Jean Pougny and László Moholy-Nagy, identifying an international art ‘built up of its own elements alone’. These issues exercised the Kongress Internationaler Fortschrittlicher Künstler in Düsseldorf in May 1922, from which Richter, Theo Van Doesburg and El Lissitzky split to form the International Faction of Constructivists. They became the nucleus for the Konstructivisten und Dadaisten Kongress in Weimar (September), which was attended by Tzara, Arp and Kurt Schwitters, and which inspired Richter’s periodical G (1923–4). In these exchanges the work of Arp, Richter, Hausmann and Schwitters maintained an unexpected balance between Dadaist chance and irony and Constructivist idealism.

Dawn Ades

From Grove Art Online

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