THE NECESSITY FOR DADA
1. Kurt Schwitters
“I have always loved the Dadaists and I am sure they were absolutely necessary. Madness and balance are vital in an insane world.” Lynda Finn.
(Copyright not known)
“The waste of the world becomes my art.” So said Kurt Schwitters.
This collage was made of oddments which he found or was given and which he then stuck together. I was interested to read recently that the number of fake Schwitters available on the market is legion. I hope he would find that amusing.
A preamble grumble before we begin.…
I don’t know about you …. But sometimes the troubles facing our world seem overwhelming. Just this morning on the news I heard of forest fires blazing out of control in Australia, and a massive volcanic eruption in process in Japan. Add to these, landslips in S. America, earthquakes galore, ferocious winter snows in the N. hemisphere, a hurricane wrecking the Queensland coast, tsunami warnings, famine, war, dishonest politicians … and the list goes on.
Beyond all these, we can feel gathering the dark wave of climate change which is fast breaking upon us. It is as though Mother Nature, having endured burning, poisoning, exploitation and neglect has finally turned on us. This was the theme of my last book The Burning Forest in the quartet called A Land Fit for Heroes.
Cassandra like, and in a way that has never happened before, we can now predict what is coming with some accuracy, but we seem unable to take the kind of radical world-wide action that is necessary to guarantee our survival… not to mention the well being of those creatures and plants who are fortunate enough to share our world with us.
When I get deeply upset about such things, one solution is to reach for the Dadaists who thrived in the early decades of the last century. They still seem modern to me, and in their presence, I can find relief as the balance is restored. Hence this article.
The Dada movement is sometimes equated with chaos, and that I think is wrong. Dada confronts chaos and transforms it into a thing of beauty. The movement drew a lot of its energy from the 1st World War which swirled about it like a burning red mist, though the roots of the movement lie earlier. The carnage of that war challenged all values. A generation of young men died, and I have often wondered whether our problems might be the consequence of the loss of that genetic inheritance. And then, two decades later, along came another war… and then another.
Coming from the forge of those early catastrophic years of the 20th Century, Dada is the purest and simplest expression of the creative spirit, which is to say it can not be reduced or finally explained. It is! Da! Da! (Yes! Yes! – according to one explanation of the origin of the name.)
I was a student when I discovered that the irreverence and iconoclasm and sheer joie de vivre of Dada could restore my spirits. I hope it will do the same for yours. Let us begin with Kurt Schwitters.
(As ever I am grateful to Wikipedia for this image.)
This is Kurt Scwitters in a picture taken in 1944 by his son Ernst. He could be a professor of literature could he not? Or a top scientist at CERN unravelling the mysteries of the universe? Well he is, or was (for he died in England in 1948), something more than both of these. He was a one-man, walking exponent of Dada and his legacy is huge. I can do no better than quote Hans Richter from his book DADA Art and Anti Art.
“Schwitters was absolutely, unreservedly, 24 hours a day PRO-art. His genius had no time for transforming the world, or values, or the present, or the future, or the past; no time if fact for any of the things that were heralded by blasts of Berlin’s Trumpet of Doom. There was not talk of the ‘death of art’, or ‘non-art’, or ‘anti-art’ with him. On the contrary, every tram ticket, every envelope, cheese wrapper or cigar band, together with old shoe soles or shoe-laces, wire, feathers, dish cloths, – everything that had been thrown away – all this he loved, and restored to an honoured place in life by means of his art.”
The stories about him are legion. How he introduced himself saying, “ I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.” How he was rejected by some of the early Dadaists because he had a “bourgeois face.” I suspect they were jealous of his boundless creativity which revealed its self in paintings, collages, wit, performances, poetry and the peculiar columns he used to construct wherever he lived, and into which he would place small objects gleaned from his visitors. I take some joy from the fact that though he was a German exiled in England after the 2nd War, he was accorded some recognition and support by a Northern farmer who let him work in his barn. The evidence of his presence is still there in Ambleside. And now, of course, he is famous.
From Hans Richter again, here is a description of a Schwitters’ reading one of his poems in Potsdam, the military citadel of the old Prussian monarchy. His audience is a crowd of retired generals and other people of rank. “Schwitters stood on the podium, drew himself up to his full six feet plus and began to perform his Primeval Sonata. Complete with hisses, roars and crowings, before an audience who had no experience whatever of anything modern…. I watched delighted as two generals in front of me pursed their lips as hard as they could to stop laughing…. And then they lost control. They burst out laughing and the whole audience, freed from the pressure that had been building up inside them, exploded in an orgy of laughter.”
Would I had been there. Perhaps nowadays, Schwitters is best known for his visual art, and in particular, for his collages (see the opening illustration). I am told that many “original Schwitters collages” are now offered for sale on the Internet. Beware, most are forgeries. In the spirit of Schwitters – if you want a collage, make one yourself.
There is a story that he would board a tram or a train, equipped with his cardboard and glue. Then he would ask his fellow travellers to contribute anything from their pockets. These objects he would arrange into a pattern and glue them onto his cardboard. He would then give or sell the collage to the amused spectators. After which he would bid them farewell and board another tram. Whether he made much money at this I do not know. But I do not think that was the most important thing in his mind. Anna Blume, that mysterious, mythical, magical lady was surely on his mind and he celebrated her in any way he could.
So, collages apart, it is good to remember that Schwitters was also a fine poet and it this side of his work that I now wish to celebrate.
Consider the following love poem called simply…
On Anna Bloom
O beloved of my twenty seven senses, I
love your! –You ye you your, I you, you my,
This belongs (by the way) elsewhere.
Who are you, uncounted female? You are
– are you? People say you are, – let
them say on, they don’t know a hawk from a handsaw.
You wear your hat upon your feet and walk round
on your hands, upon your hands you walk.
Halloo, your red dress, sawn up in white pleats.
Red I love Anna Blume, red I love your! You
ye you your, I your, you my, – We?
This belongs (by the way) in icy fire.
Red bloom, red Anna Blume, what do people say?
Prize question: 1) Anna Blume has a bird.
2) Anna Blume is red.
3) What colour is the bird?
Blue is the colour of your yellow hair.
Red is the cooing of your green bird.
You simple girl in a simple dress, you dear
green beast, I love your! You ye you your,
I your, you my – We?
This belongs (by the way) in the chest of fires.
Anna Blume! Anna, a –n-n-a, I trickle your
name. Your name drips like softest tallow.
Do you know, Anna, do you know already?
You can also be read from behind, and you, you,
The loveliest of all, are from behind, as you are from
Tallow trickles caressingly down my back.
Anna Blume, you trickle beast, I love your!
Before I start, let me say that I have already been taken to task for being slightly anti-Dada in my approach. Fighting Finn, from the Blume corner, caught me with a swift uppercut stating, “reading through your explanation of the Blume/Bloom love poem, I wonder if you are not trying to place a Dadaist writing into too conservative a box? Dada, by its very nature, either defies explanation or leaves that entirely to the reader’s perceptions. It is too wild and free to be contained in an explanation.
And she is right. All I can plead, from my position prone on the canvas, is that it is not my intention to explain this poem. I start from a belief that a work of art is already the simplest expression that a given idea can take. What I do want to do is share my own delight in the poem. To do so I have to reveal what I see and, being a teacher, I feel compelled to explain “Why.” My hope is that my thoughts will inspire you to think further and make the poem your own. But to be on the safe side I have reduced my offering.
I want to share and celebrate the poem’s fun, wit and passion. It is, after all, a love poem… and LOVE, whatever else it might be, is sublimely irrational and can lead us a merry dance. Love is real. As is the cheeky smile of the muse whose aid all artists seek, and the dream lover whose arms we crave. It is my belief that all are present here.
The first thing you must do is read the poem aloud. Read it with the same concern for clarity and rhythm and passion as you would if reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” of Auden’s “Lay your sleeping head my love,”
Don’t worry about the meaning for the moment. Do it now.
After which, a Preliminary Note.
The original poem was written in German, and what you have here is, for the most part, quite a direct translation. The German word “blume” is normally translated as ‘flower’. But here the translator has chosen to treat it as a surname. This frees him to pun on the word ‘bloom’ which can indeed, in English, be a synonym for a flower. Bloom also has other implications suggesting something that is bursting out, is fresh and at the stage before ripeness. That too is Anna.
It is good to remember the idea of flowers as you read the poem, especially their fragrance and their colours.
In line 7, the original German can be literally translated as “They don’t know how the church steeple stands.” A line which has its own implications.
Stepping Through the first three lines of the Poem
Line 1. We normally content ourselves with five senses, but love has evidently enriched this lover with expanded organs of sense. What could they be? Touch for example immediately expands and specializes to lips, tongue, skin, finger tips…. Taste opens to….
Not to mention the higher faculties of imagination and fantasy. Make a list and you may come up with more than 27.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew what Schwitters was talking about when she wrote “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Though our poet is perhaps a bit more profane and earthy.
And look how the “I” is suspended at the end of the line in the full erect vitality of being, but awaiting fulfilment….
…which is achieved in Line 2 with the words “love your! “ This should be very emphatic. Note the exclamation mark.
Hang on. Your what? The poet does not say. He leaves a gap which we must fill. Many things spring immediately to mind beginning with the sensual and physical parts of the body: eyes, lips, arms and so on down. Or perhaps it is more abstract such as a vague feeling of promise, which might lead to joy and abandonment. We are talking about LOVE remember, and this perhaps invites us to ask questions of our self. The truth is, I suspect, that this lover loves everything, everything that is connected to his loved one, and so no single, solitary thing can be named. What a dilemma!
As regards the rest of the line, it is the rhythm which counts. The words suggest either the tentative approach of the lover as he edges towards the longed for, hoped for, deeply desired first date, first kiss, first touch, first reciprocation. For all lovers each of these is a moment of truth.
Or, more robustly, the line can be read as the building to an orgasm. Try both readings or mix them up. Remember the poem was written to be acted.
In both cases the conclusion is “We” – union, togetherness, the two become one, the end of the quest…. Or perhaps the end of stage one.
But do note that the climax is so strong and full that the single word “We” fills up the entire line … What fulfilment! And we are only on line 3.
And here I will stop. I think I have said enough to set the wheels moving and the rest of the slope is all down hill, gathering speed. I trust, however, that I will not be accused of the literary equivalent of coitus interruptus. Find your own way. But if you would like to know more about the background to the poem and the controversy it provoked, I can do no better than recommend the article An Anna Blume in Wikipedia.
I would love to know what you, having read this far, find in the rest of the poem as well as how you react to this brief introduction.
Dada, in its many manifestations, has the ability to provoke. Some readers and viewers do not like this, but to me there is something ancient about Dada, something primeval and just-out-of-reach yet sensible: like the silence before the big bang or the in-breath before the great and original, “I AM”
Therein lies its powers to lift one’s spirit.
So. Enjoy Dada
In a later posting I hope to have a look at the work of Hans (Jean) Arp, another painter/poet whose work has stood the test of time.
The last thing I want to say is that while the power of the old Dada movement lives on, we must, I believe, avoid trying to make it serve contemporary feelings of alienation or cynicism. Such feelings can easily slip into passivity and disengagement.
We, in the present age, do not have that luxury. Our plight on all fronts is eminently understandable and the outcome can be predicted if we care to look. Above all, our dangerous situation calls for action that is thoughtful, swift, compassionate, cooperative and effective…. Before it is too late.
We turn to Dada because the works of men such as Schwitters and Arp and Richter and Duchamp et al are unique, and they tease us, and challenge us in deep ways, and make us think. They remind us that creativity is always positive and a cause for growth, painful though that may sometimes be.
While saying that, I am also recognising that in addition to the effervescent Dionysic wine of Dada, we need the cool, clear and compassionate water of a writer such as Brecht who towards the end of his life, wrote as follows:
AND I ALWAYS THOUGHT.
And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.
Surely you see that.
(It is that 4th line that gets me.)