If you’re looking for a single definition of the anti-art movement known as Dada, you won’t find it — try as you might — in Jed Rasula’s excellent and comprehensive narrative biography, “Destruction Was My Beatrice.”
What you will find, however, is a series of proclamations by the artists involved about what they think Dada is, or should be. “Dada is forever the enemy of that comfortable Sunday Art which is supposed to uplift man by reminding him of agreeable moments,” wrote one artist. “The Dadaist loves the extraordinary and the absurd. He knows that life asserts itself in contradictions,” wrote another. “The true dadaists are against DADA,” proclaimed a third.
It was in its contradictions and complications that the spirit of Dada thrived. The slippery term takes its entomological origin from “yes, yes” in Romanian, “hobbyhorse” in French and the tail of a sacred cow for a particular African tribe. This obscure but revolutionary movement saw the birth of new artistic creations such as languageless poetry that adopted “symmetries and rhythms”; ready-made works such as Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” made from a porcelain urinal; and cabarets that celebrated “both buffoonery and a requiem mass.”
Rasula examines Dada from its “virgin microbe,” beginning with its Zurich origins in a cabaret in 1916 and then vaulting along to America, where a parallel, though at the time unrecognized, movement was sparked by a couple of enigmatic Frenchmen, including the magnetic Duchamp. Through excerpts and anecdotes from the artists’ diaries, art journals, performances and artworks, Rasula details the thoughts, worries, passions and sexual escapades of artists whose larger-than-life personalities drove the movement that sputtered through cities as varied as Berlin, Paris and Tokyo.
Rasula also peppers his narrative with references to other artists who have butted up against Dadaism, such as the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolf Laban, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, as well more contemporary figures such as Yoko Ono, David Bowie and the brains behind Monty Python. It’s fascinating to be able to trace back the seed of most modern art, including photomontage and graphic design.
But, as André Gide once said, “The day the word Dada was found, there was nothing more left to do.” And so, even though the energy of Dada proper ends after roughly 200 pages, Rasula goes on to stoically examine its influence as it fights for survival against the more consistent movements of constructivism and surrealism.
The book’s many characters pop in and out of the story, sometimes confusingly, but for the most part, Rasula handles his deeply researched material fluidly. He harnesses many fine details and puts them in a larger context. The result is a book that ultimately humanizes what might seem like a senseless and antagonistic period of art history.
“Dada belongs to everybody. Like the idea of God or of the toothbrush,” said Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the Zurich cabaret. And according to Rasula, indeed it does.
Lee is a writer based in New York
By Jed Rasula
Basic. 365 pp. $29.99