Dada East

Tom Sandqvist. Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire. MIT Press, 2006.

Tom Sandqvist’s book, Dada East: the Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire, is an example of the growing Western interest in the Central and Eastern European avant-garde. This interest has at least two precedents worthy of notice: Steven Mansbach’s book, Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans ca. 1890-1939Stephen Mansbach, Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans ca. 1890-1939, (Cambridge University Press, 1997).  and an important exhibition organized by Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Central European Avant-gardes: 1910-1930, which was accompanied by a substantial catalogue.Timothy O. Benson (Ed.), Eastern European Avant-gardes: 1910-1930, (Cambridge, London: The MIT Press).  Tom Sandqvist’s book aims to achieve a reexamination of Dada Zurich by looking closely at the geopolitical, historical and cultural context from which some of its protagonists emerged. Dada East may be regarded as another contribution employing the recently established perspective and methodology to provide an alternative to the traditional historical accounts of modernism and the avant-garde.

In order to foreground some new hypotheses for the creation of new genres of poetry and performance, Sandqvist makes considerable efforts to demonstrate that the Romanian peasant culture, as well as the Jewish (particularly the Yiddish and Hassidism cultures), infused the intellectual and spiritual background of Tristan Tzara, the Janco brothers and Arthur Segal. These sources became of primary importance for the artistic innovations that took place in Zurich. Although these sources are not to be overlooked, they should nevertheless be more cautiously considered, as the extensive documentation on the doctrine of Hassidism, for example, does not necessarily demonstrate its relevance in the context of the Dada activities, nor does it prove Tzara’s or Janco’s attachment to it.

In the next paragraphs I will focus on the question of Jewishness and Hassidism discussed in the book in the chapters “In Yiddishland” and “Ex Oriente Dada.” After a long excursus that introduces the reader to the history of Hassidism and its development within the Slavic countries and Romania, Sandqvist goes on to conclude, based on mere cultural contiguity, that the “ecstatic dances and songs” associated with the Hassidic rituals had a profound impact on the thinking of both Tzara and Janco: “Undoubtedly, one of the sources of inspiration must have been the surrounding Hassidism when Tzara already around 1914 tried to liberate the words from their lexical meaning at the same time as he tried to create “abstract” poems of pure sounds without mimetic reference to the reality.”Tom Sandqvist, Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire, (Cambridge, London: the MIT Press , 2006),300.

We are also told that Hassidism was at the origin of the modern notion of the désoeuvrement, a notion closely related to the idea of the nullified subject in Tzara’s poetry. The extended discussion around the influence of Hassidism includes the example of Arthur Segal, another Romanian of Jewish origin, who was associated with the movement in Zurich and took part in exhibitions organized by the Dadaists, who published his woodcuts in the Dada magazines Cabaret Voltaire, Dada 3, and Der Zeltung. Segal applied the concept of “artistic equivalence” in his abstract paintings, which was derived from the ethical principle of equality and non-hierarchical organization. Sandqvist is tempted to believe that the Hassidic conviction according to which “all people are equal before God and before themselves in an ultimate, immovable harmony”Ibid., 296. was translated by Segal into his artistic theory, a theory that nonetheless had an explicit political spin.

However, these assumptions are weakened further on in the text when the author admits that “neither the Rosenstock family nor the Janco family confessed Jewish Orthodoxy and Hassidism,” at which point Sandqvist brings forward the argument that Tzara and his well-off family (who had sent him to a French private school in Bucharest) experienced a process of assimilation. According to Sandqvist, this process resulted in a “hide-and-seek” game that Tzara would continue to play with regard to his Jewish identity, as Tzara sought to dissociate himself from his Jewish background but at the same time, preserved some distinctive traits pertaining to the Jewish culture and tradition, which were deeply embedded in his personality.

Sandqvist is unconvincing when, on the one hand, he suggests that Tzara, as an assimilated Jew, wanted to break with the tradition and forge a new identity for himself. But on the other hand, Sandqvist makes a case for a rather unproblematic assimilation of some of the elements which are part of the Jewish culture and tradition and that seem to have suddenly gained an unexpected pertinence for the understanding of the Dada activities. The reader is left with the impression that a richly documented account of the cultural context in which both Tzara and Janco grew up leads automatically to a fresh reading and reevaluation not only of these artists’ activities, but of Dadaism in general. In order to stress the importance of Tzara’s Jewishness, Sandqvist turns to a more general discussion; that of the connection between Jewish culture and the “new modernist aesthetics.” However, Sandqvist offers no consistent or plausible explanation for this linkage and limits himself to briefly mentioning such personalities as Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky and Franz Kafka.Ibid., 306.

Indeed, the discussion around the possible links between Jewish culture and the avant-garde practice is an important topic of the Romanian historiography of modern art and needs to be addressed further. Many scholars have noticed the great number of personalities of Jewish origin associated with the avant-garde movement in Romania; apart from Tzara, Janco and Segal, who are mostly regarded as members of the international avant-garde (Janco being an exception, as he became extremely active in his native country after returning to Bucharest in 1922), other important personalities within the Romanian context include M.H. Maxy, Victor Brauner, Sasa Pana, Ilarie Voronca, F. Brunea-Fox, and B. Fundoianu (Benjamin Fondane). Romanian scholar Andrei Cornea dismisses the idea that there are inherent qualities which might be indicative of a certain Jewish specificity and believes that in Tzara’s case, his Dadaism cannot be put in any kind of relation to his Jewish origin. On the other hand, Stephen Mansbach believes that “these ‘pseudo-Romanians’ as they would later be designated, advocated a culture whose very experimental and cosmopolitan cast would affirm their outsider status while simultaneously making Bucharest an international capital of modernism.”Stephen Mansbach, 248

Mansbach argues that after World War I, when Romania gained new territories and the minority population increased significantly, “the foreignness that had long characterized Romanian culture would take on a new dimension during the 1920s when the avant-garde reached its maturity.”Ibid., 249.   In line with such an assessment, Sandqvist suggests that Tzara’s revolt against the constraints imposed by social conventions may be partly linked to his Jewishness and to the fact that the Jewish population in Romania, and particularly in Moldavia, was subject to racial intolerance, both through anti-Semitic legislation and through a widespread popular resentment against those of Jewish origin.Sandqvist, 277-287. Sandqvist argues that witnessing such unfair treatment of this ethnic minority in his home country might have fueled an attitude of revolt against systemic orders in Tzara, which would be perfectly consistent with the anarchist impulses that existed at Cabaret Voltaire. However, in relation to Jewish identity, Sandqvist’s approach seems to be too simplistic, as he fails to provide an adequate analysis of the identity tensions brought about by the process of assimilation, not to mention the fact that the very issue of Jewish specificity is a delicate subject that cannot be tackled without in-depth consideration.

It is somewhat irritating to follow the book’s construction of this multi-faceted identity of the Romanians at Cabaret Voltaire, as one gets the impression that this identity is composed of disparate parts. There are relatively few instances where it is possible to establish direct links between Eastern-European culture and the activities which took place at Cabaret Voltaire. Emmy Hennings’s connections with the Eastern European cabaret and vaudeville culture before arriving in Zurich are of course pointed at in the book.Ibid., 43, 46-47.  Richard Huelsenbeck, a member of the Dada Zurich group, had already acknowledged this influence when he wrote about Emmy Hennings’s repertoire in one of her first performances at the Meierei Café in Zurich: “These songs, known only in Central Europe, poke fun at politics, literature, human behavior, or anything else that people will understand.”Leah Dickerman, “Zurich,” Leah Dickerman (Ed.), Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris, catalogue of exhibition, National Gallery of Art, (Washington: in association with D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.), 23. 11 Dickerman, 23. Soon however, the manifestations organized at Cabaret Voltaire became more and more radical, pushing the cabaret tradition “to a new avant-garde extreme.Leah Dickerman, 23.  It is difficult to elucidate to what extent the movement in Zurich reconciled, if at all, its international thrust with the allegiance to local or national traditions, or to the different ethnic backgrounds from which its protagonists emerged.

In its intentions, Dada sought to transcend national boundaries and protest against nationalist ideologies. Within this community of artists in exile what mattered most, at least at the beginning, was the collective effort to articulate an attitude of revolt against conventions of all kinds, against institutional frameworks, and against the catastrophe of the war. First and foremost, Dada wanted to accomplish “a great negative work of destruction,” and was a symptom for the crisis of modernity itself. It is worth considering the distance between Tzara’s early symbolist poetry, written while he was in high school in Bucharest, and his forceful protest which attains in Zurich a level of exacerbated proportion: “We took an oath of friendship on the new transmutation that signifies nothing, and was the most formidable protest, the most intense armed affirmation of salvation liberty blasphemy mass combat speed prayer tranquility private guerilla negation and chocolate of the desperate.”Ibid., 25.

An extensive part of the book is dedicated to Romanian sources, which are considered as of yet insufficiently explored in the study and interpretation of Dada. Tzara’s poetic activity before he left to study in Zurich in 1915 was analyzed in a number of studies written by Romanian scholars, including Ion Pop and Ovid S. Crohmalniceanu. While in Bucharest, Tzara and Ion Vinea, founded the magazine Simbolul in 1912, “in which they exercised timidly their attitudes of juvenile rebellion”Ioana Vlasiu, “Bucharest,” Eastern European Avant-gardes, 248-254. (Marcel Janco and Adrian Maniu were regular contributors to the magazine).

After his departure, Tzara maintained contacts with the avant-garde circles in Bucharest, notably with Sasa Pana, who later edited a selection of his first poems, which, following Tzara’s request, contained the literary output he produced after 1912. Tzara would also continue to send materials that were later published in Contimporanul, one of the most important Romanian avant-garde magazines. The magazine, launched in 1922 and edited by Ion Vinea and Marcel Janco, had a pronounced Constructivist orientation. In seeking to better explain Tzara’s poetic development, it is tempting to regard the poetry he wrote in Romania as preparing the stage for the outburst in Zurich. Various commentators have argued that this poetry might be regarded as pre-Dadaist in the radicalism with which it sought to undermine established literary conventions, even leading up to an anti-literary stance and already containing in its uncompromisingly subversive poetic expression the germs of the future revolution.See for instance Ion Pop, Avangarda in literatura românã, (Bucuresti: Editura Atlas, 2000), 43-44.

Tzara’s early poems were nurtured by the Symbolist climate that dominated the modern innovative literature in Romania at the time, in fierce opposition to the traditionalistic trend, which pleaded for conservative forms of artistic expression and themes inspired by the rural life. In the chapter “Symbolists, Absurdists and Futurists,” Sandqvist attempts a thorough reconstruction of the literary milieu in Romania, mentioning all the prominent literary personalities, writersand poets who could have made an impact on the formation of future Dadaists’ literary consciousness. It is still debatable whether, prior to his departure from Romania, Tzara had detached himself from the prevailing symbolist influence and was set to undertake the radical work of the demolition of poetic conventions. The most plausible hypothesis, as Ion Pop suggests, is that on his way to Zurich Tzara already knew what not to do next.Ibid., 44.  In the aforementioned chapter, as in other sections in the book, Sandqvist offers a considerable amount of information and surprises the reader with the vividness of his descriptions.

For instance, he evokes the flamboyant ambiance around the symbolist poet Alexandru Macedonski, “the foremost representative of the new poetry in Romania at the turn of the century.”Sandqvist, 200. If Macedonski’s impact on the young poets from Simbolul can only be vaguely conjectured by taking into account his role as a pioneer of the modern literature, Ion Minulescu exerted a profound influence on an entire generation of poets, and Sandqvist quotes from his poems, putting them parallel to some of Tzara’s early productions. While one can detect similarities between the two with regard to the melancholic tone and the musicality of the free verse, it is nevertheless an exaggeration to claim that “young Rosenstock was dependent on Minulescu.” And it is utterly irrelevant to strengthen this argument by pointing out that both poets had an energetic personality.Ibid., 205.

Tedious biographical digressions and lengthy descriptions of literary texts, such as theatre plays and stories, accompany the mention of such writers as Ion Luca Caragiale and Urmuz, no doubt in order to render more convincing the “strength of the specifically Romanian context.” Caragiale is believed to have provided some ingredients for the Dadaist spirit through the unmerciful sarcasm with which he criticized the mores of the Romanian bourgeoisie in his plays and satirical sketches, while Urmuz (a pseudonym for Demetru Demetrescu-Buzau), the undisputed master of the absurd prose, could not have escaped the perceptive attention of the young Tzara and Janco. It is true that Urmuz was recognized as a major source and became a cult figure for the avant-garde circles in Bucharest; in 1930 an entire issue of the magazine Unu, edited by Sasa Pana, was dedicated to this bizarre personality, who was undoubtedly ahead of his time. But this recognition arrived relatively late and his short stories began to be published only around 1922 (he committed suicide in 1923). Thus, it is difficult to establish a direct influence of Urmuz in Tzara’s writing, bearing in mind that Tzara left his native country in 1915. He might have read the Romanian absurdist later on, after his Zurich period, but Sandqvist fails to allow for this possibility.

There are other inconsistencies which should be stressed: Sandqvist’s inclination to turn demonstrations into syllogisms (if the vaudeville and cabaret tradition was an important precedent for Hennings and Ball, and if this tradition also influenced Caragiale, then there is the obvious link between Tzara, Janco and Caragiale). Also, it is difficult to identify the central focus of this chapter, which deals with the literary context: is the author’s ambition that of unearthing the “domestic points of departure” for the Romanian avant-garde (which coagulated relatively late, around 1924), or for the nucleus of Romanians who took part in Dada Zurich? These two lines of inquiry are not exactly identical and they should be delimited with accuracy.

A persistent confusion mars the discussion of the notion of primitivism in the chapter “In the Romanian Village.” In one of the latest assessments of Dada, Leah Dickerman traces the ramifications and sources of this notion, which infused the artistic practice of the Dadaists in Zurich, arguing that at the inception of Cabaret Voltaire, Hugo Ball played a pivotal role in fostering new forms of artistic expression which became “increasingly radical”: the simultaneous poem, the chants nègres and the sound poetry built on abstract phonemes. Sandqvist seeks to expand these sources of primitivism by invoking the so-far ignored Romanian peasant culture: folk songs, tales and different forms of popular plays such as the Colinde festival and Vicleimul, which featured puppet shows or grotesque characters with masks, strikingly resembling the ones realized by Marcel Janco at Cabaret Voltaire.

This could be a noteworthy interpretation – putting the Romanian popular tradition at the heart of such a crucial problem as the primitivism in the context of Dada Zurich. What flaws this argument (backed again by extensive documentation) is the use of the same methodology: putting together a plethora of facts and information in the hope that they might somehow become incontrovertible evidence for what needs to be demonstrated. A recurring turn of phrase used by Sandqvist is the “internalization” of the depths of the Romanian primitive culture in the case of Tzara and Janco, structuring the psyche on a profound level and merging with other influxes which also informed this primitive consciousness, such as African and Oceanic poetry and art.

If Tzara’s interest in non-European cultures is well documented, to claim that he absorbed into his conception of the primitive specific elements belonging to the Romanian peasant tradition seems a rather hazardous affirmation. Although this speculation is tempting, when Sandqvist draws an analogy with Constantin Brancusi and brings into discussion theories about the Romanian village written by Romanian historians and philosophers in the 20s and 30s, he deviates from his point and falls into incoherence.

Dada East certainly has its merits and succeeds in opening up a discussion about the Romanian contribution to the movement in Zurich. But this effort needs improvement and further reflection in order to achieve a true reconsideration of what Dada was and still is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *