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It’s not every day that a urinal turned upside down becomes a revered work of art. But it epitomizes exactly the dramatic rebellion launched by the Dada artists around the time of World War I. Reacting to the horrors of that war and the society that waged it, the Dadaists rejected such traditional values as aesthetics in art. “No avant-garde movement has been more influential,” says Leah Dickerman, curator of the exhibit “Dada,” now at the National Gallery of Art. The show is the first Dada-only museum exhibition in the United States. At first glance, the works of Dada, named for a nonsensical word picked at random from a French dictionary, can look more like adolescent nonsense than art. Think, for instance, of a graffiti mustache scrawled on the Mona Lisa or recorded gibberish sounds like “baumf!” But these artists — including Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, and Kurt Schwitters — did more than just assert their independence. They pushed the art world toward modernity. Dada was born in a time of cultural upheaval. In protest against the barbarism of World War I, the rise of mass media, and rampant industrialization, the Dadaists toppled old standards with a kind of frenetic energy from about 1916 to 1924. (By then, surrealism, Dada’s natural child, was becoming the new cutting edge.) The National Gallery exhibit, which runs until May 14 before traveling to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is the most comprehensive compilation of Dada works to appear in the United States — although its nearly 450 objects pale in comparison to the more than 1,900 objects in the show when it ran last year at Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Nonetheless, the National Gallery show superbly explores the tensions of war and politics, mixed with a raucous irreverence, that characterized Dada. The exhibit opens with Tristan Tzara’s famous words plastered on the wall in large black letters: “Art needs an operation.” Tzara used such shock-tactic commentary to reject the conventional artistic ideas of the day. Dickerman has organized the exhibit around the major cities of the movement — Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris — to emphasize the geographical influences on the artists’ work. Dada began in Zurich, a melting pot of political and intellectual refugees. Artists and writers gathered at Cabaret Voltaire to write dramatic manifestos, hold public readings, and experiment with song and dance. Hans Arp and his companion Sophie Taeuber were on the forefront of the Zurich scene. The National Gallery show has Arp’s famous collage, which he created, he claimed, by gluing pieces of paper onto a canvas wherever they had fallen. Arp thus turned his back on rigid artistic styling and embraced the laws of chance. Taeuber is represented by her wooden puppets, whose likenesses stem from folk art, and a 1916 needlepoint wall hanging, “Untitled (Vertical-Horizontal Composition).” By using needlepoint to create these colored squares and rectangles, Taeuber was deliberately moving beyond formally recognized artistic media such as canvas and oil paint. Later artists went even further. Hans Richter, for example, painted his “Visionares Selbstportat (Visionary Self-Portrait)” completely in the dark. “Art was not to look away from contemporary life,” says Dickerman, but “rather to look hard.” And that means that some of Dada’s art is more gruesome than beautiful. It’s certainly true for the artists in Berlin, where the political venom was barely contained. The work that came out of the city reflected their anger. A 2004 reconstruction of John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter’s lost original “Preussischer Erzengel (Prussian Archangel)” particularly expresses the harsh realities of life during World War I. “Prussian Archangel,” a soldier’s body topped with a papier-mâché pig’s head, was originally exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in 1920. Today, it hangs from the ceiling in the National Gallery. The refrain of a German Christmas carol, “I come from Heaven, from Heav’n on high,” is printed on the soldier’s waistband. A sign hangs down from the waist, reading in German, “In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with a heavily packed knapsack in full marching order in the Tempelhof Field,” a military training ground in Berlin. That strong political message landed Heartfield and Schlichter in court for defamation of the army. But the artists were able to duck jail time and a fine with the defense that “Prussian Archangel” was just a practical joke. Along with sculptures and wall hangings, the exhibit presents multimedia art such as black-and-white silent films that shows Dada’s fascination with new technology and the artists’ desire to manipulate viewers’ experiences. A small sound room plays recordings of Raoul Hausmann, a Berlin Dadaist, vocalizing syllables and experimenting with repetitive noises like “grimm glimm gnimm bimbimm!” Hausmann also produced revolutionary “assemblage” sculptures that point to the Dadaists’ rejection of the machine age. His “Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age)” consists of a wig-maker’s dummy head to which are attached such mechanical devices as a typewriter cylinder, segments of measuring tape, and a collapsible cup. “It’s hard looking at the piece now to see what a watershed moment that was. Previous [sculpture] was either modeled or carved out of a single material,” says Dickerman. “This work is a commentary stressing the different elements that underline the modern interest — time and money and quantification.” The exhibit closes with New York and Paris, two cities central to the movement. Marcel Duchamp, one of the most famous artists associated with Dada, took the question of “What is art?” to the next level. In Paris, he became a sort of graffiti artist, taking a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa and adding a mustache and goatee. He named it “L.H.O.O.Q.,” which read out loud in French loosely translates to “She’s hot.” Dada influences can still be seen in today’s art world, says Dickerman. “Dada’s interest in war and technology and the changes in media culture, I think, make it resonate with the situation today.” And, to be sure, Duchamp’s urinal, his “Fountain,” continues to be a draw.
Anna Palmer can be reached at [email protected].

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