Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2006
Tom Sandqvist Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005. 434 pp.; 16 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780262195072 )
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Dada, a globalized art movement, has in the last ten or so years generated a genuinely global field of research. Once confined in the United States largely to Francophone interests, and in Europe to national domains matched between scholar and subject, Dada is now commonly investigated as an avant-garde tendency that set down roots around the planet. Exhibitions such as Dada Global (Zurich, 1994), Dada: L’Arte della Negazione (Rome, 1994), or the Paris version of the most recent survey, Dada (seen also in Washington, DC, and New York, 2005–2006), include contributions from Antwerp to Tokyo to Zagreb. Parallel to these museum undertakings, a herculean, ten-volume series, completed in 2005 under the guidance of Stephen Foster at the University of Iowa, has diligently mapped the extent of Dada in all locations where the word or its advocates made an appearance during the decade spanning roughly 1915–1925.

Other projects, including the installation and catalogue for the recent Dada exhibition in its Washington and New York versions (and in which the author of the present review had a part), have sought expressly to elucidate the coherence of the movement across national and continental boundaries, if decidedly not across the globe. These latter undertakings, outstanding among them Richard Sheppard’s Modernism—Dada—Postmodernism (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000), eschew the monographic and the anecdotal to elaborate a definitional analysis of Dada in its canonical instances.

Between these two types of effort lies a set of problems awaiting resolution by future Dada scholars. How did the core of Dada, as understood today (Switzerland, Germany, France, New York), interact with what might be called a Dada diaspora? Were those relations of “center” and “periphery” understood as such in their day, or did places that now seem peripheral hold their own influence at the time? Did individuals in these other places come to Dada through sources and impulses different than those proposed for the canonical city centers; or did they, in response to these same sources and impulses, arrive at noncanonical ideas that still fit under the label Dada? To what degree should accepted operational theses about international Dada be revised to reflect the steadily accumulating wealth of new factual material? Or, on the contrary, to what degree should the current theses be left intact, and manifestations elsewhere be returned, after considered evaluation, to the margins of modernist cultural history?

Dada East: The Romanians of the Cabaret Voltaire, by Swedish scholar Tom Sandqvist, makes a remarkable first candidate to answer these varied questions. I say “first,” for Gerald Janecek’s excellent introduction to the Iowa volume on “Dada East” (Gerald Janecek and Toshiharu Omuka, eds., The Eastern Dada Orbit, Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1998), like the essays that follow it in that book, are limited by length in their ability to address such broad comparisons. Nevertheless, Janecek proposes certain hypotheses of signal importance to defining Dada in Central and Eastern Europe. Janecek suggests that Dada, outside of Russia, was largely an import phenomenon; that it took hold only equivocally, and relatively late in the lifespan of Dada internationally; and that the dadaist critique of Western civilization was confronted with a rush of optimism for the West in places suddenly released from the yoke of empire and eager to build a new, modern national consciousness.

Sandqvist, who has the space of a monograph in which to develop his positions, says much that goes against Janecek’s proposals. His study follows “back home” the supporting cast of his earlier work, Kärlek och Dada (Love and Dada, 1998), which centered on the couple Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings at and around the Cabaret Voltaire, the ur-site of world Dada. Five Romanians joined the cohort in Zurich—as Sandqvist notes, an impressive portion of the Cabaret’s membership. His task is to trace the roots of those five Romanians—Aaron Segal (Aron Sigalu), Marcel Janco (Iancu) and his brothers Jules (Iuliu) and Georges (George), and Tristan Tzara (Samuel Rosenstock)—in the Romanian avant-garde, as well as the Jewish and peasant culture of their native country. Sandqvist concludes in the process that Dada “comes from the East”; that it is an export phenomenon, having arisen in Romania ahead of its christening in Zurich; and that it did so because Romania, far from being taken with a spirit of giddy optimism and national uniformity, was a country rich in carnivalesque expressions of socio-political critique—rich, indeed, in the “cynical reason” that Peter Sloterdijk has identified as a guiding principle of Dada (Critique of Cynical Reason, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

Sandqvist has given himself an assignment of daunting breadth, and he carries it off admirably. New biographical information on Segal, Janco, and Tzara, presented with a refreshing critical distance from often hagiographic memoirs or firsthand accounts, shares space with wide-ranging presentations on intellectual and folk life in early twentieth-century Romania, particularly its Jewish constituency. All the Romanians at the Cabaret Voltaire were Jewish, from upper-middle-class families in which a patriotic desire to assimilate into official Romanian culture mixed with ethnic self-awareness and some level of religious observance. The Janco brothers were wealthy natives of Bucharest, with parents who encouraged their artistic interests; their father, having prospered in the textile and garment trade, had a grand private house built for his family of six directly in the city center. Tzara grew up in Moineşti, a town in the “core Romanian” province of Moldavia, where his father may have had a business in the lumber industry. His family, too, was wealthy, and less religiously inclined than the Iancus; quite interestingly, Tzara’s aunt Amalia Rosenstock apparently owned three movie theaters locally, as well as a summer restaurant in the capital. Tzara and Marcel Janco met in secondary school (the Rosenstocks had moved to Bucharest by that point), where they founded a literary magazine, Simbolul, of great importance in crystallizing their poetic and artistic leanings just prior to emigration. Arthur Segal, meanwhile, was born into a banking family in the predominantly Jewish town of Botoşani, a place where religious customs—including, importantly for Sandqvist, Chassidic customs—thrived until World War II.

Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Segal all had an international upbringing centered on Germany and France. Sandqvist treats the influence of this exposure to literary and artistic centers of the West with measured attention, preferring to concentrate on domestic sources for his subjects’ creative personae. He discusses repeatedly the influence of French symbolism, for example, by all accounts a major force in the development of Romanian poetry, yet he follows principally the Romanian pathways through which symbolism became a dominant poetic form in that country. Extensive, precisely worded passages on Alexandru Macedonski (1854–1920), author of the first symbolist manifesto in Romania (1892); his disciples, including Tudor Arghezi (1880–1967) and Adrian Maniu (1891–1968); and the journals in which they published give great credibility to Sandqvist’s claims on behalf of the “native” Romanian character of Dada. Macedonski, for example, lived a life understood in Romania to be wildly bohemian, and was arrested as a youth for defaming the Romanian royal family, an image and an act, respectively, that prefigure the politicized marginality cultivated decades later in Dada. His 1892 manifesto praised ugliness and the nonaesthetic, and Macedonski championed illogical thinking and absurdity in subsequent years as well. Maniu, meanwhile, who was far closer in age to the future Cabaret Voltaire members, “had already started [in 1912] on a career that went beyond symbolism and foreshadowed an unorthodox lyricism with occasional antiliterary tendencies, lyrical dissonances, and absurdities” (130). Commentary on these and other literary figures, accompanied by extensive quotations and close readings, constitute a high point of Sandqvist’s book.

Especially instructive for readers interested in avant-garde art is Sandqvist’s attention to the relations between Italian Futurists and the Romanian circles influential for Tzara and Janco in particular (237–245). “The Futurist Manifesto,” famously published on the front page of the major French daily Le Figaro, appeared on the very same day (February 20, 1909) in Democraţia, a newspaper in the mid-size provincial town of Craiova. The simultaneous printing was no coincidence. One of the paper’s editors, painter Mihail Drăgănescu, corresponded often with Marinetti and—intriguingly for a pre-history of Dada’s incursions into media relations, spearheaded by Tzara—stressed to his Italian interlocutor the “free publicity” Futurism was getting in Romania. (The insistence on a close relation between avant-gardism and advertising may, of course, have stemmed from Marinetti, who certainly made much of that insight for his own purposes.) In the years 1909–1912, as Sandqvist details, several Romanian papers and journals printed texts by the principal actors in Italian Futurism.

Romanians commented on those texts as well, articulating in the process a domestic response to Futurist demands. In the matter of the famous Futurist call to burn the Louvre, for instance, Drăgănescu agreed: “Art must not sleep in museums and academic libraries” (238); yet he could not condone setting such institutions to the torch. Romania still had nothing worthy of immolation, argued Drăgănescu; the problem in his country was instead that its best talents went into exile, so that even the recent liberation from Turkish rule had yielded no works of lasting quality. In short, artists in Romania must be future-oriented, but they need not concern themselves with undoing the past; rather, their energies should be directed toward educating the populace, improving the general level of cultural sophistication.

By working through a Romanian response to Italian Futurism, Sandqvist clarifies a “peripheral” relation to a movement understood in canonical histories of modernism to be “central,” in such a way that the “periphery” achieves its own voice as well. The result is some insight, albeit partial, into local conditions for the development of a “world-class” avant-garde. In fact, Sandqvist’s pages on Futurism bolster this reader’s conviction that avant-garde critique, as conventionally understood, was nearly impossible in central-eastern Europe, precisely because the local intelligentsia often sought to play a constructive role in public life; their main aim was to build up new institutions rather than deflate belief in institutional structures.

Sandqvist does not probe that line of reasoning, suggested in the citation he gives from Drăgănescu. Nevertheless, his illuminating profiles of many literary and artistic talents in Romania offer evidence both for and against the contention I have just made, and it would be worthwhile to see this debate fleshed out. Ion Luca Caragiale, whom Sandqvist calls the enfant terrible of Romanian letters, “violently attacked the bourgeois morality and the patriotic strained pathos of the age” (209). A satirist and provocateur, Caragiale seems to have failed at all his positions, including that of beer hall owner, and eventually left Bucharest for Berlin. Yet Sandqvist mentions in passing that Caragiale held positions at several Bucharest newspapers, was appointed a school inspector and also director of the National Theater for a time, and that one of his apparently most damning comedies, O scrisoare pierdută (A Lost Letter, 1884), played for nearly two weeks on that most prominent of Romanian stages. The fabulist author Urmuz (Demetru Dem. Demetrescu-Buzău), meanwhile, held no less a position than supreme court justice! The specific valence of bohemianism, decadence, avant-gardism, and other terms of rebellious opposition would need, it seems, to be reevaluated, for their conventional Western connotations do not make an obvious fit with all the facts provided here.

More troubling than this potential imprecision in critical terms is Sandqvist’s insistence on the role of folk cultures in determining a “native” Romanian Dada. Sandqvist is hardly alone in this tendency. On the contrary, avant-garde formations outside of canonical Western countries are quite frequently presented as manifesting the best of their country’s character—even as they are said simultaneously to counter nationalism and oppose conformism of any kind. Sandqvist devotes three chapters, nearly one quarter of his study, to Romanian village rituals and to Yiddish customs in particular. The richness of these folk habits, Sandqvist argues, provided the Romanians of the Cabaret Voltaire with a tremendous springboard for their own visual and literary creations, and more fundamentally still with the impetus to defy from below all rules in art and society. Dada, as Sandqvist states outright at one point, is an intellectual furtherance of the carnivalesque spirit.

The realm of the carnivalesque is certainly a motherlode of apparent similarities to Dada creative activity. Noting the long-standing pride taken by Romanian scholars “in the elements of absurdism, jokes, and satirical attacks within popular tradition” (248), Sandqvist describes vividly an array of pagan/Christian harvest festivals, epic and ballad forms, doina music, and the marvelous existence of a Saint Dada in the Romanian church calendar. Switching religions, Sandqvist then gives far greater space to Jewish cultural manifestations, which appear in this account as the great subcultural legacy of modern Romania. Sandqvist takes care to delineate (as he does not with the smaller subculture of “bohemians,” for example) the awkward yet crucial place of various Jewish communities within Romanian law and society in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He also describes with a strong feel for formal nuance the cultural expressions in various groups: urban, rural, assimilated, observant, Zionist, Chassidic.

Underlying all this attention to detail, nevertheless, is a conception of the carnivalesque that, despite appearances, is fundamentally at odds with Dada manifestations. Sandqvist calls on Mikhail Bakhtin, seconding Bakhtin’s view of the carnival as a site in which social hierarchies are dismantled and impudent laughter lays waste to conventions of respectability. Bakhtin idealized the peasant to a degree in his own right, as Michael Holquist has observed (“Bakhtin and Rabelais: Theory as Praxis,” boundary 2, 11, nos. 1–2 [Autumn 1982]: 5–19). But Bakhtin also concentrated his analysis on a savvy use of the carnivalesque by an individual writer, Rabelais, whom Bakhtin rightly saw as a revolutionary. The fruitful comparison, then, would be between Rabelais and Tzara, not between an actual peasant carnival and a night at the Cabaret Voltaire. Furthermore, as Holquist notes, it is a mistake to explain true revolutions as a “rite of passage,” and thereby attach them to folk traditions. Celebrants in a rite of passage move from old to new within a “familiar cosmology” known to older members of the tribe if not to the initiates themselves. “But it is in the nature of revolutions,” Holquist states pointedly, “that no one can be an experienced citizen of the new world they bring into being” (7). This is the allure and the appeal of revolutions: they are utterly disorienting, and no one can predict their course or their end.

It is certainly fine to claim that Tzara, Segal, or the Janco brothers took inspiration in expressions of folk culture. It is inaccurate, however, to present folk culture, grounded in systemic continuity, as bearing a structural affinity with the critique of systems mounted by Dada. Carnival may open out at times onto fundamental restructuring, and it certainly can serve as a vehicle for changes already underway or provide symbolic legitimation for such changes. However, carnival may also (to follow the cynical claims of Soviet culture minister Nikolai Tarabukhin, with whom Bakhtin polemicized) provide a “safety valve” for ordinary people to vent frustrations while refraining from an assault on the powers that govern their lives. Dada, by contrast, had no such conformist option in its definitional makeup. The oscillation in Dada, properly speaking, was between elation and despair at the destabilizing potential of its own appeals. “Everyone, those who fought for change as well as those who resisted it,” argues Holquist about revolutions, “is confronted with the postlapsarian mandate to live without benefit of a usable past” (7). For historians, this is the ultimate terror.

Matthew S. Witkovsky
Assistant Curator, National Gallery of Art


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