Learning the Unruly ABCs of Dada

C is for...
Collage, Clippings and Chaos

Dada did not invent collage as an artistic medium. The credit for that belongs to the cubists, who had begun to build pictures from cut-up paper a few years earlier.

But where the cubists had used collage to depict the world around them -- wallpaper to render wallpaper, a newspaper headline to suggest a newspaper in a still-life scene -- many dada artists, especially in Berlin, used it in a more radical mode. Their collages (or photomontages, as they preferred to say) simply piled up the printed flotsam of their age, without wanting it to depict any scene at all.

Dada collages were more like scrapbook pages onto which all the troubles of the modern world had been encouraged to settle. They lay in a peculiar unexplored no-man's land between realism and abstraction.

Think of the new illustrated newspapers of the day, with their agglomerations of unrelated stories, varied type sizes and fonts, photographs and prints and advertising imagery. Now imagine that initial chaos run through the mill of a chaotic dada imagination. The result is true absurdity, though it's merely amplifying absurdities already out there.

And now, maybe equally absurdly, we've given magazines, scissors and glue to our schoolkids, turning dada's subversive invention into our favorite form of child's play. Dada's montage artists must be rolling in their graves -- and laughing out loud.

- Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer


© 2006 The Washington Post Company