Dada: the art of doing nothing

Dada is nothing.

Quite literally, that is – the name for the art movement of the 1920s is a nonsense word in German that means “nothing at all.” And because of this, many of the visitors to the National Gallery’s exhibit “Dada,” which is the first major exploration of the movement, will think nothing of many of the absurd works, including a store-bought urinal mounted on a wall.

The nothingness of this art movement grew out of one great big something: the First World War. Shocked by the violence and trauma of soldiers returning home, a group of artists in six cities organized the Dada movement, which aimed to make a mockery of modernity. The show is organized according to these cities: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York and Paris.

War injuries are one of the most notable themes of the exhibit. Dadaists were simultaneously fascinated and sickened by amputations. So, body parts, or a lack thereof, are a subject of many works. One series of drawings, by Max Ernst, show a veteran horrified by his missing limbs, which are growing out of a nearby flowerpot.

Another Dadaist fixation was with machines, a theme they often worked into their war portraits. Otto Dix’s “Kriegskr?pple (Card-Playing War Cripples)” shows three veterans playing cards with the aid of a variety of machinated limbs – like a scarier Captain Hook and Edward Scissorhands combined. Many works have a robotic element, such as Sophie Tauber’s whimsical puppets, or Man Ray’s photo that combines a real, live woman with a department store mannequin, covering up one leg to create the illusion of amputation.

But the aspect of art that Dadaism may be best known for introducing is readymades. Artist Marcel Duchamp established the notion that an artist does not need to be the exclusive creator of his work. He used store-bought materials – a shovel, a coat rack, a porcelain urinal – and entered them into art exhibits, to the horror of critics and the delight of irony-seeking Dadaists across the world. Three of Duchamp’s most famous works are exhibited in the show: “Fountain,” the aforementioned urinal, which was turned upside down and signed “R. Mutt” by the artist; “Bicycle Wheel,” a wheel mounted on a kitchen stool; and “L.H.O.O.Q.,” a post card of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” on which Duchamp penciled in a beard and moustache. When pronounced in French, the letters are a pun on the phrase “Elle a chaud au cul,” which loosely translates to “She has hot pants.”

This is where the typical chorus of dissent comes in: “I could go to the Home Depot and buy a shovel or a coat rack, too. How come they get to be in a museum for it?”

Dadaists would probably concur. Critics called their work “anti-art,” and the artists often agreed. They took pleasure in blurring the boundary between art and regular society, incorporating newspaper clippings, discarded food wrappers and parts of machinery into their work. Because of this, the artists did not place as much value on the originality of artwork, which is detrimental to the show. Many of the works exhibited are the fifth or sixth version of the original piece, especially the more famous works. And “Fountain,” which is undeniably the centerpiece work of the movement, is hung awkwardly: in the middle of a doorway, so high on a wall that many of the smaller-statured in attendance didn’t even notice it. But, hey, maybe Duchamp would have wanted it that way, for irony’s sake.

Dada will be at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building until May 14.

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