PRINT March 2018



Hannah Höch, Dada Tanz (Dada Dance), 1922, collage on paper, 12 5/8 × 9 1/8". © Hannah Höch/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

Dada: Art and Anti-Art, by Hans Richter, introduced and annotated by Michael White. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016. 376 pages.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION to Dada: Art and Anti-Art (1964), a book that fifty years later still frames much of our understanding of the movement, Hans Richter claims that without a few vigilant ants among the “carefree grasshoppers” who constituted most of Dada’s main characters, proof of its uninhibited provocations might not exist. Richter’s allusion to the classic fable suggests at least some respect for the diligent ants, and perhaps even—contra Aesop—a rapprochement between the two. His second mention of the fable, however, makes it clear just how tiresome he finds the ants to be. With a patronizing dismissal of Hannah Höch as a “little girl,” Richter deigns to give her the role of preservationist of Berlin Dada: “She is the indispensable ant, and the rest of us are grasshoppers.” Höch was unwilling to share her essential collections with Richter as he prepared his book. (One hardly wonders why.) Ironically, however, as the art historian Michael White has suggested, her lack of assistance may have been among the factors that encouraged Richter to write the book himself, rather than compile a group of primary documents, as the publisher had originally proposed.

The “Dada centenary edition” of Richter’s book—a facsimile reprint of the English original with a new introduction and extensive annotation by White— is yet another victory for the ants. No doubt, White approached his task with a degree of good-natured humor: The frontispiece features an image of Richter, Marcel Duchamp, and Richard Huelsenbeck poring over some paper scraps in Richter’s hand. It is clear that our author, too, had been gathering for the winter. With the hundredth anniversary of Dada proclaimed in bright-red uppercase letters across the front cover and down the spine, historiography has come to the fore. Sources will be cited, chronologies confirmed, references explained.

It is both fascinating and humbling to be reminded just how much of our perception of Dada comes from Hans Richter.

Certainly, a reissue of Richter’s book is welcome. It is both fascinating and humbling to be reminded just how much of our perception of Dada comes from him. This is true not just of his insistence that its geographical groups emerged from specific and distinct historical circumstances, rather than from some art-historical progression, and of his emphasis on the centrality of visual arts (as opposed to literature) to Dada’s significance, but above all of his assertion that it was the “‘unification of opposites’ which became an artistic reality, for the first time in history, in the shape of Dada,” as White writes. Dada’s techniques, strategies, and mythos have been so fully assimilated into our visual culture that it can be easy to forget how powerful Richter’s narrative remains. And White’s concise introduction provides an instructive overview of the book’s origins, although his essay for the 2013 exhibition catalogue Hans Richter: Encounters, about the same topic, offered more concrete insights, including the stunning detail that the iconic title was not Richter’s first choice.

Yet there is something stultifying—even perverse—about explaining Dada through a series of endnotes that veer from bio- and bibliographic (citations, corrections, descriptions of now-obscure artists) to general (“unlike other movements, there was never any issue of ownership of the name Dada”) to idiosyncratic (about the missing questionnaires Richter sent to artists in preparation for the book, we receive merely a laconic “they would make fascinating reading”). White mentions in his introduction that he first read Richter’s book as a teenager. Didn’t we all? Isn’t part of the enduring appeal of Dada that it enables the adolescent fantasy of a great big fuck-you to the powers that be—while implicitly retaining the hope that such a gesture could resist fetishization? All this fact-checking feels at odds with the radical, fly-by-night nature of Dada, and it favors the ants at the expense of the grasshoppers. Maybe because everything we do now is documented, recorded, and captured, there remains a juvenile comfort in the idea that “sometimes my experience of life, and my assessment of a situation, will have to bridge a gap where dates and facts are absent or untrustworthy.” Not fake, not alternative, but merely incomplete. One of the abiding pleasures of Richter’s text has been his acknowledgment of its unstable status as a historical document, his awareness of the incompatibility of some of the statements of his fellow Dadaists, and his embrace of those moments when “unexpected difficulties . . . go to prove that twice two is not always automatically four.” Sometimes, he writes, “2 × 2 = 5.”

Rachel Churner is a writer and critic based in New York.