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“ROTATION REROTATION SUPRAROTATION”

PRAGUE DADA & THE REVISIONIST POLITICS OF INTERWAR AVANT-GARDISM

 

It is a frequently repeated assertion that Dada, like the Plague of 1348, passed the City of a Thousand Spires by – an assertion given credence by the few commentaries & ripostes published by the likes of Roman Jakobson & Karel Teige between 1921 & 1926, & uncritically repeated by contemporary historians like Karel Srp (as in MIT Press’ Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930 [2002], for example). Yet the assertion is a highly doubtful one. In his 2007 article, Dada in Bohemia & Moravia, Ludvík Kundera wrote: “The very title sounds doubtful: the Czech lands after WW1 were an island in the ‘sea’ of defeated countries. The end of WW1 brought us freedom, sovereignty, positive, well-nigh optimistic tendencies, whereas Germany was in the throws of chaos, negation running rampant, no perspectives, so the belief was that in Bohemia there was no matrix for Dada: the whole movement was dismissed on the basis of a very superficial view of its doubtful value.”[1] Only during the 1960s, when Prague became Fluxus-East HQ under the direction of Milan Knížák, did research into the city’s Dada & “Ur-Dada” movements commence with any seriousness, although with the third wave of national revivalism after the Velvet Revolution, this too seems to have been consigned in turn to the “dustbin of history”: Srp conspicuously makes no mention of Kundera in founding his assertion that “Only in the mid-1920s did Dadaism become the centre of attention,” but in Brno, not Prague. “The only artist linked with the original Dadaism who had marked success in Prague,” Srp insists, “was Kurt Schwitters” who “put on an evening of poetry in 1926.”[2]

This view is directly contradicted in a 1965 article by none other than Adolf Hoffmeister (a self-professed Dadaist & longtime friend of John Heartfield), who recounts the arrival in Prague in 1920 of the Dadaists Richard Huelsenbeck, Raoul Hausmann & Johannes Baader at the Old Crop Exchange on Senovážné náměstí – announced in the Prager Tagblatt of 25 February with an article by Hausmann entitled “What does Dada want in Europe?” Hoffmeister writes:

Their 1 March performance looked ominous. The Czechs were anti-German. The Germans were anti-Bolshevik. The police were suspicious. […] With Baader having defected with half the manuscripts, the remaining two protagonists – one German and the other Czech-German from Vienna – had to improvise. “The Race between a typewriter and a sewing machine.” Hausmann’s “Sixty-One-Step.” They played, they read, they shouted, they danced, whatever came to mind. The performance was a sweeping success. For the first time ever Dadaists were accepted by an uninitiated audience with resounding applause. And it happened in Prague.[3]

This success was commemorated by Hausmann in his 1920 photomontage, Dada Siegt (“Dada Conquers,” a.k.a. “A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement”), in which Hausmann himself is seen standing centre-right beside an easel displaying an image of Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Huelsenbeck records the event in En avant dada: Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus, published the same year by Paul Steegemann in Hanover:

The newspapers launched a monstrous anti-dada propaganda a few weeks before our arrival in Prague. Still there were crowds in the streets, shouting rhythmically after us: da-da, da-da… The manifestation was to begin at 8 o’clock. Thousands of people thronged at the entrance… Baader disappeared… At 8:20 we got a letter from him… We had to start without him.[4]

The next day, Kundera reports, the Prague evening daily Bohemia ran a lengthy report entitled “Dada Scandal in Prague.” Similar articles also appeared in Národní demokracie and Národní politika.[5] For his part, Hausmann described the event as “problematic,” writing in a 1965 letter to Kundera:

At first we visited a number of editor offices, but the social democrats threatened us with a beating since we’re communists, and at the Prager Tagblatt they were so kind as to pull out a revolver and menace us with using it against us as instigators. Shortly before our soirée Baader disappeared and, while looking for him, I found – in the cupboard beneath my clothes – a letter from him. He’d decided to return to Berlin and in order to screw up our show he’d taken all the manuscripts with him. The public, 1,200 people approx., were livid. Huelsenbeck & I together read a simultaneous poem improvised from two newspaper articles, talking complete gobbledygook. When the tumult became too much, Huelsenbeck announced I would now dance the “Sixty-One Step.” Whenever the public was too outraged, I had to dance something in order to calm everyone down. In the end it was a sweeping success. The next evening we presented another show to a relatively calm audience, having meanwhile quickly written new texts. Then we went to Karlovy Vary, where the soirée got cancelled following threats of violence.

All of these accounts give a different picture to the one painted by Srp & uncritically repeated – for example in Pavlína Morganová’s History of Czech Action Art – that “very rarely is there a link to Dadaism or Futurism, as is common in a western context. These avant-garde trends did not evoke much of a response in the Czech[oslovak] milieu… where there was very little room for Dadaist provocation & impertinence.”[6] While Morganová notes (somewhat confusedly) that “in 1920 & 1922 two important productions of Swiss & German Dadaism were held in Prague,” she nevertheless insists that “Dada in its original form” had no “repercussions”.[7]  The activities of the Prague “Devětsil” group (founded in 1920), meanwhile, were at best ambivalent in their acknowledgement of Dada’s influence, as evinced in the writings of its most prominent members Nezval & Teige, neither of whom demonstrated any great appreciation of Dada in any case (with the notable exception of Teige’s “Dada Military Parade” article in Pásmo, December 1925).[8]

Srp & Morganová’s nativist view of the Prague art scene misrepresents the internationalism both of Dada & the city itself. (It’s not for nothing that Hoffmeister, like Walter Mehring, characterised Hausmann as a Viennese Czech poet.) As Tzara wrote in “Monsieur Antipyrine’s Manifesto” (1916): “Civilisation is still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours so as to adorn the zoo of art with all the flags of the consulates.”[9] Yet for all the attempts at “Germanising” Dada, as a superficial & foreign influence – evoking the very chauvinisms Dada was born in response to – this account fails on its own terms.

Kundera, in examining what had so often been depicted as a series of brief incursions by Berlin Dadaists into an otherwise indifferent Prague environment, echoes testimonies by František Halas, Walter Serner, & Miroslav Topinka, pointing to an existing Dada & Ur-Dada scene, contemporary with Dada’s transition from Zürich to Paris & Berlin. Topinka identifies the work of Ladislav Klíma, in particular Voyage of the Blind Snake in Search of Truth – written in German in 1917 with František Böhler – as exhibiting “strong Ur-Dadaist features,”[10] along with the cabaret performances of Jaroslav Hašek which (in conjunction with the writings of Schwitters in particular) had an important influence on the Liberated Theatre of Jiří Voskovec ‎& Jan Werich, & Jiří Frejka’s shortlived 1927 “Dada” theatre.

Importantly, Kundera identifies the host of Baader, Huelsenbeck & Hausmann’s first Prague visit (in February & March of 1920) as the local writer Melchior Vischer, who later that same year was to publish the Prague “Merzroman,” Sekunde dirch Hirn (Second through Brain) – “a book,” Kundera notes, to be “counted among the ultradadaist texts.” Not only this, but in Vischer’s correspondence with Francis Picabia & Tristan Tzara, Second through Brain was hailed as the “first Dada novel” (“‘insofar,’ as Vischer himself wrote in a letter from January of that year, ‘as one can still use the silly word “novel” at all’”).[11]

Vischer’s “novel” was published in Steegemann’s well-known Silbergäule series (alongside works by Huelsenbeck, Schwitters & Serner), with a cover designed by Schwitters himself. It served as the focal point of Dragan Aleksić’s “Dadaism” article, published in the April issue of Zenit, in which he examined the paradox of a “Dada novel”: “A novel is a mistake… A novel is a long-winding tapeworm. A novel should be thrown about… A DADA-novel is an electrical radium rapid jolt. (Melchior Vischer Prague…).”[12] The article goes on to proclaim: “DADA is developing everywhere. DADA has representatives in Prague & their success spreads as fast as drum fire.”[13]

Aleksić’s article, like Jakobson & Teige’s “Dada” essays of the same year, coincided with the arrival in Prague of none other than Tzara himself, who remained in the city until September. Vischer’s correspondence with Tzara had begun in 1918, around the time Serner – a founding figure of Dada & native of Karlovy Vary – published his “manifesto,” Letzte Lockerung [Last Loosening] (“What can the first brain that appeared on this globe possibly have been doing?”), section 4 of which concerns “the novel etc.: the gents talk as if on the spit, or lately not at all. Just a little more sweat & the thing is a success: belles letters!”[14] The first dedicated Dada journal appeared in Prague the following year. Entitled Ruch, it featured in its September 1919 issue a Czech translation of Huelsenbeck’s Was ist Dadaismus? (which Teige acknowledged having read; he contributed an article on photography to the following issue). Ruch joined Červená Sedma cabaret’s Bulletin, which in mid-1919 published Kurt Schwitters’ Dada theatre manifesto, To All the Theatres in the World, along with an excerpt from “Ferenc Futurista’s Dadaist poetry” & was soon augmented by the tireless Dada propaganda of Aleksić & Branko Ve Poljanksi (both active in Prague in 1921), whose Zenit, Dada-Jok, Dada Tank & Dada Jazz magazines, while published in Zagreb, would include major statements of Prague Dada & “anti-dada.”

Despite the ongoing dispute between Tzara & the Berlin group, there is a sense that in 1921 he was in search of a new centre of operations, with his position in Paris under challenge from André Breton & Prague appearing as a potential alternative. Vischer, as the movement’s principle local representative, is named among the prospective contributors to Picabia & Tzara’s proposed Dadaglobe anthology. Yet the strong Prague-Berlin alignment (& the hostility of groups like Devětsil) seems to have put paid to this idea & Tzara focused his attentions further east.

Vischer’s domestic prominence in the early ’20s, however, was no less significant. After serving briefly in WWI (being invalided from a Hungarian infantry regiment in Galicia) & then graduating from Charles University, Vischer worked as a theatre critic for the major daily Prager Presse, where he was an early champion of the work of Franz Werfel, Robert Musil & Franz Kafka, while in 1923 he received “honourable mention from the committee for the highly prestigious Kleist prize.”[15] During the mid-’20s Vischer, with his actress wife Eva Segaljewitsch, staged productions of experimental theatre, including Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. – contemporaneous with Artaud’s appearance in Theodore Komisarjevsky’s version of the same play in Paris. The Brno critic Ernst Weiß, meanwhile, writing in Das Tage-Buch, compared Second Through Brain in its significance to the innovations of Cézanne, adding: “In every line of this extraordinary work there’s the effortless gift of grace: poetry… Dada is a form, Dada itself is a form for a poet.”[16] Vischer was even the subject of a poem by Czech avantgardist Zdeněk Lorenc, entitled “Melchior Vischer the Ex-Dada Wrote on This Day…”

On closer inspection, Vischer was far from a lone voice. David Vichnar, Vischer’s English-language co-translator, has proposed a tentative bibliography of additional Prague Dada activities, from the beginning of WWI through the interwar period, which looks like this:

AVANT-DADA before 1920

a) Červená Sedma (The Red Seven) Cabaret, 1909-22 – Vlasta Burian, Ferenc Futurista & Jarda Bráška

b) Jaroslav Hašek, Cabaret Performances & Lectures (1912-4)

c) Ladislav Klíma & František Böhler, The Blind Serpent’s Quest for the Truth (1916-8)

 

DADA IN PRAGUE & BRNO: 1920s

A) Dada manifesto(s)

a) Walter Serner, Last Loosening (1918)

b) Richard Huelsenbeck, “Was will der Dadaismus in Europa” (Ruch magazine, 15 Sept 1919) & Prager Tagblatt articles (1920)

c) Kurt Schwitters, “To All Theatres in the World” (Červená sedma Bulletin, 1919)

 

B) Dada poetry

a) František Halas, “Boulevard of Dadaism” & other mid-20s poems

b) Václav Lacina, Bristling (Zježení, 1925) – a parody on the naïveté of poetism

c) E. F. Burian, Idioteon (1926) – anti-bourgeois, brutal, iconoclastic & anti-war

 

C) Dada theory

a) Roman Jakobson, “Dada” (1921)

b) Bedřich Václavek, “Creative Dada” (Host, 1925)

c) František Halas, “Dadaism” (lecture in Brno, 1925)

d) Karel Teige, “Dada Military Parade” (Pásmo, Dec 1925)

e) Vítězslav Nezval, “On Dada & Surrealism” (Fronta, 1927)

f) Jiří Voskovec, “The Turtle No One Mentions” (Fronta, 1927)

 

D) Dada theatre

a) E.F. Burian, The Bassoon & the Flute (1920) – a theatrical fairy-tale ballet inspired by Ballet mécanique

b) Jiří Frejka, Dada Theatre, 1927-8 – texts by Václav Lacina, Visací stoly & Ozubené okno (Suspended Tables & A Cogged Window)

c) Jiří Voskovec & Jan Werich; Jindřich Honzl, Liberated Theatre – the avantgarde pseudo-Dada movement of “hovadism” / “dunceism”

d) Adolf Hoffmeister – The Bride (1927) – staged in the Liberated Theatre

 

E) Dada magazines

a) TRN (Thorn) – from 1924 onwards – parodic, provocative in the spirit of Hašek, Dada-texts & pseudo-manifestos, photo-montages… often censored & confiscated

b) ŠLEHY (Quips)

c) TAM-TAM – “musical leaflet” with E.F. Burian’s “Aesthetics” & a text by Ctibor Blatný on Ladislav Klíma

 

F) Dada prose

a) Karel Konrad, Rinaldino (1927) Dinah (1928)

It’s necessary to reassess, then, the entire character of Dada’s status in Prague between the wars & to come to terms with the fact of Prague Dada as a distinct cultural phenomenon. In doing so, it is necessary also to recontextualise key aspects of the history of European avantgardism between the wars & to understand in a different light the significance of the ongoing exchanges between Prague & Berlin Dada that characterised the major avantgarde developments in the region during the 1920s & 1930s – no longer as isolated incidences, but as part of an integral narrative with a number of wide-ranging implications.

Up until the annexation of the Sudetenland & the declaration of the Nazi Protectorate, Prague continued to serve as a major cultural crossroads, hosting among others a succession of prominent Dadaists – including Schwitters (who visited multiple times & began composing his Ur-Sonate during a trip with Hausmann & Hanna Höch in September 1921, soon after Tzara’s departure),[17] Walter Mehring, Hans Richter, Max Ernst & (perhaps most notably) John Heartfield. Heartfield – who, along with George Grosz, is considered one of the inventors of photomontage – spent six years in Prague from 1933, mostly producing anti-Nazi art for his brother Wieland Herzfelde’s communist-affiliated Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung. Throughout that time, Heartfield’s name remained near the top of the Gestapo’s wanted list & his work was repeatedly the object of police suppression at the behest of Hitler’s government.

In many respects, the period from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s provides the key to understanding the situation of Prague Dada during the previous decade. It represents a period of consolidation within the Prague avantgarde between a mainstream represented by Devětsil, Poetism & later Surrealism (whose principle figures were Teige & Nezval),[18] & a continuing current of Dada situated both aesthetically & politically on the radical fringe. During this time Teige published a series of articles – in ReD, Disk & Pásmo – by turns misrepresenting, attacking, dismissing & outright appropriating Dadaism, & it is this line that predominated into the 1960s & again after 1989. Yet Dada maintained a significant presence in Czechoslovakia throughout the interwar period. The Liberated Theatre, for example, had already produced work by Apollinaire & Jarry, staged Schwitters’ Ursonate in May 1926 & Schattenspiel (“Shadow Play”) the following year; Krasoumná jednota staged a retrospective exhibition of Schwitters collages in Prague while František Kalivoda organised an exhibition of 42 collages by Hannah Höch at the Masaryk student house in Brno; & in 1934 & 1937 Hoffmeister curated major exhibits at Mánes Gallery in Prague featuring work by Heartfield – both censored by the Interior Ministry. Heartfield fled Prague in 1938, ahead of the Nazi invasion, along with Hausmann, who’d served for the previous two years as Prague secretary of the International Association of Architects. Walter Serner was not so lucky &, after deportation to Terezín, perished in a 1942 transport to Latvia.

The Dadaist’s radical antifascist credentials may also go some way to explaining the whitewashing of the history of Prague’s interwar avantgarde, considering the adherence of Teige & in particular Nezval to Communist Party orthodoxy & the effect of Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. In a letter to Jindřich Chalupecký on 7 April 1965, Hausmann recollected his relationship with Teige at that time: “I have to confirm that Czech artists & sculptors wanted to have nothing to do with me in 1937-38, especially Mr Teige. I’d like to mention that Teige knew about my person & work quite a lot, having collaborated with the G review, edited in 1921-4 by Hans Richter.” Four years later, in a letter to Topinka (20 November 1969), Hausmann wrote: “When I was in Prague in 1937-38, Karel Teige – who had known me well – not only ignored me but since (in that period) he was a Surrealist, actively campaigned against me.”[19]

The Protectorate would always be a sore point for the self-styled Prague avantgarde of the Poetists-turned-Surrealists, who – despite their frequent proclamations – had never in fact gone through a revolutionary period, being bystanders in 1938 as they were in 1918, annexed to the positivist project of the new Czechoslovak nation state & the celebration of Soviet Russia. The calculated indifference, tinged with passive aggression, of their initial response to Dada belied a reactionary “avantgardist” play-acting, of the kind adverted to in Grosz & Heartfield’s 1920 tract, “Der Kunstlump,” in which they proclaimed: “All indifference is counter-revolutionary.”[20] In the end, the campaign against Prague Dada was merely révisionniste.

 

LOUIS ARMAND

Prague, March 2018

 

[1] Ludvík Kundera, “Dada in Bohemia & Moravia” (2007): http://www.pwf.cz/rubriky/dalsi-projekty/dada-east/ludvik-kundera-dada-v-cechach-a-na-morave_3246.html.

[2] Karel Srp, “Prague & Brno,” Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930, eds. Timothy O. Benson & Éva Fogács (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002) 358.

[3] Adolf Hoffmeister, Čas se nevrací (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1965) 196.

[4] Qtd in Miroslav Topinka Hadí Kámen: Eseje, články, skici 1966-2006 (Brno: Host, 2007): cf. Richard Huelsenbeck, En avant dada: Geschichte der Dadaismus (Hannover: Steegemann, 1921) 88.

[5] Kundera, “Dada in Bohemia & Moravia.”

[6] Pavlína Morganová, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art & Performance Art Behind the iron Curtain (Prague: Karolinum, 2015) 37-38.

[7] Morganová, Czech Action Art, 38.

[8] In part this may be attributed to the diffuse nature of the interwar scene in Prague, which also spans the irrealism of Kafka, the “science fiction” of Karel Čapek, the experimental poetics of Marina Tsvetaeva & the structuralism of Jakobson & René Wellek, among others. In part, too, to the political situation following the declaration of Czechoslovak independence in 1918, Pan-Slavonicism, & the orientations of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (which, in tandem with a degree of Francophilia, was a major catalyst for the strong reception of Surrealism in the mid-30s).

[9] Tristan Tzara, “Monsieur Antipyrine’s Manifesto,” The Dada Painters & Poets: An Anthology, ed. Robert Motherwell (Cambridge, MA: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951) 73-97.

[10] Only volume 1 of the book has survived: see Topinka Hadí Kámen, 100.

[11] Ctd in “Radiantly Splattered,” introduction to Second Through Brain, trans. Tim König & David Vichnar (London; Equus Press, 2015) 7.

[12] Aleksić, “Dadaism,” 350.

[13] Dragan Aleksić, “Dadaizam,” Zenit 3 (April 1921), trans. Maja Starčević as “Dadaism,” in Between Worlds, 350.

[14] Walter Serner, Last Loosening: 1-10, trans. David Vichnar (London: Equus Press, 2018): equuspress.wordpress.com//2018/09/12/walter-serner-last-loosening-1918-dada-manifesto-prague-dada-miscellany-part-five/

[15] Ctd in “Radiantly Splattered,” 5.

[16] Ctd in “Radiantly Splattered,” 8.

[17] Topinka Hadí Kámen, 88.

[18] Derek Sayer’s Prague: Capital of the 20th Century ably charts the belated emergence – within this period – of Prague Surrealism, which first declared itself in 1934 & cemented its claims with Breton’s & Paul Éluard’s visit the following year. It is singularly notable, however, that at precisely the same time as Teige & the Devětsil group first declared an affiliation to the international Surrealist movement – & despite Teige’s earlier turn towards a certain technicism, evident in his writings on film, photography & collage – that the very active presence in the city of the major Dada figure, Heartfield (some of whose most iconic works of photomontage were produced during this period of exile), was largely ignored. What we see is that, behind these competing critiques of “realist” aesthetic ideology among the Prague avant-garde (including both domestic & Italo-Germanic “national socialism” as well as Soviet “socialist realism”), is a critical-historical unreality that has remained troublingly unexamined in the broader modernist discourse.

[19] Topinka, Hadí Kámen, 89-90.

[20] George Grosz & John Heartfield, “Der Kunstlump,” Der Gregner 10/12 (1919/1920): 48-56.

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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