Europe after the Rain, the Arts Council of Great Britain’s 1978 documentary on Dada and Surrealism, looks at the careers of André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Salvador Dalí, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Yves Tanguy, John Heartfield, Giorgio de Chirico, Francis Picabia and René Magritte, among others. Sure, there are better ways to see these artists’ work than on YouTube, but this film is worth watching, because it makes both movements’ commitment to revolutionary left-wing politics explicit as few other surveys do.
Take this list from 1919, drawn up by Richard Huelsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann on behalf of the Dadaist Revolutionary Central Council:
1) The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical Communism;
2) The introduction of progressive unemployment through comprehensive mechanization of every field of activity. Only by unemployment does it become possible for the individual to achieve certainty as to the truth of life and finally become accustomed to experience;
3) The immediate expropriation of property (socialization) and the communal feeding of all; further, the erection of cities of light, and gardens which will belong to society as a whole and prepare man for a state of freedom.
(The full manifesto goes on to demand free meals on Potsdamer Platz for “all creative and intellectual men and women,” the requisition of churches, “immediate organization of a Dadaist propaganda campaign with 150 circuses for the enlightenment of the proletariat,” and “immediate regulation of all sexual relations according to the views of international Dadaism through establishment of a Dadaist sexual center.”)
‘Europe after the Rain II’ by Max Ernst, 1940-1942
The movie is full of treasures: BBC interviews with Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp from the Sixties, a reading of Artaud’s “Address to the Dalai Lama,” an account of Freud’s meeting with Dalí. As usual in a film of this type, the attempts to dramatically recreate speeches by historical figures are embarrassing. I am not extra fond of the portrayal of Tzara as a supercilious toff. But the re-enactment of Breton’s dialogue with an official of the Parti communiste français is illuminating, and complements the other valuable material on the “Pope of Surrealism”: his work with shell-shocked soldiers in World War I, trials and expulsions of other Surrealists, collaboration with Leon Trotsky in Mexico, less-than-heroic contributions to the French Resistance, and study of the occult.
A VHS rip of the movie has been up on YouTube for some time, but this sharpened upload only recently appeared through the good offices of Manufacturing Intellect. It’s worth noting that the original VHS rip is nearly six minutes longer.
In 1993, Rough Trade records put out Lipstick Traces, a “soundtrack” to the book of the same name by Greil Marcus. It’s one of my favorite CDs of all time, with tracks by The Slits, Essential Logic, The Raincoats, The Mekons, Buzzcocks, The Gang of Four, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Situationist philosopher Guy Debord and others. It’s an amazing collection, but there is one track in particular that stands out from the rest, a recitation by none other than Marie Osmond, of Dada poet Hugo Ball’s nonsensical gibberish piece from 1916, “Karawane.”
Hugo Ball was a follower of anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin and became one of the founders of the Zurich nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, the nexus of the Dada art movement. He would go onstage dressed like this and basically, uh, do you know, avant garde things:
Ball’s unusual costumes were later ripped off by David Bowie, and then Klaus Nomi after him. Another of Ball’s Dada poems, “Gadji beri bimba” was adapted into the Talking Heads number “I Zimbra” on 1979’s Fear of Music album.
Here’s the story behind this, I think you’ll agree, most excellent clip. From the Lipstick Traces liner notes:
As host of a special (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) show on sound poetry, Osmond was asked by the producer to recite only the first line of Ball’s work; incensed at being thought too dumb for art, she memorized the lot and delivered it whole in a rare “glimpse of freedom.”
The one other byproduct of my “Imagining Language” file at Ripley’s came later, when Marie Osmond became co-host with Jack Palance. In the format of the show, little topic clusters (like “weird language”) were introduced by one of the hosts. In this case, the frame was Cabaret Voltaire. Marie was required to read Hugo Ball’s sound poem “Karawane” and a few script lines. Much to everybody’s astonishment, when they started filming she abruptly looked away from the cue cards directly into the camera and recited, by memory, “Karawane.” It blew everybody away, and I think they only needed that one take. A year or so after it was broadcast, Greil Marcus approached me, wanting to use Marie Osmond’s rendition of Hugo Ball for a CD produced in England as sonic companion to his book Lipstick Traces; so I was delighted to be able to arrange that.
A surrealist-style painting by German artist, Rudolf Schlichter.
At the age of 26, while he had been pursuing his studies at the Art Academy of Kunstakademie in Karlsruhe, German artist Rudolf Schlichter was drafted into the army. Following a successful hunger strike, Schlichter was dismissed from his duties and returned to the bustling, forward-thinking town of Karlsruhe. Schlichter didn’t stick around for long and soon set off for Berlin where he fell in with the Dada scene and became a communist.
Schlichter made a successful living in Berlin from his illustrations. He transitioned from Dada to the “Neue Saclichkeit” movement (or “New Objectivity”) that used realism to express skepticism related to current events. He quickly became one of the most influential and critically important contributors to this quasi-Expressionism. Within New Objectivity there were two additional artistic courses: The “Verists” were known for using portraiture as a vehicle for their hostility toward authority figures, affluence and the oppression of society. The works of the great Otto Dix played a large role in this sub-component of New Objectivity. The other was commonly referred to as “Magic Realists” who were in opposition to the German style of Expressionism. Probably the most notable Magic Realism artist was Georg Schrimpf whose work was a crucial part of New Objectivity. Now that we’ve got your mini subversive art lesson out of the way, here’s a bit more on Rudolf Schlichter whose work, though not initially, was reviled by the Nazis.
While Schlichter’s body of work is as vast as it is diverse, there were many recurrent points of interest and themes, especially erotic ones, in his paintings and illustrations. Often his subjects were comprised of various bohemian movers and shakers and other residents who were part of the vibrant counterculture of the streets of Berlin where he spent much of his time. In 1923 Schlichter provided 60 illustrations for an edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. At the end of the 1920s, Schlichter returned to being a practicing Catholic and would end up doing illustrations for various religious publications put out by the church including a youth-oriented magazine called Jungle Front. The illustrations in the magazine often cast a disparaging light on the politics of Adolf Hitler. Coincidently at the time of its publication, Schlichter also belonged to the exclusively German art organization run by the Third Reich, “Reichskammer der bildenden Künste” or the “Reich Chamber of Fine Arts” headed up by propagandist extraordinaire Joseph Goebbels. And as you might imagine the jab didn’t go unnoticed and Schlichter was promptly ousted. His work was removed from galleries and destroyed and Schlichter’s name was added to the “degenerate art” list kept by the Nazis. Which in my mind is always the right kind of list to be on, in any time period.
Though he would pass away at the age of 65, a little more than a decade prior to his death Schlichter produced many remarkable pieces of surrealistic style paintings. Which would lead to the artist being dubbed “the German Salvador Dali.” I’ve included a few of Schlichter’s surrealist works as well as a nice sampling of his erotica below. Which means much of what follows is NSFW.
If you happen to see an affordable copy of The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook in a bookstore—assuming there are any bookstores left—grab it. It looks like most online booksellers’ copies are going for between $100 and $200 this holiday season, but I found one for just $8.50 a couple years back, so there must be other affordable copies out there.
Published in 1961 by Contact Editions in Sausalito, the cookbook collects John Keats’ recipes for pike and duck, Isak Dinesen’s oysters au naturel (not much of a recipe, really), Marcel Duchamp’s steak tartare, Lillian Hellman’s shrimp creole, Edgard Varèse’s boeuf bourguignon, Pearl Buck’s spare ribs, Robert Graves’ yellow plum jelly, Paul Bowles’ recipe for majoun—the Moroccan cannabis candy that fueled The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down—and much else. I can’t say I’ve used the book much for cooking, mainly because the recipes are so heavy on meat. But even if, like me, you don’t plan to whip up a batch of Enid Foster’s brains in beer anytime soon, where else can you come across things like Man Ray’s “Menu for a Dadaist Day”? Here are three mouthwatering, kitchen-tested Dadaist favorites that will have your family clamoring for seconds.
Le Petit Dejeuner. Take a wooden panel of an inch or less thickness, 16 to 20 inches in size. Gather the brightly colored wooden blocks left by children on the floors of playrooms and paste or screw them on the panel.
Déjeuner. Take the olives and juice from one large jar of prepared green or black olives and throw them away. In the empty jar place several steel ball bearings. Fill the jar with machine oil to prevent rusting. With this delicacy serve a loaf of French bread, 30 inches in length, painted a pale blue.
Dîner. Gather wooden darning eggs, one per person. If the variety without handles cannot be found, remove the handles. Pierce lengthwise so that skewers can be inserted in each darning egg. Lay the skewered eggs in an oblong or oval pan and cover with transparent cellophane.
When he was in exile in Zurich in 1916, the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin would visit the DADAist club Cabaret Voltaire. Lenin was writing his revolutionary plans for a future socialist Russia, and he was living in an apartment nearby the club. The Cabaret Voltaire had been founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, with the intention of making it a cabaret for radical artistic and political purposes. It was also a focal point for refugees and conscientious objectors, who had fled to Switzerland to avoid fighting in the First World War.
Lenin considered himself quite revolutionary, but when confronted with the nonsense poems, the shouting and verbal abuse, the noise poems, and the endless drumming, the future Russian leader was left confused, and wondered whether this was perhaps how real revolution began? Where these performers more revolutionary than Lenin himself? Or, were they just privileged bourgeoisie play-acting at being revolutionaries? Lenin approached one of the performers and said:
”I don’t know how radical you are, or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough; that is, one must always be as radical as reality itself.”
DADA was like Punk, but without the Rock. It was subversive, dangerous and revolutionary. European DADA was originally created as a protest movement against war. It was formed by a small group of immigrants from Germany (Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Richard Hülsenbeck), Romania (Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara), and Austria (Walter Serner). These individuals were politically motivated, and wanted to express an new kind of mentality, a “destructive agitation against everything”:
No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, no more religions, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more Bolsheviks, no more politicians, no more proletarians, no more democrats, no more armies, no more police, no more nations, no more of these idiocies, no more, no more, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING.
Thus we hope that the novelty which will be the same thing as what we want will come into being less rotten, less immediately GROTESQUE.
DADA may have been a small movement, responding to the “moral bankruptcy” of the day, but its influence has touched upon almost all major artistic and cultural movements of the twentieth century.
Helmut Herbst’s 1968 documentary An Alphabet of German DADAism presents a comprehensive A-Z of the Germans artists and writers who contributed to DADA. Produced and directed by Helmut Herbst, with Hans Richter and Richard Hulsenbeck, featuring sound-artist Kurt Schwitters, satirist George Groz, and artist Max Ernst.
Kurt Schwitters was rebuffed from joining the Berlin Klub-Dada, as he was considered insufficiently political. It was their loss, as Schwitters proved himself to be far more radical and original than anything produced by this political off-shoot of the avant-garde movement.
The rejection disappointed Schwitters, but he was in good company as neither Max Ernst or Jean (Hans) Arp—who had been central figures in the original Zurich Dada group—joined this new Dada political off-shoot. Instead, Hans Arp teamed-up with Schwitters, and the pair collaborated on various projects over the next decade.
In response to his rejection, Schwitters formed his own brand of Dada, which he called Merz—the name lifted from a Hannover bank, “Kommerz und Privat Bank.” Schwitters was influenced by many of Dada’s ideas, in particular he developed some of Arp’s theories about language and the written word.
Arp saw Dada as a constructive force, and defined it as:
“...the primal source of all art. Dada is for the ‘without sense’ of art, which is not to say non-sense. Dada is without sense like nature. Dada is for nature and against art. Dada is direct like nature and tries to find for each its real place.”
Hans Arp ‘Dada Sprüche.’
Arp produced a series of poems where words and phrases were placed together not for their semantic message, but for the possibility in creating sensation through their associate sounds.
the nightbirds carry burning lanterns in the beams of
their eyes. they steer delicate ghosts and ride on wagons
with delicate veins.
Like his paintings and drawings, Arp’s poetry developed organically. His intention was to restore a sense of wonder to the world through sound.
Schwitters, on the other hand, broke language down into individual words and letters, with which he created early examples of Concrete Poetry. His aim was to create a new form of expression.
More on Kurt Schwitters and his ‘Ursonate’ sonata after the jump…
I find it difficult to watch Adam Curtis‘s various acclaimed documentaries without thinking: how much has he taken from Bruce Conner?
Indeed without Conner, would Curtis have developed his magpie, collagist-style of documentary making?
I doubt it, but you (and Curtis) may disagree.
The late Bruce Conner is the real talent here - an artist and film-maker whose work devised new ways of working and presciently anticipated techniques which are now ubiquitously found on the web, television and film-making.
Conner was “a heroic oppositional artist, whose career went against the staid and artificially created stasis of the art world”. Which is academic poohbah for saying Conner kept to his own vision: a Beat life, which channeled his energies into art - with a hint of Dada, Surrealism and Duchamp.
Conner was cantankerous and one-of-a-kind. He would wear an American flag pin. When asked why, he said, “I’m not going to let those bastards take it away from me.”
He kicked against fame and celebrity, seeing art as something separate from individual who created it.
“I’ve always been uneasy about being identified with the art I’ve made. Art takes on a power all its own and it’s frightening to have things floating around the world with my name on them that people are free to interpret and use however they choose.”
Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner attended Witchita University, before receiving his degree in Fine Art from Nebraska University. At university he met and married Jean Sandstedt in 1957. He won a scholarship to art school in Brooklyn, but quickly moved to University of Colorado, where he spent one semester studying art. The couple then moved to San Francisco and became part of the Beat scene. Here Conner began to produce sculptures and ready-mades that critiqued the consumerist society of late 1950’s. His work anticipated Pop Art, but Conner never focussed solely on one discipline, refusing to be pigeon-holed, and quickly moved on to to film-making.
Having been advised to make films by Stan Brakhage, Conner made A MOVIE in 1958, by editing together found footage from newsreels- B-movies, porn reels and short films. This single film changed the whole language of cinema and underground film-making with its collagist technique and editing.
The Conners moved to Mexico (“it was cheap”), where he discovered magic mushrooms and formed a life-long friendship with a still to be turned-on, Timothy Leary. When the money ran out, they returned to San Francisco and the life of film-maker and artist.
In 1961, Conner made COSMIC RAY, a 4-minute film of 2,000 images (A-bombs, Mickey Mouse, nudes, fireworks) to Ray Charles’ song “What I Say”. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Conner produced a series of films that were “precursors, for better or worse, of the pop video and MTV,” as his obituary reported:
EASTER MORNING RAGA (1966) was designed to be run forward or backward at any speed, or even in a loop to a background of sitar music. Breakaway (1966) showed a dancer, Antonia Christina Basilotta, in rapid rhythmic montage. REPORT (1967) dwells on the assassination of John F Kennedy. The found footage exists of repetitions, jump cuts and broken images of the motorcade, and disintegrates at the crucial moment while we hear a frenzied television commentator saying that “something has happened”. The fatal gun shots are intercut with other shots: TV commercials, clips from James Whale’s Frankenstein and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The film has both a kinetic and emotional effect.
REPORT “perfectly captures Conner’s anger over the commercialization of Kennedy’s death” while also examining the media’s mythic construction of JFK and Jackie — a hunger for images that “guaranteed that they would be transformed into idols, myths, Gods.”
Conner’s work is almost a visual counterpart to J G Ballard’s writing, using the same cultural references that inspired Ballard’s books - Kennedy, Monroe, the atom bomb. His film CROSSROADS presented the 1952 atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in extreme slow motion from twenty-seven different angles.
His editing techniques influenced Dennis Hopper in making Easy Rider, and said:
“much of the editing of Easy Rider came directly from watching Bruce’s films”
The pair became friends and Hopper famously photographed Conner alongside Toni Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Mitchell.
Always moving, always progressing, having “no half way house in which to rest”, Conner became part of the San Francisco Punk scene, after Toni Basil told Conner to go check out the band Devo in 1977. He became so inspired when he saw the band at the Mabuhay Gardens that he started going there four night a week, taking photographs of Punk bands, which eventually led to his job as staff photographer with Search ‘n’ Destroy magazine. It was a career change that came at some personal cost.
“I lost a lot of brain cells at the Mabuhay. What are you gonna do listening to hours of incomprehensible rock’n’roll but drink? I became an alcoholic, and it took me a few years to deal with that.”
Conner continued with his art work and films, even making short films for Devo, David Byrne and Brian Eno. In his later years, Conner returned to the many themes of his early life and work, but still kept himself once removed from greater success and fame. He died in 2008.
Towards the end of his life he withdrew his films from circulation, as he was “disgusted” when he saw badly pixelated films bootlegged and uploaded on YouTube. Conner was prescriptive in how his work should be displayed and screened. All of which is frustrating for those who want to see Conner’s films outside of the gallery, museum or film festival, and especially now, when so much of his originality and vision as a film-maker and artist has been copied by others.
‘Mea Culpa’ - David Byrne and Brian Eno. Directed by Bruce Conner