D is for Dada

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

The National Gallery of Art is launching one of the most impressive, significant exhibitions in its history. Here are some suggestions for its proper appreciation:

· Visit wearing pink pajamas, combat boots and your grandmother's bra. (Only men should wear the bra. Women might try their great-uncle's underpants.)

· In front of every seventh picture in the show, make a point of thinking about the abuse images from Abu Ghraib.

· In front of every 13th picture, tell yourself not to think about those images.

· Have a friend take you through the exhibition with your eyes closed. Try to imagine the art, based only on what other visitors are saying.

* * *

Whatever you do, don't go through this important show with the devout aesthetic attitude you might use in looking at Rembrandt or Cezanne. The exhibition is devoted to dada, the most radical, irreverent, rule-breaking movement in the history of Western art. What makes a great work of dada as significant as any Cezanne or Rembrandt is how profoundly different it is from them.

Dada didn't last long, though it managed to spread its tentacles halfway around the world. The movement -- named for a nonsense word plucked from a dictionary -- was hatched in Zurich during World War I, about 1916, by assorted draft dodgers, pacifists and rebel artists. Their art was a roar let out against the war's absurdities and the wickedness that so-called reason had wrought. By 1924 or so, when dada more or less collapsed, the movement had spread to Berlin, Cologne and Hanover, then to New York, and had its final blossoming in postwar Paris.

National Gallery curator Leah Dickerman has used dada's six capital cities as a framework for the show's 447 works. The exhibition's six sections show that during its half-dozen or so years of life, the movement pretty much perfected every major strand of what now counts as radical art.

Dickerman's Zurich rooms include abstract work made by Alsatian draft dodger Hans Arp, who could pare down a picture to a grid of almost uniform gray squares, or let its composition depend entirely on chance, with scraps of paper dropped onto a surface then glued down where they fell. Sophie Taeuber, a Swiss native, gives us some of modern art's first works of abstract sculpture, close kin to the minimalist objects celebrated 50 years later in the United States.

The exhibition also highlights, and in part reconstructs, an absurdly early work of installation art, in which Kurt Schwitters covered the inside of his Hanover house with a mess of wild plaster-and-wood forms as well as bits and bobs of junk. That installation is filled with the noise of Schwitters himself intoning orotund nonsense poetry -- just one of several pioneering works of sound art the show presents.

There's aggressively political collage, a particular specialty of Berlin dadaists John Heartfield and Raoul Hausmann, in which they rendered their disgust with the status quo by slicing and dicing its depiction in the mass-market press. Their colleague Hannah Hoch gives her collage a full-blown feminist edge, pulling together all the cliched images of women then in circulation and holding them up to ridicule.

Max Ernst, working in Cologne, made works that commented on the new mass media, as did many other dadaists around the globe. Dada artists began with the barrage of images and texts that news and advertising had begun to launch at modern man. Then they warped and reconfigured them to capture the disjointedness modernity had brought.

In New York, thriving capital of commerce, Marcel Duchamp and company perfected the "ready-made" -- made famous by Duchamp's urinal "fountain" -- in which an artist essentially goes shopping, then presents his finds as art. (In a book of essays written for the show, art historian Helen Molesworth provides a wonderful account of New York dada and the modern urge to shop.)

* * *

Finally, peppered across the show's six cities is ephemeral documentation, in posters and handbills and snapshots, of the crucial role performance and performers played in dada art -- performers such as Emmy Hennings, who had made a living as a streetwalker and cabaret artiste (when she wasn't doing time for forging draft dodgers' papers) before contributing to Zurich dada's wild round of dances, songs and stage displays. Her art, like almost all the art of dada, was more about a gesture of rage and rebellion than it was about objects such a gesture might happen to leave behind.

The true spirit of the movement resides in its gestures and attitudes. That's why we've prepared a little dada ABC.

It's childish, arbitrary and outmoded. Just as Duchamp would have liked.

Now, take off Grandma's bra, and learn the unruly ABCs of dada.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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