“What is Dada?” reads a famous Dadaist poster: “An art form? A philosophy? A politics?” It is fair to say that no one fully knows what Dada is. It is no surprise then that there are many untold stories of Dadaism — like that of Russian Dada. Last year’s exhibition at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and its accompanying catalogue, Russian Dada 1914-1924, make the case for Dada’s existence in Russia, which it argues was not just as another locus for the movement’s flourishing, but in fact the place of its birth.
Many of the artists who appear in the exhibition and catalogue are familiar names associated with other ‘isms’: Kazimir Malevich and Suprematism, El Lissitzky and Constructivism, Mikhail Larionov and Rayonism, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Futurism. Russian Dada 1914-1924 contends, in a strongly revisionist tone, that these Russian artists share many of the aims and methods of Dada — a movement much better known for its proponents in Zurich, Berlin, New York, and Paris.
The aims and methods of Dadaism, both in Russia and elsewhere, were wide-ranging and often contradictory. They included, in the words of the exhibition’s guest curator and catalogue editor Margarita Tupitsyn: “reason and anti-reason, sense and nonsense, rational design and chance-based collages, absurdist and political theatre, mocking and propagandistic cinema.” In her lengthy essay, “Putting Russia on the Dada Map,” Tupitsyn points out that the word “Dada” translates from Russian as a double affirmation — “Yes yes”. Although because of the movement’s inherent contradictions, it would perhaps more aptly be called “Da nyet” (Yes no).
While Western European Dada was “revolutionary” in terms of its rupture with artistic traditions and orthodoxies, Russian Dada was closely allied to an actual revolution. The famous linguist Roman Jakobson described the 1917 October Revolution as the culmination of Dada’s political aspirations and the “realization of the violence of [its] artistic form.” Upon his return to Russia, Vladimir Lenin, who had attended performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, became a cult figure for the Russian artistic avant-garde. Artists like Malevich, Mayakovsky and Alexander Rodchenko became propagandists for the nascent Communist regime, a regime that would later drive them into exile, and in some instances, to suicide.
In the essay “Anarchism and the Russian Artistic Avant-garde,” Olga Burenina-Petrova charts the many links between anarchist politics and avant-garde art. She offers an excellent and fresh interpretation of Malevich’s celebrated Black Square, seeing it as not only one of the first works of abstraction, but “also an embodiment of the image of the black banner, the anarchists’ main emblem.” The color black became a potent anarchist symbol for other artists too. Varvara Stepanova’s moniker for her artistic and romantic partner Rodchenko, for example, was “the black king.”
Another of the catalogue’s essays, “Dada in Cyrillic” by Victor Tupitsyn, contains a series of vignettes on Russian art of the period: Aleksei Kruchenykh’s “transrationalism” and “shiftology,” the Fantastic Pub in Tbilisi (Georgia’s version of the Cabaret Voltaire), the Nothingists, the impact of Russian Dada in Paris, and Dada’s death drive. The subheading to one of the sections — “God Save the Tzara” — warrants a special mention for its witty multi-layered word play. Overall, though, the choice of subjects seems a bit random, a feeling which is exacerbated by the fleeting and superficial references to thinkers across the centuries, from René Descartes to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
Natasha Kurchanova’s “Humor as Parody, Eccentrism, and Satire in Soviet Film after World War I” suffers from the opposite problem, in other words the author’s relentless return to the same basic idea. The phrase “parody, eccentrism, and satire” is repeated so many times that it begins to take on its own absurd, Dadaist quality. However, she interestingly discusses the way in which Sergei Eisenstein’s early comic films make fun of bourgeois values and Hollywood tropes. This type of political satire prefigured his use of montage in historical epics like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Alexander Nevsky (1938). Eisenstein’s later filmic technique mirrored the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism, emphasizing tensions between reality and perceptions of reality, and the conflict that brews when these impression clash.
Any shortcomings in the essays are more than made up for by the book’s visual pizzazz. Due to the centrality in Dadaist aesthetics of typography and experimentation with text and image, this catalogue is surely a dream commission for any graphic designer. And the results are not disappointing — every page, with its beautifully reproduced artworks and curling Dada fonts, is a feast for the eyes.
Towards the end of the monograph there is a reference to an eyewitness account of the movement by the artist Hans Richter, one of Dada’s major proponents. He is quoted as having written in his book Dada: Art and Anti-Art, “Curiously enough, Dada tendencies seem to have made their first appearance in Russia.” Fifty-five years on, Russian Dada 1914-1924 takes its cue from Richter’s words and proves their veracity.
Russian Dada 1914–1924 edited by Margarita Tupitsyn (2018) is published by The MIT Press is available from Amazon and other online retailers.