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).
Things 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: