‘The Dadaistic person is the radical opponent of exploitation; the logic of exploitation creates nothing but fools, and the Dadaistic person hates stupidity and loves nonsense! Thus, the Dadaistic person shows himself to be truly real, as opposed to the stinking hypocrisy of the patriarch and to the capitalist perishing in his armchair. ‘
Picture yourself on a hot summer night in Berlin in 1920. The air crackles with unease and unrest – it is only three months since right-wing nationalists occupied the city as part of an attempted coup against the newly formed Weimar Republic; four months since the anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-Marxist manifesto of the newly named National Socialist German Workers Party was announced by its chief of propaganda Adolf Hitler. Despite the turmoil, Berlin is also on the brink of becoming Europe’s largest city (thanks to the October 1920 Berlin Act, which expanded the city’s boundaries) and its most vibrant cultural metropolis. At night, the city offers the heady thrill of danger and desire – neon-lit streets packed with revellers, sex-workers, androgynous ‘New Women’ with cropped hair, war-wounded veterans, and beggars. You join the throng, eager to experience the radical culture and art – or is it anti-art? – dazzling the capitals of Europe.
You head south of the Tiergarten, to the smart Lützow Quarter along the leafy banks of the Landwehr Canal. This area is fast becoming known for galleries displaying the most exciting and innovative modern art – Picasso, Kandinsky, and Braque at Alfred Flechteim’s gallery, Expressionists and Bauhaus artists at Ferdinand Möller’s. You find the address listed on the invitation: 13 Lutzow-Ufer, the gallery of Dr Otto Burchard. You are surprised that this small and unassuming building could hold the shockingly anarchic artwork you’ve heard so much about. Looking down at the invitation, you wonder what awaits you… DADA-MESSE – Dada-Fair, of course, but it also conjures up suggestions of Dada-Mess and Dada-Mass. What on earth is Dada anyway!?
Determined to find out, you step inside and pay the entrance fee – a whole three marks thirty, more than the amount on invitation! The walls of the foyer are packed with an eclectic mix of sketches, photomontages, and even puppets. On three large posters, you notice the faces of the organisers: Propagandada Marschall G [George] Grosz, Dadasophen Raoul Hausmann, and Monteurdada John Heartfield – the Dada holy trinity? Perhaps all will become clear in the second room…
Ach! The second room is even more chaotic – an utterly overwhelming visual assault. Dada slogans leap out from the walls of the gallery in bold block typography: Take DADA Seriously, it’s worth it; Dilettantes! Rise up against art!; DADA is political; I can live without eating and drinking, but not without DADA. You thought this was supposed to be an exhibition, so what are these advertising posters doing next to the artwork?
Looking up, you’re startled by the Prussian Archangel, a mannequin of a military officer with a pig’s head instead of a face. Suspended from the ceiling, it’s both shocking and amusing – a macabre laugh in the face of World War I’s shattering destruction. There are words printed on a card fastened around his torso, words you recognise from a Christmas carol: I come from heaven; from heaven on high’. Another card hangs from his body, this one displaying more prosaic words: ‘In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with heavily packed knapsack in full marching gear on the Tempelhof Field.’ Along with the mannequin’s name – Prussian Archangel – the words set up a link between German militarism, nationalism and the Church: this angel brings no salvation, but rather devastation and destruction.
Soldiers feature prominently in another eye-catching piece on the wall below: Otto Dix’s War Cripples (45% Fit for Work!), which shows veterans maimed and disfigured, like those dejected figures that haunt the Berlin streets begging for change. Their broken bodies, grotesquely distorted to disturbing effect and decked out in uniform, take part in an absurd military parade that mocks displays of nationalism. The second section of the painting’s title – (45% Fit for Work!) – is a grimly satirical reference to the way that state benefits were allocated depending on the level of disability.
One of the most striking works is a large piece of viciously satirical photomontage with an equally intriguing name: Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany by Hannah Höch. There are so many different elements to the piece, it forces you to pause and spend time taking it in. In the ‘anti-dada’ section, top right, the president of the Weimar Republic is placed alongside Kaiser Wilhelm II and General von Hindenberg (symbols of the disastrous war). The Expressionist Kathe Köllwitz is speared through the head, in a playful sign of defiance against art’s old guard. Cut with the Kitchen Knife reads as a visual manifesto for Dada – a specifically woman-oriented manifesto. The kitchen knife of the title evokes the domestic, turning a feminine-coded realm into a site of subversion; Höch’s own face floats at the bottom left (as if a visual signature) alongside a map of women’s suffrage in Europe; as opposed to the bloated male statesmen (representatives of Germany’s ‘beer belly’ political culture), the women in the piece are active, with dancing dynamic bodies characteristic of the New Woman. For Höch, Dada seems to offer a liberation from stultifying and corrupt bourgeois culture and the gender roles it encompassed.
Raoul Hausmann’s photomontage Art Critic strikes a similar tone to Höch’s work. The critic’s flabby, oversized head is made comical by the addition of childish scribbled mouth and blank, unseeing eyes. A 50-mark banknote sticks out from the back of his head like the key of a wind-up doll; the elegant society woman floating next to him reinforces the impression of the art critic’s bourgeois concerns. Behind the critic, nonsensical words in large print mimic his thoughts and opinions: overinflated, self-important, but meaningless. Hausmann has placed an oversized pen in his hand, which he grasps like a spear, perhaps ready to strike down any artist who strays from tradition.
Another large and peculiar work grabs your attention: Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama: Germany’s Greatness and Decline at the Hands of Schoolmaster Hagendorf, or The Fantastic Life of the Superdada by Johannes Baader. It’s a bizarre assemblage of random objects: you spot a mousetrap, a toy train, a gearwheel, a stovepipe, and a mannequin with a moustache.
You probably remember Baader’s name from the newspapers – he’s recently gained a level of notoriety from outrageous public performances in which he parodies rituals of Church and state, for example ‘Christ is you sausage’ at Berlin cathedral. He also ran for office in the Reichstag as a leader of The Central Council of Dada for the World Revolution and carried out ‘DADA against Weimar’ protests outside government meetings.
Thinking about Baader’s antics, you look closer at this tower of bric-a-brac and print. The newspapers date from the war years, with headlines boasting of victories; their presence is a reminder of the way the press descended into propaganda and war-mongering. Baader makes physical the ‘war press’s mountain of lies’ that Huelsenbeck decried in a 1918 essay. The tower could almost be created from the aftermath of an explosion, an assortment of shrapnel that forms a fragile and ephemeral memorial to an incomprehensible and illogical event.
As you come to the end of the fair, you’re still not sure exactly what Dada is, or, indeed, if anyone knows! However, you think you’ve got a better idea of why artists would want to make this sort of art. The work you’ve seen – collages, photomontage, assemblages, posters, and even the puppets – speaks to you about the chaos and sheer absurdity of death on an unimaginable scale, collapsing political systems, a skyrocketing cost of living and nationalist bluster. These Dadaists have brought art down from its pedestal and made it part of everyday life; they’ve seized it from – and turned it against – elite cultural institutions that propped up the corrupt old-world order.
From a twenty-first century vantage point, other things jump out: for one, the lack of women represented at the Fair, bar Höch. Höch herself was only included due to the insistence of her partner Hausmann, and she was notably left out of a list of artists whose work would be shipped to New York for an exhibition organised by the Societe Anoynme. For all the Dadaists’ aims to distance themselves from machismo militarism, their group was largely a boy’s club that reflected the hierarchies of wider society.
What’s more, the Fair’s claim to be ‘International’ is far from accurate. All of the artists involved were European and the anger they felt about abuses of power and state-sanctioned brutalities was limited to Europe – the ongoing atrocities of colonialism did not concern them. As with so many other early twentieth century avant-garde movements, Dada artists looked to non-Western cultures for inspiration, drawing from forms and styles of African, Asian, Oceanic, and Polynesian art. Yet in appropriating so-called ‘primitive’ art, they reinforced conceptions of the ‘Other’ as exotic, uncivilised, dangerous. They did not see the makers of this art as fellow artists and they certainly did not credit them as such. Höch’s work, in particular, appropriates images in a way that perpetuates racist stereotypes. By referencing and recycling images from the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, she keys in to a disturbing colonial legacy of racial dominance and racist faux-science.
Take Dada Seriously (It’s Worth It?) aims to challenge Dada, to critique its violent appropriation of non-Western art forms and the extent Dada artists perpetuated sexist, racist, imperialist imagery and ideology. This project explores how we can harness Dada’s radical energy in a way that amplifies a wide range of voices and perspectives; it asks how we can re-radicalise Dada’s avant-garde strategies whilst holding to account its deep-rooted flaws, failings and harmful practices. The project has opened up a space for such conversations through our digital platform, collaborations with contemporary artists, workshops and a series of multidisciplinary Dada salons. Find out more about how you can add your voice to the project here.
Tour guide: Lottie Whalen