One hundred years ago today, the gallery of Dr Otto Burchard – which was located in a building that once stood on the site pictured above by the side of a canal on the southern edge of central Berlin where there is now sky and little else but sky – witnessed the high point of German Dada with the opening of the “Erste Internationale Dada-Messe”, or First International Dada Fair. The further instalments implied by the “First” of the title never eventuated, and despite Dada’s simultaneous origins in Zurich and New York during the First World War, the promised “international” component was reduced to a handful of non-German artists including Francis Picabia and Jean Arp. Calling it a “Messe” (which can also be translated as “trade fair”, or “mass” in the ecclesiastic sense) rather than an “Ausstellung” (exhibition) was an ironic acknowledgement of the aggressively anti-commercial exhibits on display.
But Dada it most certainly was. Contemporary art enthusiasts were confronted by something more akin to a modern-day installation than anything they would have recognised as an exhibition; Kurt Tucholsky thought it looked like a “funny little junk shop”. This was a cacophonous pile-on of text, images and objects, artworks interspersed with high-impact posters bearing slogans that parodied the immoderate messaging of the war and the ensuing political chaos of the early Weimar Republic, many merely replacing invocation of fatherland or party with the enigmatic entity of “Dada”.
Dada is great and John Heartfield its prophet
Everybody can Dada
Take Dada seriously! It’s worth it
Dada is against the art fraud of the Expressionists
Dada is the deliberate subversion of bourgeois terminology
Down with bourgeois spirituality
Down with art
The works themselves ranged from the vivid negation of the George Grosz piece which was simply a Botticelli reproduction with an “X” painted over it and the same artist’s caustic social studies of the war’s shattered victims and vainglorious champions, to Hannah Höch’s ingenious, kaleidoscopic collages and Johannes Baader‘s teetering sculpture of conflicting elements, the “Great Plasto-Dio-dada-drama”. Baader was also involved in the most contentious work, “Prussian Archangel” – a dummy dressed as a soldier with a pig’s head which was suspended from the ceiling.
Berlin’s Dadaists had been slow to coalesce. The bitterly pacifist “Commemoration for Fallen Poets” held in the city in 1915 was a Dada event in all but name, but protagonists Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck soon decamped to Zurich. Huelsenbeck was back before the end of the war to preach the new creed alongside Georg Grosz and Raoul Hausmann, but it was not until the violent beginning of the Weimar Republic that Dada truly took hold in the German capital. The conditions of its birth also gave Berlin Dada a more political edge than equivalent groupings elsewhere. George Grosz and John Heartfield claimed to have received membership cards for the German Communist Party from Rosa Luxemburg herself on New Year’s Eve 1918. Two weeks later Luxemburg was dead, her Spartacist rebellion no more, and the flame of revolution was passed from street insurgents to insurrectionist artists, many of whom formed the “Central Council of Dada for the World Revolution”.
After the opening on 30 June 1920, the First International Dada Fair ran from 1 July to 25 August. Visitors lured away from Berlin’s more conventional summer attractions by advance publicity promising a “monster exhibition” may well have been disappointed by what amounted to two not particularly monstrous rooms. The fair was funded by entry fee rather than sales of works but with just a few hundred visitors Dr Burchard still ended up a thousand marks in the red. A good deal of those who did attend appeared to be critics. Co-organiser Raoul Hausmann pre-empted their righteous bluster in the show’s catalogue:
First of all, it should be emphasized that this Dada exhibition is a very common bluff, a mean speculation on the curiosity of the public – it is not worth a visit. … Such a decadent group, showing no ability at all and lacking in serious intent, has seldom appeared so boldly in public, as these dadas dare to. They don’t surprise one anymore; everything goes down in cramps of originality mania, which, devoid of all creativity, lets off steam with foolish nonsense. ‘Mechanical art work’ may pass in Russia as a type of art – here it is talentless and artless mimicry, the utmost in snobbism and insolence towards serious criticism. … The works shown at this exhibition are without exception on such a low level that one wonders how an art gallery could dare show these concoctions for such a high admission price. The perhaps misled owner of this gallery should be warned – but the dadas should receive merciful silence.
Undaunted, real-life critics duly fulfilled their appointed function. The Rostocker Anzeiger was typical, its review reading like a parody of the provincial on the alert for smart-talkers trying to dupe them in the big city:
The Dadaists have now organized a regular “art exhibition.” A visit cannot be recommended highly enough to German psychiatrists. For there can only be one question: are these people poor lunatics who think that these excrements of polluted brains are the revelation of some strange but sacred art, or are they impudent jesters who wish to fool people, and who want to fill their pockets by appealing to stupidity.
But critic Adolf Behne saw in the show the fullest expression of the moment in which it emerged:
Dada wants to liberate us from all bourgeois lies. It wants to undermine the windy rhetoric, the conventions, and the hypocrisy of the bourgeois mentality; and it has succeeded brilliantly in some sure-footed hunting out of the bourgeois in disguise. … “Know yourself’- is the wisdom of Dadaism. Forget about the past, forget about the future; know yourself … today! Wrap yourself up in today, whether you are happy to do so or not. Every flight from the present is a weakness, every passing of judgment an instance of narrowmindedness. Only he who knows himself in the present moment has the right to open his mouth. … Dada shows us the world as it is in 1920. Dada would like to tell us: 1920 is not as horrible as all that. Man is a machine, culture consists of rags, education is darkness, intellect is a form of brutality, the norm is stupidity, and the military is in charge.
The following year Dada was in the dock after the Defence Ministry brought the artists involved with Prussian Archangel (Johannes Baader, George Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde, Rudolf Schlichter), as well as the gallery owner, to trial; Baader’s eloquence and humour saw the case dismissed. But Dada was already in decline. Like their international counterparts, Berlin’s Dadaists were descending into rancour, and they went their separate ways around the time that hyperinflation made the act of shopping for a loaf of bread resemble an elaborate art prank.
By then the building by the canal was home to a gallery owned by Alfred Flechtheim, which became Berlin’s major centre for contemporary art. There were certainly no signs upbraiding the bourgeoisie; the hushed surroundings implicitly celebrated their daring and discernment as they browsed works by George Grosz and other stars of the New Objectivity. Grosz, Dix and Heartfield managed to transcend the Dada moment to reflect the realities of increasing polarisation as the chaotic, brittle glamour of the 1920s descended into the terror of the 1930s. By 1937, Flechtheim was dead and most of the Dadaists were in exile. That year their slogan “Take Dada seriously! It’s worth it” was prominently displayed in the Nazis’ exhibition of “degenerate art” along with works originally displayed in the 1920 fair or produced by Flechtheim’s clients. In contrast with the few hundred paying visitors who had passed through the two rooms of Dr Otto Burchard’s gallery, two million came to gawp at their anti-art offerings in a dozen locations throughout Germany. As with the 1933 book burning, the works singled out for mockery now constitute a 20th-century canon. The building by the canal was destroyed in the Second World War and even after the city’s pre-Covid building boom it remains one of the few such sites in central Berlin that has escaped new construction.
The third in a loosely connected trilogy of things-that-happened-100-years-ago is coming up soon …