The Bearded Heart

Soirée du Coeur à Barbe

By 1923, Dadaism had more or less run its course. The revolutionary anti-art movement was riven by infighting and arguably had no other option than to turn its nihilistic energies on itself. At the same time the Surrealists, who had found a way out of the Dadaist cul-de-sac with a combination of Marxist politics and Freudian aesthetics, were on the rise.

The definitive break between the two groups came 90 years ago today, in Paris. It was an event hosted by Tristan Tzara in the Théâtre Michel, the “Soirée du Cœur à Barbe”, named for the Dadaist journal Le Cœur à barbe (“Bearded Heart”). It was an attempt to rally the waning forces of Dadaism, to get the old gang back together. But as you will know from any movie where a criminal band regroups for one last heist, it could only end in disaster.

The programme, at least, was as prestigious a collection of names as avant-garde interwar Paris could offer. Music by Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud and Auric, poems by Jean Cocteau, Philippe Soupault and Tzara himself. There was a trio of short films (of which more later) and a performance of Tzara’s play Le Cœur à gaz (“The Gas Heart”), with angular costumes by Sonia Delaunay.

In the audience was a Surrealist claque including Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos and Benjamin Péret, led by chippy blowhard André Breton. Soon after it began, the evening descended into the chaos for which it was effectively pre-programmed. Writer Pierre de Massot took to the stage unannounced and recited a litany of names of those “fallen on the field of honour”, including André Gide, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. It was the second name on this list which evidently provoked the audience, and Breton led a charge in defence of the absent Spanish painter, and broke Massot’s arm (and it wasn’t the last time he’d pull a stunt like that, either).

Le Cœur à gazThings went forme de poire again during Tzara’s play, and the unfortunate actors discovered that Delaunay’s stiff costumes, while visually striking, weren’t much use in a mêlée. Many of the participants were dragged off to the local police station, with the director of the Théâtre Michel surveying the wreckage, mournfully exclaiming, “my lovely little theatre!”. “Never,” claims writer Neil Baldwin, “had so many poets fought in one spot with such relish.” A repeat performance had been scheduled for the following evening but it was, for obvious reasons, cancelled.

But at the heart of the “Bearded Heart” was a moment of comparative calm which also marks one of the most significant moments in non-narrative cinema. Three short films were shown, the first by Americans Charles Scheeler and Paul Strand called Manhatta, based on the Walt Whitman poem of the same name, which was quoted in the intertitles. It was made in 1920 and thus predated similar filmic essays of the urban machine like Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt. The second was Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21, a rigorous study of squares and rectangles, made in 1921.

What followed was the premiere of the first moving picture by an American who had previously concentrated on photography. Man Ray’s Le Retour à la Raison (“Return to Reason”) was around two and a half minutes long, and contained a number of the visual devices familiar from his still images of the time: tumbling haberdashery, Kiki de Montparnasse’s breasts. It was later hailed as the first Surrealist film, a status which, although contested, was an indication of where Man Ray’s future lay.

Here are the three films presented that night:

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26 comments

  1. I’m starting to hear Bernard Herrmann music every time I see Breton’s name…

  2. violet shears

    Thank you once again for delivering such things!

  3. Man Ray sure does great work, always resonates with me!
    love your coverage of the early modernists!

  4. Awesome videos! They just blew my mind. Thanks for all the info, it was a great reading for a mellow saturday.

  5. Those guys crack me up ! People think I h8 modern art, but they didn’t know me in high school. My great art teacher Mrs. Palmgren took us to New York to the art museums. When I saw “Mountains Table Anchors Navel” by Arp I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt self conscious laughing like that in the museum, but I just couldn’t stop laughing. And I was in high gear all the way home to Ephrata PA. on the bus because of that painting!!
    Thanks for reminding me! And thanks for the info!

  6. I just saw The exhibition Hans Richter: Encounters in Los Angeles. The exhibition presented around 150 works by Richter complemented by work by his colleagues. Thanks for blogging about Richter!

  7. Thanks for the intro into the art world. Still confused, but learned things. =)
    Congrats on being pressed!

  8. Very well written post….Enjoyed reading and listening too 🙂 Love it ! xx

  9. I enjoyed reading this but I feel like I was missing information; probably due to my ignorance of Dadaism in the first place! I look forward to reading more from you and widening my horizons!

  10. It is interesting that poets would actually come to blows to “defend” the honor of a visual artist. Poets nowadays seem rather bland in comparison, or maybe they use their words more passionately. I love the music used in “Manhatta.” It has so many reference points jazz, modernist, classical, even latin rhythms, and the very industrial piano segment all move well together, a perfect fit for the film. I have never seen so many hats in motion. So appropriate that hat is the center of Manhatta, poetically speaking.

  11. thombeau

    I love it! Great post, as always.

  12. Pingback: Poumastica | Poumista

  13. I’m wondering specifically what poems were performed at this event?

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