If painting is a mirror of time, it must be insane

On August 25, 1920, the first large Dada fair in Berlin ended
A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with the art professor Katja Pfeiffer

What does the term Dada mean and how did this art movement originate?

Pfeiffer: As an artist, I first came across the term during my art studies and then quickly realized that knowledge of the way of thought and mode of operation of Dada was extraordinarily liberating for my own artistic work.
Various legends already surround the naming of the art movement that emerged around 1916. No matter which of them is true, they are all beautiful. Be it that the artists Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck rammed a knife into a French dictionary in the Zurich Café Voltaire and accidentally came across "dada", a childish term for stick horse, or be it that they were inspired by the soap manufacturer Bergmann & Co with the stick horse on the packaging of the lily milk soap. Or perhaps the name was simply borrowed from the Russian affirmation "da!".
Zurich in neutral Switzerland was a refuge for artists and intellectuals during the First World War and thus became the epicenter of the exile art of the avant-garde, including the Dada movement. In this movement, artists met who agreed that the war-driving bourgeois society needed a corrective movement, or, to use the title of an iconic collage by Hanna Höch: a "cut with the kitchen knife Dada through the last Weimar beer-bellied cultural epoch in Germany".


The Dadaists rejected meaning in art, a demand directed against Expressionism. Why?

Pfeiffer: The refusal of a traditional sense of meaning was not only directed against Expressionism, but much more far-reaching. One has to look at the twenties of the twentieth century in its fragmentation to get an idea of how the artists of Dada arrived at their position. Several of their protagonists had been war veterans and had experienced things that led them to sanatoriums for a while. A bourgeois enjoyment of art was no longer so easily possible for them. The Expressionists' forms of expression were not radical enough for them and, above all, not political enough. Dada was aggressively directed against bourgeois values and aesthetic conventions.
The artist Max Ernst, for example, had begun as an Expressionist, but soon noticed that "it was not the most rational people who made world history, but the mad" and "if painting is a mirror of time, it must be insane.
Transferring this "madness" to other art forms, the Dadaists became the first performance artists, so to speak. With the invention of sound poetry and simultaneous poetry, they were pioneers of today's slam poetry. And the art form of collage took on a whole new and horrifying connotation through the Dadaists' lucid view of the mutilated wartime returnees with their various prostheses.


The first German Dada Fair in Berlin had the goal of creating an actionist anti-art and thus declared war on the established art forms. How did they implement this goal in the fair?

Pfeiffer: The first and at the same time last International Dada Fair took place from June 30 to August 25, 1920, and was organized by the three most active members of the "Club Dada". These were George Grosz as "Marshal Dada", Raoul Hausmann the "Dadasoph" and "Dadamonteur" John Heartfield. A "financial Dada" made his gallery at the Lützow riverside available for this purpose. During the exhibition, 174 works of artists from seven countries were squeezed into the rooms.
Among the participants were Max Ernst, Hans Arp and Francis Picabia. The furious art experience was thus an exhibition setup that would be called a room installation by now.
A large-format catalog leaflet was published for the exhibition, photographs and reviews exist, so that even today one can gain a comprehensive impression of the walls paved with oil paintings, photographs, collages, posters and texts.
The hanging, designed with humour and system, was intended to expose contemporary reality, to question the institution of art. It was clear that the Dadaists despised the political leadership of the Weimar Republic and its bourgeois supporters.
Two large-format pictures in particular characterized the entire installation. One was "Germany a Winter Tale" by George Grosz and the other was a work by Otto Dix entitled "45% able to work", in which a platoon of neropath, war-blind and otherwise disabled veterans, led by a crippled non-commissioned officer, staggered across the pavement.
And a sculpture jointly created by John Heartfield and George Grosz entitled "Heartfield, the stiff who went wild" also dealt with the war-disabled cobbled together with the help of prostheses. She consisted out of a tailor's dummy, instead of a head she carried a light bulb, the arm stumps ended in a doorbell and a revolver. A plaster denture was used as a sexual organ, which as a "vagina dentata" implied the complete crippling of the man. The chest was decorated with rusty cutlery and the highest military medal of Prussia.
However, even greater excitement was caused by the ominous figure of the "Prussian Archangel" which hovered under the ceiling and thus over the entire exhibition. The life-size doll in a grey soldier's uniform, a knife in the sleeve and a pig mask as the face, did not allow much positive interpretation.


How was the fair received by visitors and critics?

Pfeiffer: One of the most famous illustrations of the fair shows nine of the participating artists themselves as visitors to their exhibition, devoutly contemplating over the art or engrossed in conversation. In reality, however, the show was probably rarely so well attended, because the admission price of 3.30 marks, which is quite high, was paid by only about 400 guests during the entire period of the exhibition. Only a single work was sold.
Adolf Behne, who sympathized with the Dadaists, praised the fact that the exhibition showed the world of 1920 as ugly as it was. "Man is a machine, culture is rags, education is conceit, the mind is brutality, the average is stupidity, and master is the military."
Another reviewer, Peter Panter, on the other hand, described the fair in the Berliner Tageblatt as a "cute junk store", the criticism of the Dadaists as too tense. Behind the pseudonym Panter hid none other than Kurt Tucholsky, who could only be enthusiastic about the works of George Grosz. Especially for a portfolio of caricatures of German officers.
And this praise was read by a suspicious captain who then paid the exhibition a visit in civilian clothes. He did not like it and informed his superiors, who then filed charges against the Dadaists for insulting the military. In 1921 they were sentenced to a fine of 900 marks.
The defense argued that the artists only made fun, which finally discredited the artists for the trial reporter Tucholsky.


Dadaism did not have a long future. How did it go on?

Pfeiffer: The dispersion of the group had already begun during the first Dada Fair and was probably accelerated by the process. It disintegrated into individual positions that continued in various directions. During the Nazi dictatorship, Dada was considered as degenerated.
It was not until the 1950s that it was rediscovered and the phenomenon subsequently inspired new generations of artists.


What influence did Dadaism have on the development of art?

Pfeiffer: Contemporary art would be inconceivable without the "initiation" by Dada, because it was only this liberation from traditions and conventional art forms that opened up the infinite new possibilities available to artists today. There are almost no limits to the use of contents, materials and techniques.
When Dada was rediscovered after the Second World War, the art movement served as inspiration to Fluxus, among others, or to the concrete poets. Artistic positions such as those of Sigmar Polke or Martin Kippenberger are hardly comprehensible, especially in their use of language - without looking back at the Dadaists. Again and again, new subcultures have been inspired by the anarchic impulse inherent in Dada.
And here the correlation with the madness that rules the world, as Max Ernst puts it, continues to play a major role. At present times perhaps more than ever.
In the field of artistic practice, such role models with their satirical and provocative forms are particularly important in order to train a way of thinking that does not simply accept circumstances, but constantly questions them on all levels. In the ideal case, humor should not be lost.
Such a contemporary "Dadaist" approach is currently being pursued by the so-called "Frankfurter Hauptschule". The collective of students of the Städelschule actually still succeeds in breaking taboos in a society that apparently already carries every subversive gesture in the form of a tattoo just above the coccyx. In their video installation "242 Titles Better than Martin Kippenberger", for example, they have dared to approach one of the most sardonic title inventors of post-war art. With success.


Uwe Blass (Interview on 24.08.2020)


Katja Pfeiffer completed her teacher training in art and educational science at the Art Academy Düsseldorf in the classes of Günther Uecker, Alfonso Hüppi and Jan Dibbets as well as a teacher training in history at the Heinrich-Heine-University. She was a master student with Alfonso Hüppi. Since 2006 she has been professor of art with a focus on artistic practice at the University of Wuppertal.



More information about #UniWuppertal: