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PARIS — Dada virtuoso Raoul Hausmann’s photographic oeuvre from 1927 to 1936 exposes his oddball art antics at play with naiveté. Arriving as Vision in Action at the Jeu de Paume from Le Point du Jour in Cherbourg are over 130 of his relatively undiscovered, vintage black-and-white photographs, curated by Dada doyen Cécile Bargues. Startlingly enough, some of the photographs by this dada-driven demon are rather banal, cliché, and even conventional, while others are typical of odd, avant-garde compositional ideas and outré experiences. Taken together, they indicate where this Vienna-born pioneer of cultural agitation, collage, photomontage, and sound poetry took refuge shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power.
Bien sûr, Hausmann, who died in France in 1971, was one of the 1918 founding fiends of Berlin Dada, together with Richard Hulsenbeck and Frantz Jung. With Johannes Baader and Hulsenbeck, Hausmann founded and ran Der Dada, the celebrated review of the Berlin Dadaists. And he is rightly celebrated as a pioneer of the artistic remix technique of photomontage, along with Hanna Höch, Baader and John Heartfield. Trained as a painter (his father was a Czech painter), clearly Hausmann’s version of photomontage at least partly took inspiration from the synthetic cubist collages of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso that Hausmann emulated early on, as with his colorful word collage “Material der Malerei” (1918).
After the high-Dada period of Der Dada, Hausmann undertook an increasing machinist approach to optics and vision, practicing what he called dada optophonetics based on his optophonetic poems like “b b b b et F m s b w” (1918) and “K perioum” (1918) that fused lyrical texts with expressive typography. Through insisting on the role of language as simultaneously visual and acoustic forms, Hausmann went so far as to conceive of what he called an optophone: a synaesthetic machine capable of transforming the sound of words into the display of colored lights (and vice versa). In 1922, Hausmann published a text about his optophone idea in Veshch-Gegenstand-Objet, a trilingual magazine edited by Ilja Ehrenburg and El Lissitzky, but never had enough money to build it.
An anarchist and utopian, he was the intellectually electrifying source of inspiration of a generation. Driven from Nazi Germany in 1933 subsequent to being branded a degenerate artist, Hausmann docilely dwelt on the sunny island of Ibiza where he became a prolific, sensitive, and surprisingly lyrical photographer. From 1927 on he had become a fervent photo-maker, as exemplified by his photomontages such as “Petite Fleur en Herbe” (Budding Little Flower, 1932) and Surreal photographs like “Regard dans le Miroir” (Look in the Mirror, 1930). Particularly during his sojourns to the North Sea and Baltic coasts in the early 1930s, realist nature photography became a preferred means of his post-Dada expression, like his sweetly naive views of the island of Sylt and other sensually seductive rolling landscapes like “Untitled (Herbe des Dunes)” (Untitled [Dune Grass], circa 1931). He also took numerous closely-cropped portraits that show a strong compositional aptitude. Most pleasingly, Hausmann also focused his camera on the women around him, taking numerous nude shots of them on the radiant beach, such as in the gorgeous “Nu sur la Plage” (Nude on the Beach, circa 1927–1933) and the erotically-charged “Deux nus Féminins Allongés sur une Plage” (Two Female Nudes Lying on a Beach, circa 1931–1934).
The rationale behind his photographic motives are not always immediately discernible but are more than worthy of speculation. Hausmann’s till now unheralded photographs might even be seen as templates of how to oppose fascist ideologies by avoiding fascists and their imagery — as opposed to confronting them the way his Dada confrère Heartfield did with efficacious gusto. Hausmann left behind a fascist free — and it must be said — naïve world for us to consider, for better or worse.
One of the highlights of the show is Dada à Berlin (1971), a 58-minute documentary film by Philippe Collin that, through startling interviews with an elderly Hausmann and Hulsenbeck and other decrepit Dadaists, sketches out how Hausmann et al were the most outrageous and original artists/non-artists of their day. Certainly, their revolutionary ideas had an immediate and sustained impact on avant-garde art in Berlin in the 1920s. It is therefore unfortunate that only a single retrospective devoted to Hausmann’s photographic work was held in 1937 at the Czech Museum of Art in Prague, and his at-long-last 1967 retrospective, curated by Pontus Hulten at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, contained none of his photos. Indeed, this traveling show is the first time his photographic works have been the subject of such an extensive retrospective in France.
It is quite an extensive display, sleekly installed. Vision in Action benefits from a number of loans from the Musée Départemental d’art Contemporain de Rochechouart and the Berlinische Galerie, with some work being displayed for the first time. At the crossroads of the Neues Sehen (New Vision) and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movements, some of the better photographic works appear experimental and classical at the same time, placing him within the lofty history of European art photography inhabited by such artists as Florence Henri, August Sander, Raoul Ubac, and László Moholy-Nagy. Hausmann’s honeyed yet haunting images of rustic housing, such as “Maison Paysanne (Can Rafal)” (Peasant House [Can Rafal], 1934), and those of vacant landscapes, sea foam, beaches, plants delight. Also, a series of almost Op Art-like chiaroscuro effects he captured in the fluctuating of light filtering through hanging woven baskets, as in “Untitled” (1931), play well into the stream of his dream-like autobiographical novel Hylé, first published in German in 1955, translated in French in 2013, but sadly, yet to be translated into English.
But possibly my favorite photo in the show is the super-sensual “Untitled (Vera Broïdo)” (ca. 1931), a closely cropped wave-form shaped by the shoulders and neck of one of the Jewish female companions with whom he eventually — and hastily — left Berlin for Ibiza: Vera Broïdo, his lover and muse. The other companion was his second wife Hedwig Manckiewitz. The three had been living together in Berlin on Kaiser-Friedrich Straße in ménage à trois, bravura style and they continued to live together in Ibiza until 1934 when Broïdo left the Hausmann couple. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that would drive them from Ibiza in 1936, the couple relocated to Paris where they stayed until the German occupation of the city in 1939 forced them to move again. Jews in Paris were forced to wear the yellow Star of David badge, and in July of 1942, Jews, including 4,115 children and 5,919 women, were rounded up by the French police on orders of the Germans and sent to the odious Auschwitz concentration camp. Hausmann had tried to immigrate with his wife to the United States, but was unsuccessful, despite Moholy-Nagy’s invitation to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago (aka the New Bauhaus). Instead, Hausmann and Hedwig moved to Peyrat-le-Château in central France where Hausmann gave lessons in German, English, and Spanish to subsist — and where they met Marthe Prévot with whom they formed another ménage à trois. With the Normandy landings in 1944 the trio openly moved to nearby Limoges where they peacefully passed their waning years.