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War, modern media, and machine culture critiqued in World War I’s immediate aftermath

DaDa, one of the most important 20th century art movements, was born out of the Café Voltaire in Switzerland, 1917. Artists, performers, writers, and poets staged wild shows often erupting in chaos, and “planned irreverence” to protest the culture of war and rationality. Tristan Tzar used his media savvy to make it an international enterprise, spreading it to Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, New York, Paris, and Zurich in the years until 1924.

The artists were responding to World War I, the media, and machine culture by critiquing modernity itself. Using strategies of art-making that included abstraction as a response to contempary life, chance procedures, collage, photomontage, ready-mades, performance, photography, printed matter, and sound, a creative revolution was born. DaDa—the real beginning of Pop Art—rebelled against the academic hierarchies that were smothering the world in which its practitioners lived.

“DaDa” is the first major museum exhibition in the United States to focus exclusively on this avant-garde movement. Among the 50 artists included in this show are Hans (Jean) Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Raol Hausmann, John Heartfield, Hanna Hoch, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Hans Richter, Kurt Schwitters, Sophie Taeuber, and Tzar. The exhibit organizers—Leah Dickerman, Laurent le Bon, Anne Umland, and Adrian Sudhalter—also incorporated many unfamiliar artists, including Christian Schad and John Covert, and many women artists such as Taeuber and Anglika Hoerle that seemed pushed aside while the big guys got all the fame.

All the works are grouped according to geography, so the differences as well as the similarities can be seen in the art-making. Several films are included, including Hans Richter’s and Reimer Kuntze’s “Vormittags­spink,” 1927-28, which through angled shots, distortions, and extreme close-ups creates an unsettling subversion on person-object relationships and critiques traditional values. Duchamp’s ready-mades such as “Fountain” (1917), a white porcelain urinal that marked a watershed moment in art history and artist intention is featured, as well as the beauty and simplicity of Arp’s wood constructions, which are based on nature and geometry. Books, posters, and paintings lead visitors through the exhibition, giving a total embrace of this global cultural phenomenon.

Because social hierarchies were being challenged, there is a transgressive, gender-bending thread that runs through DaDaist works, beginning with Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy and his infamous mustache on the Mona Lisa, “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919). The embrace of text, typeface, and methods of mechanical reproduction become important means in expressing social unrest—as in the work of Man Ray and Francis Picabia.

This show is of historical importance because it bears witness to the power and influence of a group consciousness that fought the system. The movement changed our ideas and vision about art forever.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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