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Dada in Paris

by Michel Sanouillet; Michèle Humbert, Editorial Consultant; trans. by Sharmila Ganguly; revised and expanded by Anne Sanouillet

The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2009
640 pp. $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01303.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


This grand Dada doorstop of book is a narrative of constant action.   We are immediately immersed in the War (“to End All Wars”, sigh) and intellectual temper of the times, circa 1915.  From writings of Mallarmé to Marinetti, Paul Lafargue and Carl Gustav Jung, multiple currents shaped the society and the world of ideas, a world that a certain bristling group of young artists and writers defined themselves against.   The Cubism of the previous, prewar decade came to be seen as old news, while individual cubist artists were accepted or castigated by Dada according to the whim of the moment.  Cinema was embraced as a promising new medium and creative vehicle; there’s certainly a rousing narrative (Hollywood or indie) screenplay bubbling within this book.

André Breton, ambitious and productive, felt deeply inspired by the postwar spirit of newness and unprecedented possibility, and began to assemble poets around him.  Francis Picabia, wealthy and overweight, appeared in Paris to paint, write, pronounce opinions and throw his weight around. Tristan Tzara, born Sammy Rosenstock in Romania, proved an energized bantam of poetry, rhetoric, and organizational ideas and opinions.  He sported a monocle, an affirmative affectation of cool much like the “z” in his chosen name; my high school Dada gang envied a classmate named Danny Terrazas for this very reason.  Though previously in communication with Breton, his arrival in Paris in 1918 gave Paris its third great locus of dada energy.

These three and their colleagues involved themselves in a ferment of publications—Littérature, 391, Magnetic Fields, Funny Guy—whose Contents pages defined with immediacy who's in and who's out.  Half the time they were inviting each other to participate in journals or exhibitions or events, and the other half of the time they were excoriating each other in sharp criticism or gossipy invective.  Literary Dada in Paris established and defined itself in a contemporary realm that included writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Raymond Radiguet, Rene Crevel, Robert Desnos, and the composer Erik Satie.  A “trial” of the older writer Maurice Barrés consumed a lot of energy, a matter of great seriousness to Breton, which Tzara finally turned into farce.

Between 1917 and 1923, the Dadaists published, promoted, went on vacation excursions together, argued, and reconciled.  They influenced Russian expatriates in Paris, plus numerous other manifesto-driven bands of artists and writers.  They were hotly debated in the popular press, whose outraged reviewers gave them much ink, hence notoriety and lasting fame. Events like the Salon d’automne 1919, and performances at the Grand Palais, Club du fauborg and various incendiary salons are recounted.   Sanouillet sagaciously laments the greater—more pervasive and lasting— influence of Surrealism, essentially more conservative (and easily assimilated by bourgeois institutions) in its project and products.  André Breton can be thanked, or damned, for this accomplishment.

The artist who most maintains his dignity throughout the story is Marcel Duchamp, who kept his distance from the petty rivalries and arguments that consumed others.  He submitted his artwork without comment to let it affirm itself in its droll uniqueness, and otherwise used silence as a strategy (Duchamp abstained from the Dada Salon of 1920).   Relocation to New York helped him to achieve this.

Dada in Paris originally appeared in 1965, and was revised and expanded by Anne Sanouillet, and translated, for this first English edition, by Sarmila Ganguly.  Beyond the main text is a large appendix of correspondence between the Breton, Picabia and Tzara (alternately effusive, chilly, apologetic), then significant letters to others and some additional texts of historical interest.  There follows a useful bibliography of books, articles and exhibition catalogs sorted by decade.

A reader’s only regret might be that examples from the short-lived Dada publications discussed aren’t present, to illustrate the story of their rambunctious creators, though these works may be readily available elsewhere.  This book stands as a formidable piece of serious scholarship, a monument and national archive of the Dada movement in France's capital city in its time.  And that's exactly the kind of respectable edifice the Dadaists resolved to disrupt, overturn, burn and eradicate.

Last Updated 16th August, 2010

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