A Century Later, Dada Gets Its Due

Duke faculty member promotes major exhibit on the art form that came in response to World War I

In 1916, as war raged across Europe, a small band of political refugees launched an artistic revolution. These artists -- painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, playwrights and photographers - had been drawn together from their native countries by their shared outrage toward World War I. Attracted by Swiss neutrality, they formed a community in Zurich, where they set about shattering the traditions of art.

In a world turned upside down by war, some members of the Zurich group embraced art as an instrument for political change, even anarchy. Others just rejected the "rationality" of the modern world, arguing for absurdist or primitive approaches to the arts. All sought to break down the boundaries between art forms, mixing them in new, unexpected and sometimes shocking ways. They wanted to give their movement a name, one as radically different as their art.

Dorothea Dietrich, a visiting research scholar in Duke's Department of Art and Art History, recounts the legend of Dada's origin. "The story goes that when the members of the Zurich group set out to look for a name, they opened a French dictionary and selected a word at random. It was a child's nonsense word: dada."

Dietrich is devoting much of her time this year to Dada projects. She is a contributing essayist for the first-ever major exhibition to present Dada in all its forms, scheduled to open next fall at the Pompidou, in Paris. The exhibition will then travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Artists represented include some of the greatest figures of modernism: Jean Arp, George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.

Almost a century after its founding, Dada at last is getting its due in the art world.

Dietrich's exhibition essay surveys the Dada group that formed in Hanover, in northern Germany. That group's best-known representative is Schwitters, arguably the leading collage artist of the 20th century.

"Until 1916 or 1917, Schwitters was just a provincial artist, painting traditional landscapes, portraits and still-lives," Dietrich says. "Then, within a year or so, he discovered collage and adopted it as his primary means of making art."

While collage had long been popular for family albums and scrapbooks, it had always been dismissed as a mere craft. That changed in 1912, when Picasso and Georges Braque seized upon collage as a serious artistic tool. Within a few years, in the hands of Schwitters and others, it became one of the primary forms of Dada art.

"Collage appealed to the Dadaists because it allowed them to re-think painting and drawing in terms of bringing the everyday into the artwork itself," explains Dietrich. "They made collages from newspaper clippings, photographs, even string and throwaway wrappers and other fragments of reality."

Dada has exerted a lasting influence in the art world, says Dietrich.

"Dada art included many of the techniques and processes we associate with contemporary art," she says. "Performance, photomontage, multimedia and audience provocation all come directly from Dada's experimental techniques."

As much as Dada influenced and anticipated later art movements - Surrealism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Minimalism and others - its impact beyond the art world has been just as profound.

The Dadaist techniques of collage, typographical manipulation and photomontage, in particular, have long been standard devices of propaganda.

"Dada also set the direction for modern commercial advertising," says Dietrich. "Collage is a popular tool among graphic artists, web designers and filmmakers. There is hardly an area of artistic expression today that's not been influenced by Dada.

"This is the ultimate irony, of course," she adds. "You have Dada, created in opposition to governments, authority and capital. Yet here are their ideas, being exploited for persuasion and propaganda. This is often the fate of the avant-garde."

In addition to her work for the exhibition, Dietrich is participating in a second Dada-related project. She's one of several prominent art historians featured in "Random Acts of Beauty: The Story of Dada," a two-hour documentary film that tells the story of the movement in Europe and the U.S.

"The goal of the film is to educate and enlighten the public about this little-known, yet historically significant, artistic movement," says Byron Caplan, writer and producer of "Random Acts of Beauty."

Caplan, an assistant professor in the Department of Television-Radio at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., plans to have the documentary completed for a fall 2005 broadcast on PBS stations nationwide, to coincide with the opening of the Dada exhibition. He says the public's awareness of Dada is long overdue.

"So much of what was shocking and revolutionary back in 1916-1922 has since become part of the fabric of everyday life. Dada poets, artists and writers had a profound impact on 20th century aesthetic thinking. They left a cultural legacy that permeates all aspects of contemporary society. Yet the subject of Dada remains largely unexamined on film."

In addition to her work on these projects, Dietrich is writing a book examining the reaction of German artists to Nazism following the Second World War. "I'm very interested in these critical moments after wars," she says, "how artists forge new languages after moments of political trauma and transformation."

As a visiting associate professor in the spring and fall of 2004, Dietrich has taught undergraduate and graduate courses on 20th-century art in the context of historical, political and economic developments. The cross-cutting approach to art history fits well at Duke, she believes.

"I really do love the university's interdisciplinary approach to the study of art. After all, what's more interdisciplinary than Dada itself?"