THE WAR — THE STIMULUS FOR DADA
|THE WAR — THE STIMULUS FOR DADA
The art of Surrealism was the most direct outcome of its time. Those who created it, literary men and artists, date from the generation that was born in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
At the start of the First World War, each of them was about twenty years old. After the monstrous crimes of the Second World War, after the extermination of millions of people in concentration camps and the destruction of Japanese cities with the atomic bomb, previous wars seemed only like distant historical episodes.
It is difficult to imagine what a disaster, and in fact what a tragedy, the First World War was. The first years of the twentieth century were marked by outbreaks of conflict in various parts of the world, and there was a sense that people were living on a volcano. Nevertheless, the start of the war came as a surprise.
On June 28, 1914, in the Serbian city of Sarajevo, the student Gavrilo Princip killed the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. A war began in the Balkan; events developed swiftly.
On the 1″ of August, Russia joined the war against Germany, and on the 3rd and 4th of the same month, France and Britain declared war on Germany. It was only the defeat of the Germans on the Marne from September 5 to 10 that saved Paris from destruction.
At the same time, this led to a drawn-out positional war which turned into a nightmare. Many thousands of young people from every country who took part in the war never returned home, but fell victim to shrapnel, died in the trenches from illnesses, or were poisoned by the gas which the Germans used in the war for the first time in 1916.
Many returned as invalids and were later to die as a result of their war wounds. And it was exactly this generation that would create the art of the twentieth century and carry on from the boldest beginnings of its predecessors.
Before the war, the artistic life of Paris revealed in the most complete and entrancing freedom. The Impressionists and the masters of the period of Post-Impressionism united artists’ hands.
A sense of the barriers in art established by a tradition or a school had vanished. Young artists could permit themselves everything that was possible or impossible.
The boldness of the late-nineteenth century generation drew them into the field of the study of color and form. In 1890, the young painter and theoretician of art, Maurice Denis, put into words for the first time what they had come to realize from the work of their predecessors: “A painting, before it is a warhorse, a nude woman or some sort of anecdote is essentially a flat surface covered with colors put together in a certain order.”
The most important thing in painting was color, and it required special investigation. In the 1880s, Seurat and Signac had already turned to chemists and physicists with the aim of establishing a science of color which they could use for themselves.
The texture of the paint that was applied to the canvas contributed to the force of the color. The nervous expressiveness of the colorful strokes in Van Gogh’s paintings enraptured young artists at exhibitions held after his death.
The Salon des Independants was established in Paris as early as 1884, and here anyone who wanted could exhibit his creations without the usual academic jury. In 1903, those who had never taken part in the official Salon that opened in the spring founded their own Salon d’Automne.
And it was there that in 1905 Matisse and his group acquired the name “Fauves” because the violence of their colors evoked an association with beasts of prey, with wild animals in the primordial jungle.
In 1907, the young poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was an admirer of Matisse’s position in art obtained an interview with him. In his article he quoted the words of the artist: “I have paints and a canvas, and I must clearly express myself, even in a simple way, applying three or four spots of color or drawing three or four expressive lines”.
The Cézanne exhibition of October 1906, immediately after the artist’s death, turned the eyes of all young painters towards the form of an object.
They discovered abstract forms in the creations of primitive art, in the figurines of the masters of Africa and Oceania which had entered Europe in large quantities.
The most striking result of these revelations was Picasso’s Cubism: in 1907 he showed his friends his first big Cubist picture, The Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Similar processes in the assimilation of the new expressiveness in color and form occurred in these years in other European countries as well. In 1905 “Die Brucke” (“The Bridge”) surfaced in Dresden, rivaling the Parisians in the field of color.
Subsequently, German artists also vied with the French for the claim to be the first to discover primitive art. In 1909, the Futurist Manifesto was published in Milan and then Paris. Its author Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote: “Our poetry is courage, audacity, and revolt.”
The Futurists were the first to rise up against old-fashioned art and cultural tradition. “Down with museums and libraries!” wrote Marinetti.
“We issue this flaming manifesto as a proclamation announcing the establishment of Futurism, because we want to deliver this country from the malignant tumor on its body — from professors, archaeologists, cicerones, and antiquarians… Hurry over here! Burn down the libraries! Dam the canals and sink the museums! Ha! Let the current carry off the famous paintings. Grab the pickaxes and the hammers! Destroy the walls of the venerable cities!”
Form served for them as a reflection of the swiftness of movement, of the dynamic of the new industrial world. In Russia, the artist Kazimir Malevich strove to remove the fetters of literature from art, to liberate it “from all] the content in which it has been held back for thousands of years.”
Painting and sculpture were fully liberated from literary subjects, and only the motif remained to give a push to the assimilation of color, form and movement.
In Munich, a group of artists gathered around the journal “Der Blaue Reiter’, including the Russian Wassily Kandinsky.
Their painting absorbed the whole richness of color that by that moment had been opened up to the European avant-garde. In 1910, Kandinsky painted his first watercolor, in which there was nothing apart from a spot of color and lines.
The appearance of abstract painting was the natural result of such a rapid development in art. The artistic avant-garde was ruthless in its treatment of the bourgeois aesthetic.
No less important was the fact that the new art was becoming international. Paris attracted all of the insurgents, all those who were finding alternatives to the traditional, much-traveled route.
In Montmartre, and later in the district of the Boulevard Montparnasse, a special artistic world sprang up. Around 1900 in Montmartre,
“an uncomfortable wooden house, nicknamed the Bateau-Lavoir, housed painters, sculptors, writers, humorists, actors, laundresses, dressmakers and costermongers.”
The Dutchman Kees van Dongen moved in, “barefoot in sandals, his red beard accompanied by a pipe and a smile.”
From 1904, the Spaniard Pablo Picasso lived on the floor below with his Parisian girlfriend Fernande Olivier, while artists, sculptors, and poets from Spain gathered around him.
The “Fauves” from the Parisian suburb of Chatou were often seen alongside them — the giants André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. The poet’s Max Jacob, André Salmon and others often came into their group.
The ideological inspiration of the group was Guillaume Apollinaire. He met Picasso soon after the latter’s appearance in Montparnasse and became the most ardent defender of the Cubism Picasso had devised.
In 1906, the international colony of Montmartre was reinforced by an Italian from Livorno, Amedeo Modigliani. Jews from Russia and Poland, Germans, Romanians, even emigrants from Japan and Latin America entered a variegated artistic community which the journalist from Montmartre André Varnaux wittily called “The Paris School”.
The war destroyed the picturesque world of Montmartre which in these men’s art had been an inspirational force in its own right. The war brought the ruin of all their hopes.
The Parisian Germans had to go return to Germany to take up arms against their friends. The French were also mobilised: some went away to the front, others, like Viaminck, worked in munitions factories. In December 1914, Apollinaire wrote:
All the memories of a while ago
Where are they, Braque and Max Jacob
Derain with grey eyes like the dawn
Where are Raynal Billy Dalize
Whose names resound with melancholy
Like footsteps in a church
Where is Cremnitz who has enlisted
Perhaps they are dead already…
Apollinaire’s poetry is imbued with nostalgia for everything which the war took away from them — love, romance, the beauty of nature, the endless delights of Paris. For them, the radiance of the starry night had been replaced by flashes of gunfire:
The sky is given stars by German shells
The marvellous forest where I live is having a ball
The machine-gun is playing an air in demisemiquavers…
Drafted to the front, Apollinaire remained there only a short time — he was seriously wounded and came back to Paris on March 17, 1916. His old friends rallied around him, as well as poets and artists who were new arrivals in Montparnasse; those on the scene included Max Jacob, Raoul Dufy, Francis Karko, Pierre Reverdy and André Breton.
The black bandage which Apollinaire wore round his head after he was wounded was interpreted as a symbol of heroism.
However, for many of those who surrounded the bard of the “abandoned youth”, the unbridled patriotism which had seized France was repugnant. Distinguished figures in the arts — Anatole France, Jean Richepin, Edmond Rostand, Madame de Noialles, and others — praised the heroism of the soldiers who were dying for their country, preached hatred for the Kaisier, and called for victory.
They called Romain Rolland a traitor for standing out against the war. André Breton, who worshipped Apollinaire, nonetheless criticized him for not talking about the frightening realities of his era, and for reacting to the horror of war only with the desire to return to childhood.
However, during the war Apollinaire and other men of letters did support Modernist art.
In 1916 in Paris, the first number of the journal SIC appeared, giving modernist poets and artists an opportunity for self-expression. It ran for three years.
In 1917 a competitor to it appeared — the poet Pierre Reverdy published the journal Nord-Sud which he wanted to serve as a unifying force for Modernist literature and the visual arts.
“Is it any wonder”, wrote Reverdy, “if we thought that now was a good time to rally round Guillaume Apollinaire?”
Several future Surrealists owed the beginning of their fame to these journals: the poets Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon, the artist Francis Picabia, and others.
However, things became really lively in this circle with Tristan Tzara’s appearance in Paris. In the spring of 1917, Max Jacob announced the “advent of the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara”, and in an SIC article entitled “The Birth of Dada”, it was written that “In Zurich the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and the artist Janko are publishing an artistic journal, whose content looks attractive. The second number of Dada will come out shortly.”
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