Dada bodies focuses critical attention on Dada’s limit-forms of the human image from an international and interdisciplinary perspective, in its different centres (Zurich, Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, Paris and New York) and diverse media (art, literature, performance, photography and film). Iconoclastic or grotesque, a montage of disparate elements or reduced to a fragment, machine-part or blob, Dada’s bodily images are confronted here as fictional constructs rather than mimetic integrated unities. They act as both a reflection of, and a reflection on, the disjunctive, dehumanised society of wartime and post-war Europe, whilst also proposing a blueprint of a future, possible body. Through detailed analysis of works by Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Hannah Höch, Marcel Duchamp and others, informed by recent theoretical and critical perspectives, the work offers a reassessment of the movement, arguing that Dada occupies an ambivalent space, between the battlefield (in the satirical exposure of the lies of an ideology that sought to clothe the corpse of wartime Europe) and the fairground (in the playful manipulation of the body and its joyful renewal through laughter, dream and dance).
The chapter situates Dada in the historical and social context of wartime and post-war Europe. It argues that Dada’s limit-forms of the body both reflect the chaos of the times through the absurd and irrational, and reflect on the post-war ‘return to order’ with the satirical. An aesthetics of the body is outlined, founded on the grotesque on the one hand and anti-classicism on the other. Since Dada’s corporeal images are considered as constructs rather than mimetic, fictional rather than realistic, the principle and practice of montage (photomontage, collage, assemblage) are considered central to the depiction of the human figure. It is suggested that Dada’s corporeal images occupy an ambivalent space, between battlefield and fairground, as both utopian and dystopian bodies. The critical and theoretical framework of the study is outlined, as well as a critical overview of existing literature on the topic.
The chapter situates Dada historically in the wider context of pre-1914 avant-garde art and thought across Europe, referring to the works of artists such as Kandinsky or Russolo and thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche or Walter Benjamin. It traces the shift from a utopian to a dystopian vision, from the glorification of war’s destructive forces to Dada’s exposure of the war as absurd. It argues that if the Dadaists adopted a rhetoric of war and violence, it was to pervert it in the promotion of their own global revolt in the face of the machinery of destruction. The chapter develops an analysis of Zurich Dada’s activities at the Cabaret Voltaire and the Galerie Dada, focusing on George Grosz’s poems, Marcel Janco’s masks, and Sophie Taeuber’s dances and puppets.
The chapter focuses on the Dadaists’ radical critique of the neo-classical revival promoted by the ‘return to order’ of post-war France and Germany. While the post-war doxa sought to naturalise the body as an organic whole through the cult of the artist Ingres as a model for the reconstituted body of France, the Dadaists displayed the body as artifice, as in Francis Picabia’s pastiches of the nineteenth-century artist, and in Man Ray’s photograph Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), thus exposing the official myth-making policies of post-war France. This is followed by a discussion of the cult of the healthy body forged through sport in the promotion of body-building in Germany in the post-war years, and the subsequent parodic remake in images of sportsmen by Ernst, Baargeld and Grosz.
This chapter and the next explore the reconfigurations of the human form through the concept of the hybrid body. Chapter 4 begins by exploring the machine-as-body in Picabia’s mecanomorphic drawings, read as a satire of a technological utopia. In his games of perversion, the ‘becoming-machine’ of the body is explored as a ‘becoming-erotic’ of the machine, in particular in its feminised forms. The second part of the chapter focuses on an analysis of the body-as-machine in Berlin Dadaists’ violent exposure, through photomontage, of dismembered, prosthetic or mechanised bodies, in the works of George Grosz and others that satirised the myth of the heroic man-as-machine on the battlefield or on the post-war assembly-line.
Chapter 5 extends the study of the theme of the composite body via an exploration of the grotesque, informed by the work of Mikhael Bakhtin. An analysis of Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (1919–37) in terms of the corporeal dimension of architecture, structured on the principle of the grotto, is followed by a discussion of Otto Dix’s Phantastische Gebete (1920), illustrated by George Grosz, and Dix’s savage depiction of wounded war veterans in The Skatspieler (The Skat Players, 1920). The grotesque is, finally, linked to the abject body, as exposed in Tristan Tzara’s play Le Coeur à gaz (1921).
This chapter treats Dada as process rather than product, art as event rather than as object. It focuses on carnivalesque spaces where the phantasmagoric body is considered as both nostalgia and parody of end-of-century entertainment. The first section deals with fairground spaces: the photographs of the Dada group; optical machines; and René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). The allegory of the male magician controlling his female victim is shown to be central to the theme of the dismemberment and reconstitution of the body. Both transgression (of body limits) and regression (a return to infantile fantasies) are thus revealed as modes of resistance to dominant ideologies. The following section extends the notion of performance to Dada texts, via an analysis of body, voice and gesture in Raoul Hausmann’s phonetic poetry. Finally, the performative dimension of Dada exhibitions is addressed in a discussion of the 1920 Dada-Vorfrühling exhibition in Cologne, in order to highlight the ways in which it implicated the body of the spectator.
The chapter focuses on an analysis of Max Ernst’s early collages and the fatagaga photocollages produced with Hans Arp. It confronts the recycling of war images, arguing that they constitute not only a satire of the militaro-industrial machine of the First World War (the body as site of loss or trauma) but also a narrative of rebirth, informed by alchemical thought. The motif of the chrysalis or the man in flight in Ernst’s works is contrasted with fellow Cologne artist Heinrich Hoerle’s images of the wounded veteran in his series of lithographs, the Cripple Portfolio or Die Krüppelmappe (1919), shaped by a cynical view of the motif of renewal. Hoerle’s ‘unman’ thus confronts Ernst’s New Man.
The radical critique of corporeal representations is embodied in limit-forms of the human figure in Dada. The chapter examines the displacements, objectification or disembodiment of the human figure. This is exemplified in Man Ray’s film Le Retour à la raison (1923), where the human figure is montaged with moving objects and abstract forms. The body as indexical trace is explored in the recurrent image of the handprint. This is followed by a discussion of the performative function of Duchamp’s readymades, which call for the viewer’s bodily response in a tactile engagement. In Max Ernst’s lithographs Fiat modes pereat ars (1919) the theatrical spaces are occupied by surrogate human figures (a tailor’s dummy, featureless automatons, geometrical forms) which seem to merge with the geometrical spaces in which they are placed. Finally, on the path to a final vanishing point, the body as abstraction is considered, as found in a number of Dada portraits by Picabia and others.
In the final chapter the ambivalence of Dada’s bodies, as both ‘corpse’ and ‘exquisite’, is reasserted, in images of the body degraded and dissolved, or reconfigured and regenerated. Finally, Dada’s heritage is considered in developments in contemporary art, focusing in particular on critical or playful reappropriations of corporeal images which the Dadaists themselves had already transformed, in the work of Damien Hirst, Anna Artaker or Sadie Murdoch.