When Dadaists did choose to represent the human form, it was often mutilated or made to look manufactured or mechanical. The multitude of severely crippled veterans and the growth of a prosthetics industry, says curator Leah Dickerman, "struck contemporaries as creating a race of half-mechanical men." Berlin artist Raoul Hausmann fabricated a Dada icon out of a wig-maker's dummy and various oddments--a crocodile-skin wallet, a ruler, the mechanism of a pocket watch--and titled it Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age).
Duchamp traced the roots of Dada's farcical spirit back to the fifth-century b.c. Greek satirical playwright Aristophanes, says the Pompidou Center's Le Bon. A more immediate source, however, was the absurdist French playwright Alfred Jarry, whose 1895 farce Ubu Roi (King Ubu) introduced "'Pataphysics"--"the science of imaginary solutions." It was the kind of science that Dada applauded. Erik Satie, an avant-garde composer who collaborated with Picasso on stage productions and took part in Dada soirees, claimed that his sound collages--an orchestral suite with passages for piano and siren, for example--were"dominated by scientific thought."
In Cologne, in 1920, German artist Max Ernst and a band of local dadas, excluded from a museum exhibition, organized their own--"Dada Early Spring"--in the courtyard of a pub. Out past the men's room, a girl wearing a "communion dress recited lewd poetry, thus assaulting both the sanctity of high art and of religion," art historian Sabine Kriebel notes in the current exhibition's catalog. In the courtyard, "viewers were encouraged to destroy an Ernst sculpture, to which he had attached a hatchet." The Cologne police shut down the show, charging the artists with obscenity for a display of nudity. But the charge was dropped when the obscenity turned out to be a print of a 1504 engraving by Albrecht Dürer titled Adam and Eve, which Ernst had incorporated into one of his sculptures.
Born the same year as Duchamp--1887--Schwitters had trained as a traditional painter and spent the war years as a mechanical draftsman in a local ironworks. At the war's end, however, he discovered the Dadaist movement, though he rejected the name Dada and came up with his own, Merz, a word that he cut out of an advertising poster for Hanover's Kommerz-und Privatbank (a commercial bank) and glued into a collage. As the National Gallery's Dickerman points out, the word invoked not only money but also the German word for pain, Schmerz, and the French word for excrement, merde. "A little money, a little pain, a little shit." she says, "are the essence of Schwitters' art."
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