Sunday, September 12, 2010

Other orbits for DADA: the Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire

If you are reading this blog, then surely you have heard of the notorious cultural movement DADA; you may have even heard the name Tristan Tzara. Credited to the Swiss avant-garde at the beginning of WW1 and spanning to around 1922, the artists involved in DADA produced not only art that was critical of the prevailing standards in modernist culture but also organized demonstrations, raucous public gatherings, a plethora of art and literary journals against the war and intellectual conformity.

What you may not have read is that the half of the founding members of DADA were recent emigrants from Romania to Switzerland, and no, they did not shed their "Romanianess" in the West, nor their Jewish roots. Intrigued? Then this post will satisfy your intellectual hunger.

Hugo Ball, the co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire and one of the authors of the DADA manifesto (together with Tzara), chronicled the establishment of the movement on a fateful February evening in 1916 in Zurich. One of the first things Ball emphasized about the evening was the international composition of the original DADA group: Emmy Hennings singing in French and Danish, Tristan Tzara reciting poems in Romanian and even the presence of a Russian balalaika orchestra. Ball goes on to mention that Tzara had arrived as part of an Oriental-looking deputation of five little men: the architect Marcel Iancu, his brothers George and Jules and the painter Arthur Segal. Yes, you guessed it, all these guys were coming from Romania, which prompted Hugo Ball to conclude that half of the first Dadaist group was Romanian.

It has been mentioned in the art historical literature that Tzara and Iancu had developed prominent careers in their native country before settling into Zurich. But apart from Tom Sandquist's book, Dada East and Foster's The Eastenr Dada Orbit, no scholar has seriously explored the artists' formation in Romania on the same footing as their activities in the Dada movement. For example Tzara's early poems are deeply owing to East European cultural traditions, not to mention the fact that he incorporated Romanian a lot in his art publications and performances. Remember how Hugo Ball mentions the oriental look of men when they performed at Cabaret Voltaire for the first time? It can be argued that the artists were playing on their Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian roots, the main competing empires in Romania at the time. Furthermore, it is more widely un-researched that all the five artists had Jewish roots, and had probably left their homes due to the rise of nationalism and anti-semitism, leaving all five stateless. It is no coincidence then that, Samuel Rosenstock took the name Tristan Tzara, an alliteration which translates from Romanian into "sad in the country." By this very act of changing his name , but retaining his origin, Tzara cannot be divorced from his past in Romania, of which his new identity was a product.

Fin de siècle Romania was a conflicted space where old and new co-existed in an absurdist manner: while cities like Bucharest were emerging as modern and ripe with economic opportunities, one hour away from the capital one came across villages where people lived in burrows in the ground, which was in turned owned by boieri (noblemen) who kept racing stables in Paris. Furthermore, Romania was marginalized geographically as a strange Romance culture debased among Slavs, Turks and Hungarians. Does this ring true as the cradle for the absurdist works characteristic of DADA?

The stateless Romanians dislocated by the adverse socio-political conditions in their home country, found themselves assimilated but not considered citizens in Switzerland. The parallel with Dada's polyglot and multifarious character couldn't be more obvious. More connections could be made between Tzara, Iancu and Segal's otherworldly performances at Cabaret Voltaire and the colinde festivals in Romania, which combined folk songs, plays, carnival and masked actors. While Hugo Ball may have been stupefied at the Oriental costumes Marcel Iancu devised for the opening night, they would have been a familiar sight in Romania, where the use of grotesque masks and puppets is unmistakably linked to the colinde tradition. Also relevant was the Jewish heritage of the five artists: mysticism flourished in 18th and 19th century Eastern Europe, in Cabala for example, which suggested approaching divinity through the annihilation of the ego - a value system reminiscent of Dada's rhetorical stances of self-denial and paradox.

Of course, there is not one explanation of DADA's internationalism, multilingualism and its constant questioning of borders. Its members also hailed from Eastern Germany, Hungary and Czech lands. My purpose is to suggest that there are other contexts from which DADA was born, than those prevailingly upheld in the Western scholarship. A recent exhibition at Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, "DADA East - Romanian contexts of Dadaism," (2008) sought to bring into focus the forgotten roots of the movement, as well as contemporary artists' reaction to this modernist project. The overlooked Eastern influences of DADA beg more cultural projects such as these. Successively obscured by the forces of fascism and then communism in Romania, DADA may prove relevant in the present- an emancipatory facet of modernity as an unfinished venture.

Image credit: Tristan Tzara's Le Coeur A Barbe (1922), engraving by Marcel Iancu(1918) and Dan Perjovschi 's Dada Drawing (2008)

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