Best Bets

Dear Old Dada, Making a Rare Appearance

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Marcel Duchamp's upside-down, store-bought urinal -- which he presented in 1917 as a work of art titled "Fountain" -- is the one truly famous work of art to come out of dada, the movement that most profoundly shook up the art world during and after World War I. Dada rejected all the givens of European art -- beauty, order, craftsmanship, individual authorship, legible subject matter, sellable objects -- in favor of letting chance, collaboration and simple anarchic naughtiness determine an artist's objects and actions. Even the movement's name is essentially a nonsense word, supposedly chosen at random from a French-German dictionary.

Dada's always been presented in textbooks as a kind of minor stream of mainstream modern art. In recent decades, the dada "attitude" has had more traction than ever; it has had a huge effect on contemporary art. What hasn't been in evidence has been much of the actual work the movement turned out in its heyday.

On Feb. 19, the National Gallery launches a massive, landmark exhibition that gives the first full survey of dada's artistic output, as well as the piles of ephemera the movement left behind.

It should be news to everyone who sees it: It turns out there's much more there than toilet humor.

* * *

You've almost certainly seen "Great Wave off Kanagawa," the woodblock print produced in the early 1830s by the great Japanese artist Hokusai. It's been on shower curtains, beach towels, dinner plates, T-shirts -- anywhere a colorful, graphic image of some fishermen on the way to getting swamped could make the least drop of sense. Hokusai might not have been surprised at the way his image has drifted into our pop culture: Most of Japan's woodblock prints were once meant as low-end things, somewhere on the level of rock posters or Franklin Mint figurines.

More "serious" artmaking in 19th-century Japan was one-of-a-kind work, done with a brush and paint or ink on paper or silk. Starting March 4, an exhibition at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery will give us a rare chance to see Hokusai's little-known work as a painter. (The Freer Gallery of Art, the Sackler's neighbor and sister institution, will be contributing its unrivaled Hokusai holdings.) The exhibition should be as overwhelming as Hokusai's "Wave" -- which will be in the show as well.

* * *

Hiroshi Sugimoto is one of the most interesting photographers around.

The Japanese artist, now based in New York, has made some gorgeous images: black-and-white pictures of the ocean, printed mostly in contemplative grays; interior photos of America's great picture palaces, exposed over a full two hours by the light reflected from the movie being screened.

He's also made pictures that are less obviously about how great they look: eerily crisp "portraits" of waxworks of famous people (Emperor Hirohito, Henry VIII, Vladimir Lenin); strange "nature" shots of the stuffed animals and fake trees in museum dioramas. This perfect balance between good looks and complex subject matter gives Sugimoto's photos that much more substance. The first full survey of his art will open in Washington on Feb. 16 at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company