Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 30, 2021
Emily Hage Dada Magazines: The Making of a Movement New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2021. 256 pp.; 10 color ills.; 58 b/w ills. Cloth $115.00 (9781501342660)

Emily Hage’s well-written and lucidly argued book is a valuable contribution to the Dada scholarship. It is not the first study to emphasize the centrality of journals to the Dada movement—Dawn Ades’s pioneering exhibition catalog Dada and Surrealism Reviewed of 1978 did that, as did her Dada Reader, coedited with Hage in 2006. But whereas those volumes (along with the chapters devoted to Dada in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, vol. 3, 2013) function as surveys and as essential reference resources, Hage’s book offers something different. It provides an introduction, a cohesive narrative, and a path through the movement from a revised perspective in which journals take center stage.

Dada Magazines is divided into five roughly chronological chapters, each centered on a particular grouping of journals: the first on the Zurich-based Cabaret Voltaire and early issues of Dada; the second on the Parisian issues of Dada and the Berlin Der Dada; the third on journals that doubled as exhibition catalogs, such as Bulletin D (Cologne); the fourth on New York Dada; and the fifth on journals issued farther afield, in countries including Romania (75 HP) and the newly formed Yugoslavia (Dada Tank; Dada Jazz). No claim is made for comprehensiveness, or even that these titles represent the movement’s most important magazines. Rather, the choice to focus on this circumscribed group (depending on how one counts, Dada journals could number anywhere from fifteen to two hundred) allows for an incisive discussion of how these journals functioned: not simply as mouthpieces or as products of the movement but also—on a structural level—as models for key characteristics of the movement itself. Hage suggests that we view journals as more than a “medium”—to borrow Rosalind Krauss’s nomenclature from a different context—but also as a “theoretical object” (Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 2: 289–305). That is to say, that we consider the form and material qualities of journals as integral to the character of the Dada movement itself, thus distinguishing it from movements that preceded it and highlighting its impact on those that followed.

According to Hage, the journal informed the expansive, decentered, international reach of the Dada movement, and from the realm of graphic layout and the printshop, certain key tactics—such as photomontage and the readymade—rose to prominence. Hage neatly parses what she recognizes to be key journal-centric properties and examines each in depth, one by one, chapter by chapter. In place of an encyclopedic approach, then, Hage offers a tightly selected series of case studies to support her thesis, declared in the book’s subtitle, that the magazines “made” the Dada movement.

The first and fifth chapters explore the mobility and networking potential of the print journal: its reach beyond the specificity of place to make contact across geographic, political, and linguistic barriers. A product of the hypertrophic nationalism of its time, Dada’s programmatic antinationalism was embodied in circulating journals. The editors’ perpetual struggles with censorship—both during and after the First World War—testified to the significance of international outreach as a defiant, political gesture in itself, regardless of the specific content and subject matter of the texts and images featured. The creation of Dada’s international network exposed fault lines in early twentieth-century European culture, evidenced in a wide range of fears: of espionage, of migration, and of Bolshevism, to name a few. The specter of censorship appears like a leitmotif throughout the book. Pursuing precisely what was at stake, for whom, and how this changed and developed in the decade under consideration (1916 to 1926) is not the purview of this book, but one hopes that this volume will prompt further investigation in this area.

The second chapter focuses on the material aspects of journals: the specificity of ink on paper and the mechanics of the printshop. Here Hage makes a convincing argument that, far from being a transparent means to convey content, the materiality of the journals was, in fact, self-consciously foregrounded. The mixing of typefaces, overlapping of texts, and embrace of “mistakes” such as typos or “unaligned or uneven print registrations” (65) were purposeful gestures, intended to “call attention to the very mechanisms of production” (citing Johanna Drucker, 71) and to create “disturbance[s] of communication” (citing Arndt Niebisch, 65). Such interventions announce, in effect, the journals’ own means: this is how one makes a journal, they seem to say, gathering diverse contributions, reproducing them with printing blocks and ink on paper, and disseminating them broadly. Process is foregrounded with the effect, in Matthew Witkovsky’s words, of “interrogat[ing] the production and distribution of information in the media age” (65). Hage incisively describes this tendency as an act of “expos[ing]” or “lambast[ing]” codes (65).

The third chapter argues for the idea that editorial practices particular to the journal page functioned as concrete, tangible models for Dadaist exhibition installation practices. The well-documented installation of the 1920 Berlin Dada-Messe (Dada Fair) famously presented mechanically reproduced journal pages, photographic blowups, and printers’ offprints, as well as objects—such as photomontages and assemblages—created from such sources, cheek by jowl, like so many textual and visual elements assembled in a printer’s chase. Scholars have long likened this installation to an eclectic, heterogeneous journal page “exploded,” as it were, on the gallery wall. The page, writ large in three-dimensional space, had the effect of dwarfing and bombarding the viewer. It functioned more like the streets of a twentieth-century metropolis than like the contemplative space of a traditional art gallery. Less familiar, and thus revelatory in this context, are the three other exhibition installations discussed by Hage—Dada-Vorfrühling, Cologne (April 1920); Esposizioni Dada, Rome (April 1921); and Salon Dada Exposition Internationale, Paris (June 1921)—all of which employed similar “three-dimensional collage” tactics (97), derived, she argues, from the organizers’ editorial practices.

Hage’s fourth chapter explores the topic of the readymade, the “found” object appropriated and re-presented within the realm of Dada. Rather than revisiting the idea of the readymade as represented within the journal (Duchamp’s Fountain in The Blind Man, for example), Hage probes the idea of the journal as readymade. The journal itself, in this view, functions as the found object, or more specifically, as a found discourse, replete with its own “readymade” structures and codes. Hage compares New York Dada to American women’s fashion magazines of the time such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Ladies Home Journal, with an eye to the manner in which it appropriated their physical attributes (trim size, glossy cover), advertising language (“Keep Smiling”; “Dada is an ‘anti-nuance’ cream”), representations of femininity (Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy; Man Ray’s Portmanteau), and aspirational commodities (Duchamp and Man Ray’s Belle Haleine). This tightly focused examination traces the particular set of codes that governed the glossy women’s magazine of the period, but more broadly it serves to demonstrate that Dada’s object of scrutiny was mobile and broad-ranging. Just as Fountain interrogated the givens of the art exhibition, New York Dada interrogated the givens of the fashion magazine, which could just as easily have belonged to another genre of journal altogether—art, science, and so on. What the Dadaists sought were the codes, the underlying structures and mechanisms according to which certain sectors of culture operated.

In her introduction, Hage writes: “Dada . . . assumed a ‘meta’ role of sorts that is distinct from that of other twentieth-century collectives. On a fundamental level . . . its membership reinvented what it meant to be an art movement, promoting extreme diversity under the single ‘Dada’ banner and refusing to define the word” (3). For Roman Jakobson, the Russian structuralist linguist whose 1921 essay on Dada remains, in my view, unparalleled on the subject, the term Dada was “simply a meaningless little word thrown into circulation in Europe, a little word with which one can juggle à l’aise, thinking up meanings, adjoining suffixes” (Jakobson, “Dada,” in Vestnik teatra 82, 1921, translated in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy, Belknap Press, 1987, 37). It was, in other words, a blank, a cipher, a placeholder, a free-floating signifier, poised to be filled at will. For Jakobson, the objective and perhaps greatest achievement of Dada was to “lay bare the device” (38), to expose the operations underlying artistic practice, the Dadaists’ own as much as anyone else’s. The Dadaists introduced a discourse of self-awareness and self-critique within the avant-garde. Jakobson’s essay is included in Hage’s bibliography but is not cited in the text itself. Nonetheless, his viewpoint seems to undergird hers. The outstanding achievement in this book is its ability to look beyond the particulars of these journals—their insular conversations, appeals, riddles, and barbs (their “parole,” in Ferdinand de Saussure’s parlance)—that have long entranced Dada scholars, in the interest of uncovering their role as an underlying system (“langue”), with myriad game-changing implications.

Adrian Sudhalter
Research Curator, Merrill C. Berman Collection