Tristan Tzara and the Rise of Dada
by Jay Jaski
Tristan Tzara was a Romanian and French poet, essayist, performance artist, and founding member of the anti-establishment artistic movement known as Dada. He was born Samuel Rosenstock on April 16, 1896 in Moinesti, Romania but later adopted the pseudonym of Tristan Tzara (“sad in country”) as a protest to the treatment of Jews in his native country. By age 16, the brash and brilliant Tzara was already serving as an editor for Simbolul—a Romanian art magazine that rejected the scientific approach of Realism, and instead championed the tenets of Symbolism (where the absolute truths of life are represented through evocative symbols). While the breadth of Tristan Tzara’s career as a writer and political activist would eventually encompass two world wars, changing artistic tides, and repeated claims against the legitimacy of his role in the conception of Dada, Tzara is best remembered for his youthful and rebellious residency in Zurich, Switzerland during the First World War – what would become the birthplace and cradle of Dadaism. At just 19 years old, alongside avant-garde artists Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara thrilled audiences with his raucous recitations and antic theatrics, often involving musical instruments, undecipherable speech, the element of chance, simultaneous speakers, and clowns. These collaborative and unconventional performances advanced the burgeoning genre of ‘sound poetry’ and unleashed a nihilistic, profoundly anarchistic side to Dadaism that appeared to embody the movement’s radical ideology, where according to Tzara, Dada = nothing.
Tzara’s obvious talent as a performer and event promoter, accompanied by his role as editor of the journal, DADA, and his founding Dadaist writings trumpeting their anti-art proclamations (“The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine” in 1916, the “Dada Manifesto of 1918,” and “Twenty-Five Poems” in 1918), quickly placed young Tristan front and center in the movement. Tzara’s instant notoriety, eccentric persona, and caustic tactics, made him a lightning rod for criticism from many of his more restrained fellow Dadaists. Though his personal vision of Dadaism, guided by the nihilistic and militaristic tenor of his manifestoes, contributed to a philosophical split within the Dadaist movement, Tzara gradually realigned with former adversary, Andre Breton, and embraced a more constructionist tone. In 1919, following the end of the war, Tzara moved to Paris and began contributing to the French magazine, Littérature, where his writings represented one of the Dadaist movement’s initial steps toward Surrealism (a subsequent artistic movement that sought to release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious).
Tristan Tzara believed art to be a political weapon and he continued to be involved in politics and political activism throughout his life. A staunch anti-fascist and member of the French Resistance in World War II, Tzara originally aligned with the communist party of France, serving a term in the French National Assembly, before eventually distancing himself from the party. Tristan Tzara died in Paris in 1963 and is interred at the Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Dada means nothing. We want to change the world with nothing.
Art is dead. Long live Dada.
I say unto you: there is no beginning and we do not tremble, we are not sentimental. We are a furious Wind, tearing the dirty linen of clouds and prayers, preparing the great spectacle of disaster, fire, decomposition.
Emerging from the perceived devaluation of the human existence by the Industrial Revolution and the existential crisis brought on by the seemingly pointless and devastating first world war, the Dadaists had come to the realization that in its current placid state, art was pointless; art did not have the ability to affect any form of social change or advancement whatsoever. If art were to have any degree of efficacy at all, any hope of curing the madness of the age, it should indeed imitate life—the random, unexplainable, unsystematic life that is the true human existence. Dada = nothing. Art must equal nothing. The art of the time must be Dada and it must be anti-art. Dada must act like a virus, penetrating the fallacies of art and society. Constructs will fall. Governments will fall. Dada must wake up the world.
How? By provoking, by shocking its audiences back to life. Dadaism did not favor one artistic medium over another. To the contrary, it was an onslaught from every corner of creativity, where even everyday objects were reconstituted and renamed as “art.” Take for instance, Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain (1917): a used urinal to which he added an artist’s signature. Or consider Duchamp’s satirical and sacrilegious rendering of the Mona Lisa, a postcard reproduction of Da Vinci’s masterpiece with a scribbled on mustache and accompanying obscenities (L.H.O.O.Q; 1919). Moreover, Dadaist poetry became a typographer’s nightmare: outlandish fonts, scatological humor, visual puns, undecipherable meanings and images, any and everything to garner attention and outrage the viewer. Dada was also a highly performative, theatrical event. From its inception in Zurich in 1916, when the nineteen-year-old Tristan Tzara stepped onto the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire, singing maudlin melodies and dispensing wads of paper to a baffled audience as masked performers on stilts raced on; to his variety show in 1920 at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre in Paris, where the audience was instructed to inexplicably shout “cra” and “cri” on an ascending melodic scale as Tzara sang in strident harmony. These performances weren’t just bawdy, they were meant to spark a riot.
While Dada was a broad and prolific movement, it was also short-lived. By 1924 Dada was already transitioning into Surrealism or other forms of Modernism. However, Dada’s influence on a post-modern sensibility cannot be overstated. The Dadaists forever changed the definition of what constitutes art, opening the door to almost every kind of artist, from pop art to performance art, from graphic design to the American Avant-Garde’s revolutionary theatre companies of the 1960s and 1970s. One need to merely look about to see that Dada is everywhere.