Dada in Paris

As in Zürich and Berlin, Dadaism had a certain number of forerunners in Paris; but with the exception of Marcel Duchamp, these pre-Dadaists tended to be poets, writers, and editors rather than visual artists. In 1912, Arthur Cravan began publishing the review Maintenant, which continued until 1915. In 1916, Pierre-Albert Birot, himself a painter and sculptor, launched SIC, and that review took on considerable importance in wartime Paris. In 1917, Pierre Reverdy, in turn, created Nord-Sud, which directly foreshadowed what Parisian Dadaism would become: on the whole, a more literary movement than was found in the other cities where Dadaism flourished. In 1919, Francis Picabia moved from Barcelona to France, and brought his review 391 with him. The first issues, published in New York and Spain, had notable included insolent cover illustrations consisting, for example, of photographs of a ship propeller and electric light bulb captioned, respectively, "ass" and "American woman." Picabia's love of provocation and nonsense found expression in his literary pamphlets as well as in such visual works as the painting Straw Hat (1921-1922, Paris, Musée national d'art moderne) with its casual declaration: "M... pour celui qui le regarde." The work was refused at the Salon des Indépendants. From the same period, Picabia's Dance of Saint Guy (Paris, Picabia estate) consists of nothing but strings stretched across an empty frame and little pieces of cardboard bearing scandalously rediculous messages like "Dance of Saint Guy" and "Tobacco Rat." In much the same vein, the artist published an ink spot in 391 and captioned it "The Blessed Virgin;" on another occasion, he presented a bill as a drawing supposedly illustrating a text by Tzara.

The Cacodylic Eye (1921, Paris, Musée national d'art moderne), which hung for many years in the Parisian cabaret "Le boeuf sur le toit," carries the parody of art to the limit. The work consists of nothing but a painted eye, similar to those seen on billboards, surrounded by the signatures of artists, writers, and musicians who had signed the canvas when they visited Picabia's studio or at a party organized by a lady friend of the artist's. Several quite well-known works of Picabia's such as The Match Lady (Paris, private collection) and Feathers (Milan, private collection), made out of various unusual materials (feathers, macaroni, buttons, pins, straw, matches, coins...) glued onto the surface of canvases painted in oil, though they are Dadaist in inspiration (if less radically so than the works discussed above), would seem to be later works and can probably be dated 1924-25.

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp came back to Paris. In 1921, he was followed by Man Ray, who became one of the most celebrated photographers of his day (his portraits - of Tzara, for example - are admirable) and also made various paradoxical-looking objects: an iron, for example, the bottom of which is spiked with a row of nails (Gift), or a metronome with the phtograph of an eye paperclipped to its pendulum (Indestructible Object, 1923). If such works are successful, largely due to the surprise they provoke, Man Ray's paintings, on the other hand, are rarely very satisfying.

As for Marcel Duchamp, he realized what he called "assisted" or "corrected" ready-mades. In 1919, he took his pencil and drew a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, and labeled the result "L.H.O.O.Q." (which, when read aloud, gives "Elle a chaud au cul": "She's got hot pants"). Using an image that has been reproduced so often that it has become trite and, at the same time, mocking the most famous work in the history of painting, Duchamp created one of his most disrespectful works. In 1921, the artist placed sugar cubes (made of marble) in a bird cage out of which a thermometer and cuttlebone are sticking. The title, Why not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy? (Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art), is completely unrelated to the object, which is itself completely meaningless.

In 1920, with Man Ray's help, Marcel Duchamp created a new kind of sculpture: Rotary Glass Plates (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery) is a real machine that could, in a sense, be said to materialize the 1914 Chocolate Grinder. But, complicated as it looks, this machine can do nothing but produce the optical illusion of a spiral. An anti-painting turned into reality, this machine is utterly useless. It can produce nothing but art. Along with László Moholy-Nagy's Licht Raum Modulator, this art machine anticipates the kinetic art of the fifties and sixties.

In 1923, Duchamp stopped work on his most successful or, at least, because of its size, technique and abstruseness, his most famous work: The Large Glass, also entitled The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (1915-23, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Realized on sheets of glass with paint and lead foil, this work re-presents different elements - some recognizable, other not - that Duchamp had already used in previous works, e.g., the Chocolate Grinder. These elements are brought together to form a complex mechanism shown in perspective and in space (the transparent support being installed like a window between image and viewer). The technique is surprising because of the use of glass and steel; but even more surprising is the representation itself, which intrigues the viewer precisely because of its near triviality. Few 20th-century artworks have given rise to as much community and exegesis; and it must be recognized that the artist encouraged this situation with his silence and the sibylline character of the "note" he left. In point of fact, as Jean Clair has shown, the work is only an experiment with perspective and pluridimensional geometry. But largely because of the strange title that Duchamp, a master of language and humor, gave this work, it has always been perceived as a great enigma.

In 1923, when he proclaimed his Large Glass "finished," Duchamp had already practically given up all artistic activity. Afterwards, he produced very few works, devoting most of his time to living, playing chess, and elevating his existance into a myth. Ineluctably, the logic of his anti-art stances had led him to give up art.

Parisian Dadaism was not, in fact, greatly influenced by the overly demanding and intellectual Duchamp. It was writers who soon came to the fore and dominated the Paris scene in their own specific way. In 1919, André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Paul Éluard founded the review Littérature, the name of which clearly indicates what its orientation was. The single issue of Tristan Tzara's review Le Coeur à barbe, published in April 1922, was also exclusively literary (although it did include a superb typographical cover designed by Tzara himself). Theater and performances also played an important role in Parisian Dada. The 1920 Dada Festival, held at the Salle Gaveau, was a somewhat provocative theatrical event. And one of the most important moments in Paris Dada came in 1923 when Tzara's play Le coeur à gaz was performed at the Théâtre Michel with costumes by Sonia Delaunay. But perhaps the real highpoint in Dada theater came considerably earlier when, in 1920, Picabia's "Festival manifeste presbyte" was put on at the Théâtre de l'OEuvre and André Breton appeared as a sandwich man with a target and an impertinent text.

Besides several other "provocations" of this sort, quite innocuous compared to those organized in Berlin and by Schwitters, the Paris Dadaists organized several exhibitions of works by Picabia, Man Ray, and Max Ernst. The invitation to an Ernst exhibition in 1921 bore the following message:

You are nothing but children
Dada Exhibition
Max Ernst
mechanoplastic drawings anatomic antizymic aerographic antiphonary waterable and republican painting-paintings
No admission charge
Keep your hands in your pockets
Easy exit
a picture under your arm
Beyond painting
the ladies are requested to bring all of their jewels.
In Paris, Max Ernst continued the work he had begun in Köln: Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924, New York, Museum of Modern Art), painted at the end of the Dadaist period, clearly shows, in the representation of the fictional landscape and incongruous positions of the human figures, how much this artist could owe to Giorgio de Chirico, as well as to the collage technique, while also respecting - with considerable elegance - the traditional definition of a picture.

Other artists might also be mentioned: the painter Jean Crotti, for example, who had wed Duchamp's sister Suzanne, herself a painter too; or Serge Charchoune, a Russian emigrant who had come to Paris from Berlin. But in the final analysis, Dadaist activity in Paris never attained the intensity it had in Germany and died out fairly quickly. Ironically, one of the highest Dada achievements in Paris took place after the movement's demise when, in 1924, Francis Picabia and Erik Satie's ballet Relâche was performed by Rolf de Maré's Ballets Suédois with a phenomenal set designed by Picabia.